3-point plan for producing perfect transcripts of interviews and focus groups:
Before we get started: I'll assume you've got a good audio transcription program, headphones and footpedal. I'll also assume you're a touch-typist, have an excellent 'ear' and excellent grammar, spelling and punctuation.
If you are producing a transcript for a research project there are probably a number of transcripts involved. If so, the first thing to do is prepare a template to use for all the transcripts. This will save you a lot of time and ensure that all the transcripts are presented consistently, and that you don't accidentally omit important information from some of the transcripts.
The template may include headers, page numbers and line-numbering (for referencing). It may include information that applies to all the interviews or focus groups such as the name of the interviewer or facilitator, the topic, the venue or institution, and the type of interview or focus group. It may also include 'prompts' to be filled out for each interview or focus group such as the time, date, name of interviewer/facilitator etc.
Depending on how familiar you are with the subject matter of the transcripts, you may also wish to create a glossary for the project, or you may already have a glossary that you've used previously for a similar type of project. If you have a glossary of relevant terms and words, you refer to it as you work to make sure you spell unfamiliar words (such as specialist words) correctly.
Transcribe the audio file on either 'normal' or 'slow' speed, depending on how quickly the people are speaking in the recording. I usually place the speed at one notch slower than 'normal' during the 1st draft stage. Use a 0.5 second, 1-second or 1.5-second auto-rewind, depending on your preference, although if the audibility is poor you might like to try using a 2-second auto-rewind.
Now, there are usually some words in a recording that, the first time you hear them, sound inaudible. The trick when producing the 1st draft of a transcript is to not worry too much about trying to get those seemingly inaudible words right, because it will always be easier to decipher them the second-time round, rather than during the 1st draft stage.
So when you come across a word you can't make out, just leave a gap in the transcript (to show that a word is missing) and type on. You'll be in a much better position to correct those mistakes during the next stage. Similarly, don't worry about trying to get the punctuation right during the 1st draft stage. It will be far easier to fix it up the punctuation during the proofreading stage.
It is during the proofreading stage that you have the opportunity to perfect your transcript, or at least make it as accurate as possible.
You will be listening to the audio recording a second time whilst correcting the draft transcript. You will be filling in the 'gaps' in the transcript, correcting mis-heard words and mistakes, and correcting punctuation to ensure the transcript is as easy to read as possible. If the recording is reasonably audible, you should be able to produce a perfect transcript. If the recording is of poor audio quality, you should be able to produce a transcript that is as accurate as possible given the inferior audibility.
When proofreading a 1st draft transcript against the recording, if people are speaking at normal conversation pace, set the speed on 'normal'. If they are speaking more slowly than usual and the audibility is very clear, you may set the speed at one notch faster. The only exception to this rule is when the audibility is poor in which case you may need to proofread at a slower pace.
During the proofreading stage, because you are travelling far more quickly through the transcript and audio, and are listening to the audio for the second time, you can 'hear' the context and meaning of the discussion more clearly than during the first listen. You are also now familiar with the speakers' accents, manners or speech and the types of words they use. This makes it easier to transcribe accurately and improve the punctuation. You should use this stage to:
In regards to punctuation: I always insert more commas in transcripts than is the usual practice in corporate writing because people being interviewed or discussing issues in focus groups often speak in very long sentences, or train-of-thought non-sentences, that would not make any sense if not punctuated by numerous commas (or if appropriate, semicolons). You should note, however, that to do this correctly you need very good knowledge of grammar and good comprehension of what the speaker is trying to say.
If the comments in the audio recording are audible you will be able to produce a truly perfect transcript. If the comments in the recording are inaudible or only partially audible you'll be able to produce a transcript that is not perfect, but as accurate as possible given the inferior audibility of the recording.
for more articles about how to record and transcribe interviews and focus groups and produce different types of transcripts.
Sally-Anne Watson Kane has over 20 years' experience recording research interviews and oral histories; transcribing audio recordings of interviews, focus groups, meetings, seminars and other events; and editing and proofreading transcripts.
Photo by S.W.Kane.