Editing oral history publications

Sally-Anne Watson Kane . Monday, March 19, 2018 . Comments
Editing oral history publications

The first stage of editing oral history transcripts is described at: Editing oral history transcripts. After that initial editing stage has been completed, oral histories intended for publication need further editing as well as proofreading and graphic design, which is what this article is about.

Note: there are probably many ways to edit and produce oral history publications. This is just about the way I do it.

Editing an oral history publication

When producing a self-published book, the roles of 'editor' and 'publications coordinator' are often carried out by the same person. Below, I've referred to the different tasks the 'editor' needs to do when preparing oral histories for publication, on the understanding that the 'editor' is also likely to be responsible for overseeing the whole publication process.

When editing an oral history transcript, or collection of transcripts, intended to be published as a book:

  • If possible, the editor/publications coordinator should ensure the author of the oral history has given written permission to publish their story in the intended publication. The publisher, or self-publisher, may not publish the author's oral history in a publication other than that to which the author has agreed.

  • Regardless of whether the author of the oral history has verified the information in their transcript, the editor needs to cross-check and/or fact-check information to try to ensure all information is correct prior to publication to avoid disinformation and, potentially, legal issues (e.g. defamation)

  • After the editor has made the editing changes required, they should (if possible) consult with the author of the oral history to make sure they are satisfied with the changes.


Sometimes there are inconsistencies in oral histories, or words that don't make sense to most readers but which the author (and/or editor) want to keep in the publication. At those times, it's often a good idea to insert footnotes or end notes to:

  • identify (and, if possible, explain) any inconsistencies (e.g. inconsistencies within an oral history, or inconsistent information across two or more oral histories in the publication, or inconsistency between the oral history and information from other sources) 

  • explain or clarify the meaning of any ambiguous comments, give background knowledge in relation to a statement to put it into context or make it easier to understand; or show the English translation of a non-English word.

Legal issues  

After completing the editing, prior to proofreading stage:

  • if the manuscript contains any potentially libelous material, it should be sent to a suitably qualified lawyer to be 'legalled' to gauge the legal risk of publishing it

  • the lawyer will provide a report to the editor (or publications coordinator) who then takes that advice into account before deciding whether to proceed to the next stage, or whether further editing is necessary.

Editing a book of oral histories

If the publication is not just one oral history but a compilation of oral histories, the editor/publications coordinator should also (in addition to the above):

  • have a good understanding of the purpose and intended audience of the publication and structurally edit the oral histories to meet that target audience, excluding certain passages or even whole oral histories from the publication if necessary to produce the best publication

  • arrange the oral histories in the order in which they best present the overall story being 'told' by that compilation to the target audience; e.g. if there are very long stories and very short stories, or harsh stories as well as funny or light-hearted ones, mix them up in the best way possible for the reader. Sometimes this means having them lead in to the subject matter of the next story; sometimes it means making sure a heavy story is followed by a light one. Make sure the first and last stories are among the best

  • if practical, give authors the opportunity to be involved in choosing photographs and images for inclusion in the publication and ask them to give their ideas or feedback about the cover design. This encourages their 'ownership' of the publication which is, after all, a compilation of their stories

  • send the final edited draft of the manuscript to a proofreader, or team of proofreaders, to be proofread prior to graphic design stage

  • whilst authors' input helps decide on the images and design for the publication, the editor and/or publications coordinator is the final decision-maker in regard to the placement of photographs and other images, graphic design and final proofreading processes.

After editing

Like all self-published books, after the editing has been completed, the manuscript needs to be proofread then graphic designed (hopefully with input from the author/s); it needs to be sent to the printers who then provide a final proof; it needs to be proofread a final time; the editor/publications coordinator signs off on the proof and the book is printed.

I will be writing more about the basic steps of self-publishing in a future article.

Helpful links

Proofreading hardcopy publications

Publications by... Sally-Anne Watson Kane

Sally-Anne Watson Kane has recorded, scribed, edited and compiled several publications of oral histories, and has been producing transcripts and publications since 1996. She established On Time Typing scribing and editing services in 2002 and continues to provide audio transcription, scribing and editing services across Australia.

Copyright Sally-Anne Watson Kane, On Time Typing. Please seek my permission prior to reproducing this article in any way but feel free to link directly to this page if you wish to use this content - thanks!


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