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How to be interviewed

September 10, 2010

Between the interviews I’ve transcribed and the parts of the actual manuscript I’ve composed, I have surpassed the 100-page mark, assuming 500 words equals a page. It’s still impossible to project this into a percentage of completion as it pertains to the overall project, but it’s a nice, round number that gives me a news peg to talk about the transcription process.

Despite the work I’ve done so far, it’s hard to make generalities. Each interview is entirely different. Some are in person and others are over the phone. Some are with just one person and others are with two or three at a time. Some were conducted in quiet rooms and others outside of bars, which means the recording has the interview itself but also the sounds of motorcycles and trucks and countless other voices.

The biggest variable relative to actually transcribing them, though, is content-based. There are a few where I can sit back and only transcribe a sentence or two every few minutes, and then there are some where I transcribe literally every word. Part of this comes from how important the person is to the story — an interview with Bill Doss will always have more to transcribe than an interview with a music critic — but part of it comes from the personality of the subject.

Take Robert Schneider, for example. The first phone conversation we had, many months ago, was supposed to be a brief 20- or 30-minute call, but we ended up talking for nearly three hours and I still didn’t get to all my questions. He gets into it. For the “Show, Don’t Tell” portion of this post, check out this video he put up a few days ago showing off the synthesizer he modified so he could control it with his mind. For real:

He’s actually pretty mellow here in comparison to the conversations we’ve had, but it’s too cool a video to avoid posting.

Another element of the interview that changes how I have to transcribe it is how much thought the subject has given to his answers beforehand, or at least how eloquently he or she gives those answers to me. There are people who can give direct, cogent answers every time, and there are people who sort of have to talk themselves through it. In the case of the former, I can sit back and just transcribe as I go, usually finishing it up in only a little bit longer than the length of the actual interview. The latter sort are much more arduous to transcribe. In some cases, I have to listen to the subject say something three or four times and then congeal it into a single cohesive thought, which requires a more passive approach to transcription. Sometimes they’ll outright contradict themselves, in which case I have to make a note to myself (in a document I have specifically for followup questions) to clarify things later.

Dynamism is important in all of writing, and the longer the work, the more important it is to keeping the reader engaged. Varying sentence length and using a broad vocabulary help with this, and switching around the style (namely, alternating between an oral history format and a more traditional paragraphed narrative structure) comes in handy as well. One of the most valuable things I have with this project is a diversity of voices: different people say things differently. My own voice will certainly come through, but so too will dozens of others.

In this regard, some interviewees are better than other. Those who are very specific with details will be quoted and those who speak in generalities will be paraphrased, and when it comes to opinions and emotions, I usually have no choice but to quote directly. I’ve been doing this long enough that I can tell how the conversation is going as its happening, and I can usually coach the subject into speaking in a quote-friendly manner, but everyone has his or her own natural style. Some styles are just a little easier to transcribe than others. Of course, ease of transcription has pretty much nothing to do with how useful the transcribed content is.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. Dodjah permalink
    September 11, 2010 8:08 PM

    I love how he folds the speakers and just casually says “Apples in Stereo”.

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