Basic editing guidelines
What do I do about repetitive phrases like “you know,” “sort of,” "kind of," etc?
Some people have a habit of using a small phrase again and again (you know… sort of … kind of ...). When taken to excess, this can distract readers from the story. You may want to leave these phrases in occasionally, as reflections of the reader’s voice and speaking style. However, if they appear continuously, you will want to edit out most occurrences so that they are not distracting to the reader.
How should I handle transitions once my questions are removed? When my questions change the flow of the story, what should I do?
The simplest approach is to put elements of your question into brackets, as if they were words spoken by the interviewee. This retains some of the feel of the question and answer format of the interview and enables readers to infer some of the questions you asked. For example:
Q: Who were the influences on you as your were growing up?
A: I would have to start with my family. My parents were a good influence on a lot of the things that I did. I also had some early influences … I won’t say a mentor, he was actually a friend who was the same age as me. He was brilliant. ….
Editing alternative #1:
[As far as the early influences on me…] I would have to start with my family. My parents were a good influence on a lot of the things I did. I also had a friend who was the same age as me. He was brilliant. ….
A second, slightly more challenging approach, is to use the interviewee’s own words to create a smooth transition, as in editing alternative #2 (below). This provides a natural transition that fits into the flow of the story and does not require putting words into the speaker’s mouth. In this case, the interviewee’s first transitional response to the question – “I would have to start with my family” – is not needed. It simply helped him begin a train of thought that is carried through the rest of the paragraph. When it is removed, it leaves a paragraph that flows naturally within the story.
Editing alternative #2:
My parents were a good influence on a lot of the things I did. I also had a friend who was the same age as me. He was brilliant. ….
What do I do with unfinished or incomplete sentences?
That depends on context. Sometimes speakers begin a sentence, then leave it hanging and begin another sentence as they figure out what they are trying to say. In these cases, it usually works best to delete the “false start.” For example:
I think that … You know … People come in here with lots of questions. Sometimes it seems like all we do is answer them.
People come in here with lots of questions. Sometimes it seems like all we do is answer them.
Other times, someone has almost completed the sentence, but then interrupts him/herself to move on to another thought. If the incomplete sentence is important and conveys information that isn’t repeated more completely elsewhere, then you probably want to keep it. In these cases, if the end of the sentence is obvious, you can add [in brackets] a few words to complete the sentence.
Finally, in a few cases, a person leaves an incomplete thought hanging, but it makes perfect sense in the context of the paragraph. In those cases, you can indicate the hanging sentence by punctuating with three elipses (…)
Do I use brackets when I add words?
Generally, yes. First, you should add words very sparingly and only when absolutely necessary. You don’t want to put words in the storyteller’s mouth. When you do add words – for example, for grammatical reasons, for clarify, to complete a sentence, to indicate a transition, or to compensate for removing your questions – you should indicate this by putting the words you have added in brackets [ ].
When a final profile is being prepared for publication or wider distribution, these brackets may be removed. However, during various stages of the editing process, and for class assignments, brackets make clear to readers what words you have added to those your interviewee actually said.
Can I leave things out?
Not much. If something is clearly repetitive or extraneous, you can delete it. You can also delete “false starts,” filler words, sentence fragments, and so on. But be careful and edit with a light hand.
What if I can’t understand something they said?
If words were inaudible on the audio recording, you can make your best guess about what you can hear and bracket it with a question to the interviewee, or mark it “inaudible.” Then you can call or email them to see if they can clarify. If you can hear all the words, but don’t understand the meaning of a sentence or paragraph, you can also bracket with a question and go back later to ask the interviewee for clarification.
What if part of the story is missing?
If it seems important to the story, make a note to yourself, and when you are done with most of editing, you can contact the interviewee to see if you can ask them a few additional questions. You will want to record that conversation, just as you did the first, transcribe it, and carefully insert it into the profile at the appropriate point.
What should I not do?
Don’t put words in the interviewee’s mouth! Don’t create a long, unbroken block of text. (Remember to put in paragraphs.)