Image: Matthew Loffhagen
Sometimes, a project will call for an interview or two. Maybe you’re a true crime author interviewing witnesses, maybe you’re writing a biography (even a memoir) and need as many viewpoints as possible, or maybe you’re a fiction author whose research involves digging deep into phrasing and vocabulary. Maybe you’re a nonfiction author of pretty much any stripe who wants to include a unique quote in their work. Maybe you’re any kind of writer, but you work best when you’re thinking out loud.
Whatever the situation, speech won’t commit itself to the page, and while transcribing speech may sound easy, there’s actually a lot that can go wrong between the mouth and the page.
That’s why, in this article, we’ll be taking a look at what authors need to know about transcribing speech.
Keeping it simple
Academic transcription is an artform all its own, full of arcane symbols and ultra-precise methods of recording hesitation, interruption, and pause-duration. That’s not what we’re going to be talking about today – if you want to transcribe to an academic standard, you’ll need a much more in-depth guide, if not a training course.
Instead, we’ll be looking at what the average author needs to know about transcribing speech to the page and trying to make the whole process as easy as possible while avoiding common errors.
Pick your poison
The first thing to decide about transcribing speech is how you’re going to approach the speech in question. Wherever possible, it’s best to record what you want to transcribe. Transcribing speech is difficult, with very little room for error, and trying to keep up with a speaker is likely to lead to incomplete notes for you or a stilted experience for them.
If you’re recording, make sure to use a method you trust and have tested ahead of time, as well as checking that you can successfully record clear speech in your chosen setting. A few test sentences on the day should give you an idea of whether or not your recording is going to be viable.
Unless the person who’ll be speaking is a close friend, you should also carry out at least one dummy run before speaking to them and build any delays or potential issues into your plans. Just because it takes your recording software three minutes to boot up doesn’t mean the person you’re recording should have to sit and wait for three minutes (in fact, sometimes that won’t be under your control.)
If you’re not recording, try to develop at least a few instances of shorthand; symbols or abbreviations for words you know are going to come up a lot and which can help you keep pace with the speaker. Decide on these ahead of time and create a key that anyone could understand. Transcribing speech is one of those jobs that can get delayed again and again, so make sure you leave notes for yourself as if someone completely unfamiliar with the interview is going to be doing the final write-up.
Whether you choose to record (which you should, if you can) or not, you should also be clear on the purpose of your recording. This is useful in terms of guiding discussion, but it also defines what you need to keep track of in your transcript. For example, the average author doesn’t need the exact length of a given pause, so there’s no point taking steps to note this down in the moment.
The work of transcribing
As with when you transcribe, there are really two options for how to transcribe – use software or do it yourself.
While transcription software exists, it’s still shaky. You’ll need to check that any transcription software is recording a) accurately, b) everything you want it to note, and c) in a way you can actually use for your project. Free trials will help you get to grips with a given piece of software, but transcription can be a long business, so you’re unlikely to get everything you need for free. Some services like Google Cloud offer basic speech transcription, but again, this is mostly going to take care of the grunt work, and you’ll need to micromanage the fine details to get something you can depend on.
If, on the other hand, you decide to transcribe without software, you need to be aware of the time commitment you’re making. As a rough guide, one minute of speech takes five minutes to transcribe. This is something to keep in mind if you’re in control of the speech; distractions and digressions will end up costing you a lot more time than they do in the moment, so plan ahead (perhaps with some clear questions and a friendly time limit for answers.)
One tip from an academic I contacted about transcribing speech was that, if you’re going to be transcribing a significant amount of speech, it’s well worth investing in a foot pedal. Pedals allow you to fast forward, rewind, and even slow down a recording with your feet, leaving your hands free to transcribe it.
The most important part of transcribing speech as an author is the need for accurate quotation. You should never put words in someone’s mouth, even if your intent is to clarify what they actually said. As soon as you’re adding words, you’re asserting that someone said something they didn’t, and legal troubles can quickly follow. People are very particular about their words, and even if you express the spirit of what they meant at the time, an inaccurate transcript leaves you open to a host of problems. For instance, if they’ve changed their mind since, or their words are taken in a way they didn’t intend, or they turn out to be wrong about something technical, then a few errant words in your transcript could offer them the opportunity to save face by challenging your account.
As a general rule (although this isn’t legal advice), it’s better to cut than to add. Adding is almost always the wrong choice, since it involves invention, whereas some cutting is going to be necessary in most transcripts. Where you do cut words, phrases, or sentences, indicate that you’ve done so. As ever, there’s a gap between the legal matter of misrepresenting what someone said and the immoral act of twisting the order and presentation of their words to take their comments out of context. Stay on the right side of both.
One potential exception to the ‘no cutting’ rule of thumb is hesitation noises. Words like ‘um,’ ‘uh,’ and ‘ah’ are part of our speech, but they’re generally not used as intentional ‘words.’ This means that, in some cases, it’s appropriate to cut them, and this is a decision that can matter. People hesitate a lot – you don’t really notice how much until you’re transcribing what they say – but readers aren’t used to seeing this represented. That being the case, unscrupulous writers and journalists have a favorite trick of including hesitation noises for speakers they want to appear foolish and excising them for speakers who they want to portray as more confident or reasonable. Deliberately including false starts and irrelevant asides is used to similar effect. Consider the example transcript below:
If you’re, ah… if you’re categorizing, you know, animated films by quality. And I mean, I think that’s an unnecessary thing to do in terms of, um, personal enjoyment, but if you’re doing it for, you know, as an academic capacity. In an academic capacity. I think you have to, um, take into account that Disney films are musicals. That’s, ah, there was a time when that was a specific genre of movie, and we forget that when it… Uh, when it comes to, um, to animated films.
This speaker doesn’t sound confident, meandering around their point in a way that distances the reader from what’s being said. There are multiple ways to faithfully transcribe speech, but as an example, here’s how this could be faithfully transcribed according to the author’s discretion:
If you’re categorizing animated films by quality . . . I think you have to take into account that Disney films are musicals. There was a time when that was a specific genre of movie, and we forget that when it comes to animated films.
Again, there’s a moral dimension to this, and you should be careful that your biases don’t leave you hearing the hesitation noises of those you disagree with and overlooking those of people you support. One way to do this is to decide on guidelines before you start – which types of hesitation are you going to leave in and which are you going to leave out? If you feel like someone mangled their point, are you going to give them a chance to rephrase for the record, consider the quote lost, or transcribe it as best you can? Create a style guide for yourself and stick to it.
Remember, also, that ‘correcting’ language can alter its meaning. Language is fluid, and specific phrasings or pronunciations can have unique connotations. For example, to some speakers the sentence, “He been got a car” doesn’t just mean “He has a car,” and so ‘correcting’ the former to the latter would result in a less accurate transcript than simply writing what was said. Research is the only answer here, but this is another case where it’s important to keep in mind that you almost never want to add words.
Where doing so is vital for clarity, writers use square brackets to indicate that a word has been added to a quote. For example, consider a speaker who is talking about John Travolta and says:
I remember, when I was very young, I saw Travolta in that car movie. I can’t, um, the name of it escapes me, but he was big, for me. He was a huge influence on me.
The first part of that quote is a bit of a mess, and if all you need is the final sentiment, you might not want to use it. In such a case, it would be reasonable to write, “[Travolta] was a huge influence on me.” Here, the square brackets replace a word with the same meaning but which has been altered for clarity. Note that even here, the choice of the substituted word (which could have been the full ‘John Travolta’) is accurate to the speaker’s earlier comments (where they used just the surname) in an attempt to stick as close to their words as possible.
It’s easy to abuse square brackets as a way to restructure someone’s remarks to suit your intent (especially once you start cutting out the sentences you don’t have a use for), but you need to be completely true to their intent, and even then you should avoid square brackets wherever possible. In this case, I’d advise an author to instead write:
Speaker recalled seeing Grease at an early age. “He was a huge influence on me,” they said of star John Travolta.
One way to address any accuracy concerns you may have is to have the speaker sign off on your transcript. In some cases, this won’t be possible, but if they agree with your presentation of their words, that simplifies any oversights or errors.
Transcribing made easy
That’s what the average author needs to know about transcribing speech. If you think you’ll need more, your next step should be to look into courses run by a reputable source.
Otherwise, the silver bullet is forward planning. Know exactly how your recording and transcribing will work, figure out what information you’re actually hoping to collect, and take any software and hardware limitations into account before they’re relevant. Do all that and the only hurdle that remains is your moral duty to the speaker – something you can and should work out for yourself.
Have you tried transcribing speech before? Use our comments to tell other authors about the tips and traps you found along the way and, for more advice on the type of project that benefits from transcription, check out 8 Ways You Can Think Like A Journalist To Improve Your Writing and What Authors Need To Know About True Crime.