Transcribing is the most dreaded part of journalism.

Journalists without good self-discipline (so, most) will always leave transcribing to the last minute.

Those working on a weekly newspaper schedule will often rack up a dozen interviews on their recorder and wait until the day or night before deadline to go through their content.

When you start in journalism, you tend to transcribe every word from an interview, and this takes a very long time. You do not have to do that.

All you need are a few good quotes.

Here are some tips:

Mark your recording

While recording your interview or audio, mark where people say quote-worthy things or important information.

My notes will often look like a series of random numbers and sentence fragments:

3:45 Pool update

5:50 Underfunding difficulty

7:30 “We can’t keep this up”

When recording a room with multiple speakers, it is also wise to differentiate who is speaking in your notes. This is necessary when you are new to a city and can’t tell which councillor is speaking by voice yet, for example.

Save the audio

If your recorder allows it, always back up your audio on your computer, lest you risk the disaster scenario of losing your interview (and your story) two hours from deadline.

Play the audio at double or triple speed

You don’t have to sit through the whole hour-long council meeting again when you transcribe it.

All you want are the important bits and the quotes, which your notes should have prepared you to easily jump to and find.

Most recorders allow you to play back your audio at a faster speed.

The rookie mistake is writing every single word down. Eventually you will get a feel for what you actually need, and in reality, it’s not that much. You might take just five or six quotes out of a 20-minute interview and can turn it into a 500-word story.

Make sure your quotes are legitimate

This should be obvious, but many times you’ll have what you think is a great quote, but the sound got muffled or the speaker went on a brief tangent or someone bumped the recorder while it was going and you can’t make it out perfectly.

Your number one priority when putting other people’s words in print is to fairly represent them. Do not put anything in print that you can’t prove precisely with the audio.

Use quotes sparingly

Almost every amateur journalist writes a paragraph without quotes, then a paragraph of quotes, then a paragraph without, then a paragraph of quotes, etc., for the whole story.

You don’t need that many quotes, unless the story particularly calls for an emphasis on the interviewee’s words, such as perhaps a tell-all reveal after a fall from political grace.

Pick out the best quotes that move the story along and paraphrase the rest.

Note that some publications may ask you to write longer to fill space, and in this situation excessive quoting is understandable. But as a point of writing a good story, I don’t like it.


Posted by Stewart Burnett

Journalist, stutterer, rockhounder, painter.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s