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Saturday, 27 February 2010

Transcription is a journalist's most painful task - or is it? Let's see ...

OK, so you've got two 20-minute conversations that you recorded on your trusty magic electronic recording device. It's a piece of equipment without which you cannot do your job. Even if you've got shorthand, there's nothing like having an electronic file that can be safely stored on your computer and consulted when the time comes to reviewing materials. Say, for example, someone tries to sue you.

I don't have shorthand, but that's beside the point. Right now I'm talking up the importance of accurate transcription. Don't bother me with quibbles!

You connect your USB lead to the PC and download that precious volume of digital excellence - the sound file - to your workspace - your desktop computer. You might think that you could use software to transcribe it into text. But no. That won't work. The guy at the Dragon software reseller shop told me that you have to train it to understand your own voice. Even then, it's not infallible. Asking it to recognise the intricacies of a third party's voice is just unreasonable, it seems.

Darn.

Well, then. You could ship it off to a person who earns a living purely by making transcriptions.

Unfortunately, you're not that wealthy. But, in any case, I'll tell you why it's a good idea to spend the time to do it yourself.

Not everyone has perfect English, for a start. For these interview subjects, it's sometimes necessary to edit speech while transcribing by using the correct word in square brackets. To train another person to do this might take time, which you probably don't have.

Then there are those elements of speech that serve no purpose other than to fill up space or to close a gap between ideas. I'm not just talking about "umm" or "ahh", either. There are a whole lot of "buts" and "and thens" that do nothing to improve comprehension. In fact, if you listen to the way people speak, you'll find that the idea of a perfect sentence is unikely even for the most accomplish master of the spoken word. People speak in chunks, not sentences.

But you don't want interminable sentences corrupting your prose.

So you edit all these perculiarities out of the script. You can see that this is a good reason to do transcriptions yourself. You want to ensure accuracy - so you don't misquote - but you also want to be kind to the reader by presenting crisp, clear prose.

Another reason to do it yourself is that it provides an opportunity to think up follow-up questions. It also helps to remind you of the contents of the interview. This is great for when you're struggling with the finished article and you find that you need a certain type of quote to fill a glaring gap in the flow.

All in all, I'd say to journalists: put up with it, at least for the more important conversations. There are other interviews, of less import to your story or done near the end of the process of composition, that do not need full transcription. In these cases, you may find that you can get by just by listening to the conversation and extracting the bits that you really need.

Not all interview subjects are of equal value. And those you talk to near the beginning of the process are probably more likely to need a full transcription.

Transcription is an essential part, for me, of the writing process.

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