Thursday, May 8, 2014

Is Quoting Word for Word?

A few years back, I wrote books for TSTC Publishing. The first one was called TechCareers: Biomedical Equipment Technicians and the Department Chair's name is on the book. The second book was called TechCareers: Automotive Technicians. Then came TechCareers: Avionics and TechCareers: Computer Gaming. Those last three books have my name on the cover.

For the Biomedical Equipment Technicians book, I interviewed five people. For the remaining books, I upped the number of interviewees to at least 13. That meant a ton of transcribing, creating questions, typing and organizing. And it doesn't include the hours of researching schools in the U.S. that teach that career and what classes are required, etc. or travel time.

For each interview, I created a profile for each subject. In this case, a profile is not a life story of the person. It’s a brief bit about his or her background in the field, then some of his thoughts on an aspect of the field. To determine where in the book I’m going to put a particular person’s profile, I look at the transcription and see which person said something relevant to a certain topic or had something solid to contribute to the topic. Then I write his profile with that angle in mind. I can’t use everything the person said in an interview because each interview ran from 30 minutes to over an hour, one or two much longer. To interview subjects, I traveled from central Texas, to south Texas to the east and to the west and places in-between.

If you’ve not done this kind of writing, you might think this process would be easy. You just throw in the relevant quotes. Even if we don’t get into the actual interview and the hours it takes to transcribe, but only talk about creating the profile, it’s still not an easy task.

You have to decide what to include. Then you have to edit what the person said. And by edit, I don’t mean change what they said. Few people talk as succinctly as they might write. They ramble; they switch directions in the middle of a sentence; they use slang; they correct themselves; they spend three minutes saying what they could have said in fifteen seconds. Now, don’t get me wrong…you can learn a lot in those extra two minutes and forty-five seconds. And slang and speech patterns say a whole lot about the person. As I re-read my transcription of an interview, I can actually hear that person speaking.

But when you’re preparing a quote, you need to cut the extraneous and get down to what the person really said - that nugget of brilliance. You must in no way change their meaning or cut their qualifiers. But if you’ve ever transcribed the exact words of someone speaking off the cuff, you know what was captivating while they spoke can sound like stuttering nonsense when every sentence circles twice before coming back to the point and includes five “wells,” two “you knows,” and one “let me backtrack here.”

So, unless you write for a magazine whose purpose is to lampoon, you have to learn how to quote. It’s something I struggled with for the first book, but learned how to do. Have any of you done this kind of interviewing and writing? Do you think you'd like to?

Helen Ginger is an author, blogger, and writing coach. She teaches public speaking as well as writing and marketing workshops. You can follow Helen on Twitter or connect with her on Facebook and LinkedIn. Helen is the author of 3 books in TSTC Publishing’s TechCareers series, Angel Sometimes, and two of her short stories can be found in the anthology, The Corner Cafe. Her next book, Dismembering the Past, is due out in Spring 2014.

14 comments :

  1. Yes, Helen, as a matter of fact I used to do that kind of thing in my past life ... and I want to keep it there ... in the past, I mean. You can quote me on that.

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  2. Very good post, Helen, and you are so right about the amount of time and work goes into research and interviewing for a non-fiction book. I have written nine for the Rosen Publishing Group and followed a similar process. However, I did a lot of library research on the topic - destructive cults for instance - then went looking for people to interview. I had specific questions to ask based on what I had learned in the other research, but often something new would come up in the interview that would have me adding topics and doing more research. It ended up being very much a back and forth process. I approached the books much the same way I did magazine and newspapers articles that I was assigned. I got a rough outline of what I thought would be the progression through the article/book, then worked off of that.

    I'm not sure if I would want to go back to nonfiction, but I realized the other day that I do almost as much research for my fiction, so it is not the amount of work. I just think it is more fun to play with imaginary people. :-)

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    1. Ahh, Maryann, I so agree with you. Fiction is more fun and it gives you leeway to change things, including the characters

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  3. I once transcribed interviews for a woman researching what happens when a factory closes. Who goes on to better things? Who fails? I had to transcribe the tapes verbatim. I also transcribed medical dictation for long time. We were supposed to transcribe verbatim. It was difficult to not correct them. With the medical reports, I could flag the errors and ask for clarification and offer hints. Did you mean ...?

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    1. Diana, do you have experience in the medical field? I would be constantly looking up technical words.

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  4. Excellent post, Helen. I have a background in journalism so I did a lot of that during my newspaper and magazine writing career. It can be tricky, but you do need to search for that "nugget" in the quotes and also to be able to condense and paraphrase to get rid of the "extras" yet not change the essence of what they said.

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    1. Heidi, I'd love to hear more about your work in newspapers and magazines.

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  5. I've never done that kind of writing, but I wonder, is that why sometimes there are ellipses, to cut out the extraneous verbiage?

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    1. Using the ellipses is a way of showing that something has been skipped over. Hopefully, most readers recognize it as that.

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  6. I did some of this kind of writing in my early years as a journalism student and later when I became editor-in-chief and head writer for a small mountain publication that came out somewhat irregularly.

    I also prefer the fictional "interviews." If I mess up and didn't write down the full quote I intended to use, I can rethink it, rework the scene, and rest assured I'm not going to be sued for misquoting a flesh-and-blood type.

    Absolutely, I agree with Maryann that fiction is more fun.

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  7. I once had to do verbatim transcriptions for medical research and it was so much harder when they speak with a different dialect and use drugs names from another country. What I found amusing was that some of the interviewees considered themselves to very good with English, but what I transcribed seemed to decry that. It was hilarious sometimes.

    We don't realise it, but we speak with such broken grammar. I realised that if we quoted what people said verbatim in books, people would say, "that author don't write good, they ought to have lessons in English."

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  8. As a freelance journalist I do this all the time. In writing up interviews, the objective is always to be true to the original, in intent as well as form, but also to actually make the speaker come across better. In a sense, this is writing what the interviewee would have said had they had the benefit of reviewing and editing their own words.

    Editing direct quotes is an art form. At its best, it involves very few strokes of the pen--an elision here, an elaboration there--but with rich results.

    The test is when the interviewee approves the result and does not even notice the improvements.

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  9. In my day job, I work for a local TV news station. A lot of times when we use a sound bite, we have to edit out the words "umm," "ahh," or "hmm." Or we have to edit out people repeating words or stumbling over words or pausing awkwardly while they try to think of the next word they want to say. This is why a lot of times on the news, you'll see the video cut away from the person talking for just a moment.

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The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.

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