Step-by-step guide to transcribing

Before you begin

Make headnotes, context and summary notes

At the top of the first page of your interview or field note, you should include the following information:

    • The date the interview or observation was made,
    • Your name,
    • The pseudonym of the person you interviewed or observed,
    • The position of the person you observed or interviewed,
    • The pseudonym for the setting you observed,
    • An indication of whether this was an interview or an observation,
    • An indication of whether the interview was tape recorded, video recorded or recorded through manual note taking.

See a sample 'headnote' format here.

In addition to providing this information, you should include a paragraph or two that describes the context in which the interview or observation occurred. Was the person a stranger to you or a previous acquaintance? What they understand the purpose of the interview to be? Where did the interview take place and under what circumstances?

As you transcribe

Pay attention to your text formatting

To make good use of database or qualitative data analysis software, your field notes or interviews will probably need to be prepared for analysis as a straight "ASCII" or "text" file. To facilitate this process try to avoid using any higher order formatting techniques (e.g. bold, underline, strike through, shadow, multiple fonts, etc.) Instead, use a normal character set and indicate emphasis, transitions, etc. with caps, brackets, quotation marks, slashes, backslashes, colons, stars, and numbers, etc.

Add personal comments

While you don't want them to dominate, do not try to exclude all your personal observations and interpretations from either your field notes or interview transcripts. However, you should always set off observations and interpretations of your own by enclosing them in brackets or double brackets. In interviews you may use this same convention to describe activities in the interview situation that are not recorded on the tape (e.g. [Jane closed the book and leaned back in her chair]; [Sam was called out of the room at this point].) In field notes you may use brackets and double brackets to introduce your own commentary or interpretations. I suggest single brackets for direct observations of the setting and double brackets for conjecture, speculation and interpretation. For example, [the more Harry talked about this the more uncomfortable I became]; or [Janice seemed very reluctant to discuss anything about next year]. [[Could this be because of what Fullan had to say about the pace of change?]]

Decide how to record and notate discourse and speakers

In transcribing an interview you will need to develop conventions for how text will be punctuated. In doing so you may need to pay attention to the following: pauses, exclamations, vocalizations that are not words (e.g. laughter, sneezes, crying), hand and arm gestures that you can remember from the interview situation, and so on.

You also will need to develop some conventions for linking the identity of speakers to what is said. This may seem simple for a one-on-one interview in which only one person is talking at a time. It is more complex when conversation becomes overlaid or when more than one person is being interviewed. You will also need some conventions for identifying chunks of texts that go together. Sentences are useful as are paragraphs. However, you may also want to identify a particular set of exchanges between two people as a single unit even if it is larger than a conventional paragraph. You may also want to identify topic shifts, though this is tricky if you are interviewing someone whose discourse style does not follow a linear 1, 2, 3 format.

For examples of some very different and somewhat specialized approaches that people have taken to transcribing interviews, go to specialized transcribed interviews [not yet available] . For examples of less specialized approaches, take a look at the interview samples and illustrations from work that other students have done in this course.

Logging or indexing the interview: if you don't need a verbatim transcript

In logging an interview your goal is to develop a summary and index for the interview that could be valuable in guiding your research, but to do so much more quickly than could be done through transcription itself. To develop an interview summary/log you will need a convention for noting either real time or tape counter time. If you want to supplement tape recording with hand-written notes at the time of the interview, you can prepare ahead of time a real time form to assist you in noting when shifts in topics occur. You can use a similar form when listening to the tape afterwards.

To log a tape accurately you will still have to listen to the tape in its entirety. A one-hour interview will take a minimum of one-hour to log. You will also find it very difficult to note topic shifts for some speakers and for some sections of the interview. However, you should enter something for every few minutes on the log. Units of much less than 30 seconds are frequently too fine, though you may want to make even more frequent entries for particular sections of the tape. Units that are much larger than two minutes make it difficult to locate text sections later on.

One very useful strategy is to record a short verbatim phrase at every one or two minute mark of the tape as well as indicate important topic shifts, interesting comments, or longer verbatim transcripts in between and across these "one-minute markers."

In logging a tape, try to keep in mind some of the same themes and categories that you have prepared subsequent to reviewing your field notes or a complete transcript of another interview. Also note in your log any sections of the tape that you think are rich enough as an illustration or example of these themes that they should be transcribed later in their entirety.

Take a look at examples of interview logs completed by other students.

After you're done

Protect anonymity and confidentiality of your subjects

After you have transcribed your interview or entered your field notes, replace the names of all individuals with pseudonyms. Do the same for the names of particular programs, schools or institutions. Keep a list of the code to turn in with your work, but do not share it with other members of the class, other than those in your immediate work group. For more on protecting your subjects' identity, go to Protecting and Respecting Human Subjects.

Add annotations

After you have transcribed your interview or prepared an initial draft of your field notes, read these through to make sure that they are understandable. This is not a simple matter. You may need to include in brackets or double brackets some comments so that you will be able to understand at a later date what someone said or what some activity meant. Also take this opportunity to introduce guiding comments or annotations that could help you find particular observations or comments more easily in the future. These could refer to themes or concepts you are investigating or to different sections of the interview or field notes that correspond to different topics being discussed, different stages of activity, etc.

PRELIMINARY KEY WORDS: After you have done all the work noted above go back to the head note for your interview or field note and enter a few themes, concepts or issues that caught your attention as you read through this particular interview or field note. These will not be your final analytical categories, but they will help you start thinking about what those categories might be.

FOLLOW UP QUESTIONS: After you have completed all the steps noted above, make a list of additional questions you would want to investigate or steps you feel are necessary to move the larger research project forward. These could include checking on dates, documents or other background information, comparing this interview with other interviews, arranging for a subsequent interview, sending something to the person you interviewed, discussing something with a colleague, reading something, preparing a list of questions before the next interview, making some adjustment in your tape recording arrangement, etc.

Back to Guidelines for Doing Social Research Interviews

Go to Samples and Illustrations of Social Research Interviews