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April 19, 2011

As mentioned, my main task right now is transcribing the mountain of interviews I’ve compiled to this point. Of the interviews I’ve conducted so far, I’ve probably transcribed something like 65-70%, though it’s difficult to pin it down exactly, and it’s even harder to say how much more interviewing I’ll be doing before I’m done. So far, I’ve transcribed about 150,000 words,* which is a harbinger of exactly nothing.

When I first started going through these interviews, I put together a rough outline of how I wanted the narrative to come together, transcribing in chunks, sorting quotes and information as I went through. Lately, however, I’ve just been transcribing the interviews straight through, unsorted. I’m doing this for two reasons.

First, it’s a pain in the ass to sort as you go. Often, I’d start transcribing a piece in one section, only to realize a minute or two in that it actually pertained to something else entirely. Other times, the answer to a single question would be relevant to a half dozen sections. Such is the nature of open-ended questioning, and I obviously appreciate the candor I got from everybody. But focus is the strong suit of nobody I interviewed.

Does this look like someone who is especially organized? (photo from Optical Atlas)

Second, it’s detrimental to the overall structure. Trying to shoehorn things into an outline I put together before transcribing anything is obviously problematic, and adjusting the outline as I digest new information distracts from the task at hand. This, I think, is part of the reason I was so slow in transcribing for a while. After trying it the other way, I think that transcribing while sorting is much more time-consuming than transcribing then sorting. Attempting the two processes simultaneously detracts from the efficiency of one and the efficacy of the other. Sum of its parts, etc.

It would be nice if I could get an intern, but I can’t afford to pay anybody, and anyway I don’t know that I can trust someone to get everything right. I’ve been paid to transcribe before—it’s very easy to cut corners. Sadly, no one has invented reliable voice-to-text software yet, either.

Why aren't you even a little bit helpful?

It’s something I have to do at home, and usually in my room (which, because I don’t have a desk, usually means in bed): I obviously need to play the interviews as I do this, and the headphone jack on my computer seems to be busted, which means this isn’t something I can do at a coffee shop or on a train. It’s also not something I can do with something else going on: having the TV or stereo on while I do it is distracting and can often drown out some of the recordings (many of which were recorded in places with lots of background noise).

The most taxing part is that there’s just no fast way to do it. The time required varies from interview to interview based on the subject’s speaking cadence, speed, frequency of uh’s and um’s, and that sort of thing, plus how often I have to go back and re-listen to something for whatever reason, plus how much of the interview is worth transcribing (if the subject is speaking off the record or veers too sharply off topic, I’ll generally choose not to transcribe, but not always in either case).

Generally speaking, though, a one-hour interview will take about two or three hours to fully transcribe. In an ideal and probably possible situation, I could maybe get it done in real time (or maybe even with the sound file sped up), but regardless I have to listen to the entire thing all the way through in some capacity.

That said, there are definitely some benefits to transcribing, beyond just having everything transcribed. For one, I’m listening to everything with fresh ears. I’m not transcribing these in any real order, and I still have things to transcribe that are more than a year old. I’ll remember bits and pieces, but some parts will sound totally new to me. Something I heard last summer, when taken in the context of some of the things I’ve maybe heard since then, can take on a totally different meaning.

I also often find myself listening to interviews  and thinking to myself, I should have asked a follow-up question here or some other revisionist notion. It’s not especially frustrating as I don’t think I’ve talked to anybody I couldn’t talk to again, and it’s fruitful in that it helps me improve my interviewing style as I learn.

I’ve said many times by now that there’s only so much (at least 800 words, apparently) I can say about transcribing, but it’s not a completely banal process. I’m just very ready for the next stage, even if I still have a lot of work to do before I get there.

*Or about 300 pages, if I were to print it unedited in book form, which would be an unreadable mess but would include all sorts of juicy off-the-record/on-background stuff that would probably sell tons of copies. Obviously, this isn’t my plan.

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