East Midlands Oral History Archive

Summarising and transcription

You’ve done the interview, turned off the recorder and said good-bye to your interviewee. But it’s not all over! In fact, some of the hardest work starts once the interviewing ends.

To make your recordings as useful as possible you will need to summarise and, possibly, transcribe them. Summaries are brief lists, in order, of the topics discussed and stories told. A quick guide to the interview, they also help you review interviewing techniques, and highlight gaps and vague responses. If you’re planning to use the interviews as written speech you’ll need to transcribe them, either in full or as extracts (the summary will help you decide which portions of the interview to use).

To write a summary of an interview won't take much more time than it took to conduct the interview, but writing a transcript of every word spoken may take up to six times as long. For some studies this will be essential, but if it is not you may want to consider writing a summary and then transcribing only the sections of the interviews you consider to be important for your research.


The purpose of a summary is to gather key basic information about the circumstances of the interview and give a concise guide to its contents. A summary need to include names, places, events and topics appearing in each interview, with indications of how substantial the reference is. You should indicate where in the course of the interview the reference appears using a timecode.

Concentrate on providing a clear statement of what is talked about in the interview, rather than detailing particular opinions or anecdotes. The summary should be a guide to what can be found from the interview, not a paraphrase of what the interviewee actually said. Where the interview focuses closely on one subject for a long period, a few short words of summary may be perfectly adequate.

For brevity and economy of language leave out prepositions and possessives where possible. For example use 'Eldest of five sons' not 'He was the eldest of five sons' and 'Mentions' not 'Next interviewee goes on to mention'. However, do not compress too much. Where a distinct aspect of a subject is referred to, it is helpful to make that clear in the summary: e.g. 'describes difficulties of finding work' rather than 'describes search for work'.

Transcribing oral speech into written speech

Face-to-face interviewing is littered with non-verbal communication such as hand, face and body gestures. The original recording is the most accurate reproduction of the interview, minus these non-verbal gestures. However, transcriptions increase accessibility, and together with the recordings and summaries create an important resource for a wide range of purposes - academic research, museum displays, local, family and community history, even television and scriptwriting research.

Turning a recording into written speech is sometimes akin to an act of translation, not just editing. There is no consensus on how to perform the task, but there are some ethical guidelines you should follow:

Do not correct interviewees' words or grammar, do not change speech patterns. Do not change content, intent or put words in the interviewee's mouth.

Professional transcription is expensive, about £90 per hour of recorded interview. Do you have funding to pay for it? Did you include the costs in your planning? If not, you’ll need someone with the time and necessary skills/equipment. Whoever does the job, someone else must go through the text whilst listening to the recording to check for accuracy. And if you are sending the recording away to be transcribed, don’t send your original tapes!

Style guidelines

You could transcribe every pause, every 'um' and 'ahh' but this makes for clumsy reading. It's probably best to only include those that convey something of the interviewee's speech.

  • Nominate one standard dictionary for the project, and set guidelines for spelling so that, for example, regional words are spelled consistently.
  • Standardise font, print size, line spacing, paragraphing, use of quotation marks, use of upper and lower case letters, how to indicate years, time and numbers, to abbreviate, and hyphenate words (e.g. cooperation/co-operation).
  • Place certain recorded activities into square brackets e.g. [laughs], [phone rings].
  • Unintelligible parts of the recording? Listen carefully. Get someone else to listen. Type what you think it says and add [??] or add or [unclear].
  • Use dashes - for pauses - interruptions - and incomplete sentences.
  • Feedback words and sounds such as "uh huh," "yes" and "hmm"- interviewers use them to engage with the interviewee but can make transcripts tedious to read. Use your judgement when to leave these out.
  • Crutch words e.g. 'uh' after single words in a row. Don't transcribe if it makes reading difficult, unless it is an important part of the narrator's speech pattern.


Transcribing machines with a foot pedal leave your hands free for writing or typing, but an ordinary playback machine with a pause button is adequate. Comfortable headphones are a must for lengthy transcribing sessions-the little ones that fit just inside your ears are perhaps best avoided. Typing into a word processor will help speed things up. And remember-transcribing can be physically demanding. Make sure your equipment and seating is comfortable to use, and take regular breaks.

You may also want to consider software which is available to make transcribing via your computer more easy. One such package is Express Scribe, which is available free on the web at http://www.nch.com.au/scribe/  


Head your summaries and transcripts with relevant identifying names and/or codes, otherwise you won't know which recordings they belong to. If other people are to have access to the summaries and transcripts, make sure you adhere to any restrictions placed on the material by the interviewee (e.g. they may not wish to be identified by name). Do not disclose any other information such as addresses or telephone numbers. Offer interviewees the chance to review the relevant summary and transcript. They might be able to clarify names, places, and other information.

Transcribing can be very time-consuming, varying between 4 to 10 hours transcribing per hour of recorded interview, depending on skill and equipment. If time is short or if you only want to use certain sections, transcribe selected extracts. At the planning stage of the project, be sure to include a realistic amount of time for the task.

Professional transcription may be expensive. Do you have funding to pay for it? Did you include the costs in your planning? If not, you'll need someone with the time and necessary skills/equipment. Whoever does the job, someone else must go through the text whilst listening to the recording to check for accuracy. And if you are sending the recording away to be transcribed, don't send your original tapes!

An audio clip of a woman talking about her schooldays


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