Writers outsourcing interview transcriptions: lazy or smart?

November 18th, 2009, By Andrew McMillen

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?

Anne 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.

Anne 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?

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  1. Tamara,

    I might be lazy but I would call outsourcing my transcriptions a very smart way to save me time with something I couldn’t do for my self very well.

    I have been outsourcing my transcriptions services for a while now and have saved tons of time and headache.

  2. Hiring Tamara was the smartest thing I have ever done for both interviews and for personal thoughts on articles, plans and just about everything else I record. While some may be concerned about lost nuances, I am concerned about gathering more sources and staying aware of everything else that is going on. Then again, I have a great memory for conversations I have wiht others, so if there was some nuance I would have either caught it and explored it while interviewing or remembered it as I was reading the transcript.

    That said, you need confidence in your transcriber and I have found that Tamara hits 95%+ even on topics where she had no prior knowledge. So I am always confident in her having captured not only the gist of what is being transcribed, but the majority of the detail too.

    From my perspective it is about productivity and a realization that we can’t, or rather we shouldn’t, try to do it all along. Having a solid reliable team not only makes me more productive, it makes the work more fulfilling as I feel less disconnected from my usual solitary writing.

    I deeply respect people who have a white glove approach to touching the ‘art of writing’ in its prior 1950’s glory, but I wonder if these people still write on selectrics too? In the modern era, one of the best tools we have available to us as writers is the network. Whether its researching using our network of ‘friends’ on twitter or hiring remote team members like a transcriptionist or fact checker, I think writers who take advantage of our modern arsenal are clearly the smart ones.

    Isn’t that what we have been taught over the years, work smart, not hard?

  3. I have used Tamara’s transcription several times and have been spectacularly happy with her work.

    She types what YOU say. how does that in any way negate who the “writer is”?

    When you use dragon dictate or similar software, do you give a byline to the software?


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