Writers outsourcing interview transcriptions: lazy or smart?

An interesting discussion on the Mess+Noise boards today.

The thread linked above is dedicated to transcribing interviews, and the hatred thereof. The first message:

[transcribing interviews ] …is possibly the most tedious task on god’s earth.

oh lord, I hate it.

It was started in February 2007 and has been periodically resurrected as M+N writers bemoaned deadlines and the tedium of transcription.

I wrote this, 17 November 2009.

I’ve outsourced every interview I’ve done (ie. dozens) since June this year to a mother of five in Israel. Rates are very reasonable and her work is top-notch. Message me if you want a reference.

Mobile phone on speaker > Sony USB recorder > YouSendIt. Word document back within a few days, always.

I’ve mentioned this fact on my blog before, where I detailed how I came across the services of transcriptionist Tamara Bentzur of Outsource Transcription Services after interviewing Neil Strauss and querying him on the matter. From my interview:

Do you have any interview transcribing tips?

Yeah – outsource it. (laughs)

For real. Even if I couldn’t afford it.. I just have to have someone else transcribe it. Sometimes it’s good to listen to because then you relive the conversation, but sometimes I find it easier if if I can fucking find someone I could pay a little bit to do it. Even when I didn’t have the money, I was like, fuck – it just makes my life easier.

So I did, and like I said, I’ve engaged Tamara’s services dozens of times since June. She’s awesome. It’s one of the best decisions I’ve made this year.

Some of the other writers didn’t take too kindly to my admission.

M+N writer A.H. Cayley – talented in her own right, and certainly a young writer to keep an eye on – didn’t like the suggestion at all.

Jesus, NiteShok. How incredibly lazy. Her name should go right next to your byline, I think.

I hope you pay her more than half of what you get paid, given that transcription is the longest, most tedious part of the process, and the least fun.

My response:

It’s her business. She is a professional transcriptionist. Why are you so offended by this concept?

Cayley again:

I think it’s incredibly lazy, and I’m not sure I’d have the gall to call myself a writer if I didn’t actually do the writing part.

Each to their own.

Whoa. That stopped me in my tracks. A strong accusation. M+N writer Shaun Prescott came back with:

well, transcribing isn’t really writing. if the Q&A is going to be published as is, then I don’t see a problem with it.

I doubt niteshok has Israeli women transcribe his live reviews while he sits in the corner dictating in his slippers with a pipe.

Great imagery there. Craig Mathieson – the former editor of M+N, who also wears the crown of Australian rock journalism – said:

C’mon Anne, handing off the transcription doesn’t make you any less of a writer.

Cayley then admitted she’d gone too far. But the whole discussion got me thinking.

Does outsourcing interview transcription devalue the role of the writer?

M+N user MichaelDudikoff suggested:

I actually applaud McMillen for his inventiveness while worrying that he might miss nuance.

A fair statement. The responsibility of transcribing a conversation is significant, especially considering the reputation of the publications in which my writing appears. But I trust Tamara. She hasn’t let me down in the five months we’ve had a business relationship. I proof-read everything before it’s submitted, of course, and pay attention to the construction of sentences to ensure that it reads as the conversation played out. Where Tamara’s unsure of certain phrases or the speech is inaudible, she’ll timestamp the section and move on, leaving me to listen back to the audio and finalise the correct transcription.

Writers, what are your thoughts? Is outsourcing interview transcriptions lazy or smart? Does it devalue the role of the writer? Do you feel I’m less of a writer for engaging the services of a professional transcriptionist to free up my time elsewhere?

Comments? Below.
  1. Shan says:

    Why not? Everyone outsources everything these days. This kind of journalism re: straight transcription of interviews is generally pretty “lazy” looking in print, but most folk don’t appreciate the research a good interviewer will do to in preparation for the inquisition.
    Personally, I don’t like question + answer = article, but that’s my own opinion and why I’ve never written one like it myself. An interview is a story in its own right… you have the right to tell it however you see fit.

  2. I have no problem with outsourced transcriptions — the real act of creation is how you assemble those raw words into a fully fledged feature.

    That’s where you get to exhibit your skills with prose (as opposed to your ability to research and ask insightful questions).

    In that sense, I definitely have a little less respect for a Q&A — it’s like I’m only getting half a meal. I’d say that I always derive more enjoyment from a well-crafted feature article than from the raw Q&A that was the base material.

  3. Rob F says:

    I’m fairly stunned at her attitude. Outsourcing just makes the process a whole lot more efficient, in much the same way lots of firms outsource the most tedious admin work and the like.(Ferriss ftw http://www.fourhourworkweek.com/blog/outsourcing-life/)

    Short deadlines are the biggest thing stopping me from outsourcing what I agree is easily the most tedious part of writing. It’s certainly something I’ll be doing if I get into more freelancing and feature stuff.

    How many times on average is she unsure of certain phrases? Aside from the turnaround, that’s my biggest concern, especially industry-specific language.


  4. Mike Brown says:

    Outsourcing an interview transcription should be a resource, not the end result. In that regard I agree with Stephen about Q&As.

  5. Wow! That came out of nowhere! Thank you so much Andrew for your awesome endorsement of my work. I do try my best to give you transcriptions that are accurate, while removing the unnecessary ums and ahs to make your life easier when when finalizing the content to publish. It’s a plus that I also find your interviews interesting :)

    Now I would like to weigh in or if this is lazy or not, and if it diminishes your standing as a writer. ABSOLUTELY NOT! As long as the transcriptionist you choose to work with is competent, FLUENT in English, as well as “getting” the nuances of slang etc. there is no question. We’re simply giving you in print what you hear on the audio. But I agree that it is the most tedious, time consuming part. I cannot imagine worrying about meeting a deadline for multiple interviews, while having to type them all up. This way, Andrew (as well as all my clients) can rest easy knowing they’ll get a great product that keeps the integrity of the speaker’s “voice”, which only enables one to keep plugging along with additional work that brings in income. It’s a win-win all around. (BTW I’m a native English speaker too.)

    Thanks again Andrew!

  6. Rachel Hills says:

    I don’t outsource because of, er, technical difficulties, but I don’t see anything wrong with it at all (except perhaps exploiting workers in other countries for crappy rates, but my friends in development tell me it’s fine). Especially not in the writing sense.

    As Stephen said, writing isn’t about the act of typing up an interview, or really even typing at all, it’s about the creative act of structuring a feature, drawing together the threads of an argument, and so on. It’s even about the way you devise your interview questions and the way you interact with your interviewee.

    But while listening to and typing up an interview can be a good way to get into the headspace of drawing together those threads, not transcribing certainly doesn’t mean you’re not “writing”.

  7. Darragh says:

    It is perfectly fine to outsource. Does an architect have to actually build a structure in order to claim it as their own work?

  8. Elmo Keep says:

    The best piece of advice I was ever given by another writer was to learn to love transcribing. It’s how you get to really know the nuances and tone of the final piece, even if the resulting piece is “only” an interview.

    Not to mention that transcribers are not always accurate. One incorrect letter can change the meaning of word and therefore a sentence and therefore a salient point. Punctuation is often left out, or incorrectly annotated too.

    Everything that comes back to us at Hungry Beast is gone over again by the interviewer for accuracy. It’s only outsourced in the first place due to the sheer volume of material we have to get through.

    But if you’re working on your own and have time, you should do it yourself. It’s quite a lovely part of writing for me.

  9. Josh says:

    andrew, my two cents.

    i think it’s totally fine. worth noting that this is nothing new and that many many magazines out there get interns to do the same. i worked on dazed and confused magazine in 2002 in the uk and transcribed a bunch of interviews for writers to then take to. transcribing does not the interview make.

    if people are worried about losing nuance, i would think that a experienced writer who actually did the interview in the first place would find that his/her brain switches back in time to the call pretty quickly as soon as the text is back in front of you. When you are constructing the story with the quotes in front of you there shouldn’t be an issue?

    if i could afford to do it i would totally. it’s dry as. once you’ve done a hundred of these it is by no means interesting to not only hear yourself speak back at you, nor to spend time doing this. most writers due to the lack of cash involved are working in other things on the side, or in the middle! so saving the time to do this is great. i’m going to check it out when next i do an interview.

    nb: i wouldn’t agree with someone interviewing and transcribing to then hand over to be written of course, but that’s not the discussion. unless that person had an accident with a wheelbarrow and you were merely helping out

    Darragh “It is perfectly fine to outsource. Does an architect have to actually build a structure in order to claim it as their own work?”


  10. Tal says:

    Can’t really put my finger on why, but I’m against it. Possibly because I have enough time and not enough money, possibly because I’m hyper-possessive of my work. Perhaps one day I’ll be snowed under and gaze up to the heavens and call on the gods to furnish me with outsourcing. Until then I can spare a couple of hours to do the “play-type-pause-rewind-pause-type shuffle”.

  11. jaydubya says:

    This is an interesting one – my first thought (and I’m NOT a journalist) is to draw an analogy with film (picture) editing. In the old days, before the 90s, editing on a flatbed/Steenbeck in a LINEAR way meant that there was inevitably many points in the flow of work where you had to rewind the rolls to the beginning. This time and all the little bits like it would these days make us impatient with the technology but in fact they were really useful. This is the time in which reflection occurs, decisions analysed, possiblities imagined etc. It’s THINKING time.
    So I reckon that doing it yourself would be really useful for someone doing research (as opposed to someone who might have really tight deadlines or who just needs to report what was said without much comment). The time it takes to transcribe is also the time when the other bits of your brain are really sifting through the facts, emotions and implications of what’s being said.
    It’s about depth, I think. Getting deeper into what someone has said. Their voice (not the transcript) supplies some big part of that depth.
    That’s it from me!


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