Why I Don’t Transcribe Interviews and You Don’t Have to Either

Writing monster at work.

I’ve never claimed to have access to any mind-blowing secrets that are going to make you rich as a freelance writer. In fact, I have a tendency to put my guard up when I hear anyone make such a claim; even if they’ve turned their job writing from home into a multimillion dollar gig. The truth is that even (INSERT NAME OF FAVORITE WRITER/AUTHOR HERE) might be able to offer you some tips, or maybe they can give you some direction with respect to your craft or ideas. Heck, some higher-up might one day even drop your name to a publishing bigwig and help get you your first deal if the stars are all aligned just so. No amount of suggestion, though—no matter how poignant—is going to deliver clients to your doorstep or take your novel from 40,000 words of freewriting vomit straight to the best-seller lists.

Getting better at writing, like anything else unfortunately, comes with repetition—you know, it’s that dirty ‘P’-word—Practice. That being said, whatever handy little tips and tricks you can collect along the way to save yourself time will make you a more efficient writer. And the more time you can free up in your day to put toward the production of new material, the better off you will be.

To that end, let me start by saying that writing a 1000-word article used to take me right around twelve hours to complete, and it was Te-di-ous: four hours for general research, one and a half to conduct interviews, three more to listen to and transcribe those interviews, one more to compile my research (mainly, highlighting the best quotes in my interview transcripts), one hour to write out a rough draft, and another two-to-three to polish it. Today, the same article takes me right around half that time, maybe a touch more, depending on the article. And the products of that effort are (as they should be) better quality today than they were when I started, or at least I think they are. Not to say that there isn’t still plenty of room for improvement—I’ve never read anything I’ve written in a published forum and thought, ‘Yes, that is exactly the perfect way to have used those 800+ words on this subject’, nor do I think that I will ever necessarily get to that point. Still, the writing portion goes much more quickly now simply as a result of that previously mentioned ‘P’-word. From being unpublished just over two years ago (aside from a pair of op-eds in college which ran in a now-extinct afternoon newspaper) I now have dozens of published pieces to my name, each of which has afforded me the opportunity to learn something new about my process along the way. Sheer repetition alone has probably shaved about two-hours off of my production time just by granting me a familiarity with commonly-used formats. Most of the rest came from constantly looking for ways to further refine my rough-edged routines—from digging around the web for those precious tips and, perhaps even more so, from directly reaching out to people who genuinely knew what they were talking about.

Some things, however, you just pick up along the way—I realized this one day when one of my editors (who has been at this writing thing quite a few years longer than myself) asked me for tips on saving time while transcribing interviews. It was just too time-consuming, monotonous, and more so, TIME-CONSUMING to have to do two or more times per article, she told me. “I don’t transcribe anymore,” I responded, and her eyes went as wide as coffee cups.

During—and especially right before—my first interview (I can’t even remember who it was with at this point, though it was most likely a college professor or someone of similar status) I was terrified. I don’t recall the conversation but I do remember that my voice and hands were shaking the entire time. Once all of my interviews were complete (thank God!) and I was ready to sit down and write the article, I sketched out a rough outline before listening to each interview (did I mention I recorded every single interview I conducted—that’s kind of important) and meticulously transcribing every single word spoken in the audio file including the “uh’s” and “um’s”, pausing every couple of seconds to type out each sentence, fragment by fragment, before pressing on.

Where this made for some very accurate reporting (save the various non-interview-related errors that crept into a handful of my earliest pieces) it sucked up a great deal of my time. Soon I realized that what I was saying (the questions) had no import with respect to writing the actual article, and so I began transcribing only the answers given by my interviewees. This cut about fifteen-percent from the process. Not long after, I was using shorthand while transcribing so I didn’t have to pause the file as often to catch up–another twenty-percent. I also started including regular timestamps throughout my transcriptions for ease of reference should I need to refer back later on. Over time I gained a bit of an ear for what made a decent quote and, since I had an idea of the shape of each article before I started compiling the piece, I knew what to listen for when replaying my interviews. Now I was only pausing three or four times per replay, and only when I knew there was an exceptionally long and significant piece of information to write down. It was only a few more interviews after that before I was able to incorporate a form of shorthand into that process, as well. Now, replaying an interview to extract quotes for a piece of writing is essentially a one-shot deal, and rarely do I need to pause any more at all to catch up—at least, that is, on my good days.

None of this interview time-saver stuff happened all at once. And none of it came to me straight from the source, so to speak. But simply by knowing ahead of time what I was looking for and by learning how to listen for those sound bites I was able to cut my research and review time roughly in half—the actual length of my interviews also seems to get shorter the more of them I do. Unless, of course, it’s just for the sake of good conversation. Once I got a little better at mentally organizing shorter pieces, I was eventually able to completely cut out the outlining process for those articles, as well. And what has this meant for my writing career, you ask? Maybe not dollars in the bank, directly, but it has added up with respect to my time and level of productivity, and that translates to more flexibility for doing just about everything else; like dishes, and marketing, and writing blogs like this one for you.

I hope it helps.

Got any time-saving interview, research, or writing tips you want to share? Or maybe you’ve spotted all the flaws in my personal process and need to tell me about it. Either way, (and for any other reason, really) I’d love to hear from you.

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