Oral History Transcript Editing Guidelines
James Sterling Young
Introduction and Background
Presidential oral history transcripts are historical documents that will be read, first by respondents, then by all those who in the future seek to understand the presidency of our time as it was experienced by those who knew it first hand. They are unique primary source materials that will be permanently archived in the relevant presidential library and other research libraries and will be published in a variety of formats.
We should think of our copyedited raw transcript as a corrected galley proof that can go into the production process without further editing save for substantive changes made by the author/respondent. Specifically:
- The transcript has been edited to publication level with respect to capitalization, punctuation, grammar, spelling, and paragraphing. Subject to (2) below, transcripts submitted by freelance editors to the program editor are expected to meet this basic requirement. A premium is placed on consistent conformity to the Presidential Oral History editing manual and, in matters not covered therein, to the Chicago Manual of Style.
- Names have been checked with diligence. Freelance editors are expected to check the master list of names provided to them for this purpose and to note names not on the list when submitting the transcript to the Program Editor. Further checking is done by researchers on assignment by a faculty member.
- A diligent effort has been made to minimize the number of "inaudibles" in the copy-edited transcript. Freelance editors should make a conscientious but not an exhaustive effort to decipher unclear words in the voice record. Faculty will assign researchers to work on remaining "inaudibles."
- The transcript has been edited for readability while preserving the character, meaning, and flavor of spoken expression. This means that cosmetic changes have been made in the verbatim transcript to eliminate unintentional repetitions, misspoken words, non-words, small talk, and miscellaneous filler. While the editing manual provides specific guidance on the more obvious readability issues, we recognize the impracticality of relying on codified rules to resolve all such issues. When in doubt, freelance editors should either consult the Program Editor or note the particular issue when submitting the complete transcript to the Editor.
- In addition to dealing with editing issues that fall outside the regular guidelines, the program editor reviews transcripts submitted by freelance editors and acts as a single set of eyes to help maintain consistency among different transcripts.
Guidance and Procedures
Experience has proved that the job of turning the spoken word into a readable document is a multifaceted one. The different brain functions that are needed to accomplish the entire job don't seem to be compatible with each other. The nitpicking mode needed to see and correct spelling and punctuation errors is different from the research mode necessary to ferret out names and facts, which is yet again different from the "hearing" mode needed to make the sentences flow smoothly and seem natural to the eye. Thus a good system for editing requires several different passes through the transcript.
While each editor will evolve a system, following is one system that has proved to work. It uses three different passes through the transcript. Consider taking it as the basis for fine-tuning your own system.
This first pass through the transcript is done while listening to the audio version and marking up the hard copy. This pass includes:
- catching and fixing transcription errors—wrong or missing words and phrases
- trying to identify inaudible passages
- making basic spelling and punctuation corrections
- highlighting every name and acronym in yellow
This pass corrects names and facts and makes global fixes wherever possible. It includes:
- creating the Excel name/acronym worksheet with the first appearance of the name or acronym noted, and unconfirmed spellings indicated
- correcting names in the transcript, noting whole name at first appearance
- global fixes of capitalization, formatting, removing extra spaces and the like
- formatting footnotes
- fixing incorrect section breaks
- making a list of inaudible passages and name queries
This is the creative editing pass. Free from worry about facts, the editor can look at the bigger picture:
- ensuring flow
- eliminating repetition
- cutting stock phrases like "I think," "kind of," and "you know" and speech quirks particular to the speaker
- fixing remaining grammar, spelling, and punctuation errors
- breaking up run-on sentences and too-long paragraphs
- making small changes for clarity
- smoothing syntax
Editing Style Guide
Here are suggestions for editing raw transcript. Topics are arranged alphabetically. The fundamental guideline is to preserve the integrity of the spoken word wherever possible.
For all issues not covered here, use Chicago Manual of Style/15th ed.
# # # # #
Use periods for abbreviations, such as D.C. and U.S. The times A.M. and P.M. should be in small caps.
These should be spelled out in the first instance. Always use brackets to set off the full name. Acronyms have no periods.
"One of our greatest disappointments was not doing more on ANWR [Alaskan National Wildlife Refuge]."
Use the United States Government Printing Office Style Manual as your guideline. The relevant chapters, three: Capitalization Rules, and four: Capitalization Examples, are included as an Appendix to this document and can be found online at the GPO website.
Suggest studying Chicago Manual for comma guidelines. Overall, use your ear and common sense for comma placement. A few common confusions:
- There is no comma between subject and predicate.
- Use two commas to set off non-restrictive clauses or phrases mid-sentence—or use no commas, but don't use just one.
- Words like "but" and "so" at the beginning of a sentence usually don't need a comma. Use a comma if a pause was used or is implicit.
"But what about me?"
- Use commas to set off parts of dates and places.
"November 22, 1963, is a day I'll never forget.";
"She still lives in Hoboken, New Jersey, where she was born."
Discussion of compound words can be found in Chicago Manual 15th ed. pages 299-302 (rules) and 302-308 (examples). A more detailed discussion is contained in chapters six and seven of the GPO Style Guide, which follow herewith in the Appendix and are available online at the GPO website. A further source is the dictionary, which will have many possible compounds in it.
These decisions are subjective, not engraved in stone. If in doubt, try to make the choice that best conveys the meaning.
Contractions add informality and help reproduce real speech. "It's" is less formal than "It is." Suggest: Use as heard on the audio to record more accurately the speaker's words.
Use the em-dash (—) to show interruptions.
X: Did you read the transcript? I feel it's—
Y: Sorry to interrupt.
- Also use a dash to indicate a change of course mid-sentence, and enclose the thought in dashes if the sentence veers again or goes back to its original course.
"President Bush hated people—the President encouraged us not to speak to reporters."
The em–dash signifies the abrupt shift from the first segment to the second. The first fragment communicates something to the reader that should be preserved. The second fragment is the result of the respondent's mental editing. He doesn't want to ascribe to President Bush a hatred of anything, so he uses softer language.
"I think that it was, I mean, I feel that—let me start over, I think he would have been best served if he had done X, Y, and Z."
The first fragment is unnecessary, it communicates nothing. Therefore we can render the sentence:
"I think he would have been best served if he had done X, Y, and Z."
When quoted dialogue is interrupted by the speaker him- or herself, use two dashes like this:
He said, "I welcome you all today—" and he nodded at us— "to the first meeting of our new group."
- Note that Word can be set to make a dash from two hyphens. Don't use spaces before or after dashes, except in a special case, as in example 3 above.
No apostrophe–s is needed when indicating plural years, e.g. 1980s, or '80s.
Note that if you are using smart quotes in Word, it may automatically use the wrong single quote ('80s), which you must manually correct ('80s).
Suggest: if necessary, type the single quote twice, then cut the first one.
Avoid using phonetic spellings to indicate dialect. For example, use "going to" for "gonna," "got to" for "gotta," "want to" for "wanna," etc. Use "yes" for "yeah."
"Betcha" is OK. "Ain't" is OK, as is other ungrammatical usage if it was actually said. We also can use "y'all"—very occasionally—if that's what was spoken, although we don't want extensive regional approximations a la Mark Twain.
But do fix singular/plural subject/verb disagreements that may occur accidentally.
An ellipsis is three dots, each separated by a space ( . . . ). In the middle of a sentence use a space before and after the ellipsis.
At the end of a sentence use four dots total. The first is the period (without a preceding space), followed by three dots. Each of the four dots is followed by a space.
- Current guidelines allow ellipses only for omissions. Suggest: allow ellipses for trailing off too. Don't use ellipses for pauses, which are unnecessary. But note that an em–dash (—) should be used for interruptions (see under DASHES).
- It is no longer necessary to use footnotes in the text to note where the next CD begins. The continuous section breaks serve that purpose.
- For informational footnotes, use numbers.
Leave most of these in unless they are transcription errors. Many of these errors are the result of a speaker changing thought midstream, about which more above under dashes.
Homophones are words that sound the same but are spelled differently. Surprisingly easy to overlook.
Some common examples:
Don't use hyphenation to break up long words at the end of lines, as line endings can change when formats change. Use hyphens only for modifiers and compound words.
three-and-a-half years ago
the Taft-Hartley Act
the phone number is 800-555-1212
See the Chicago Manual for more on hyphenation.
Inaudible and Indecipherable Passages
- First, try to make out the words by listening to the CD several times. Often, this solves the problem. If not, use brackets around the word "inaudible" with the location on the CD indicated by the counter: [inaudible – X]
- If the words can be heard but not understood, also use: [inaudible – X]
No sensitivity to libelous comments is necessary. The respondent is given the opportunity to make stipulations after editing about the contents of the final transcript.
- If it's a specific amount, use the dollar sign instead of "dollars." Example: The budget is $10 million.
- If it's a round number, write it out: Example: We spent two or three thousand dollars last month.
- If it's the currency itself, spell out the word.
Example: I have a magnificent plan to increase our wealth by exchanging dollars for Thai bhats.
Use a Roman bracket and italicized words to show helpful indicators such as [laughter], or [raps table], or [gestures]. These should be used sparingly.
Use [BREAK] to indicate a pause in the taping for a meal or other occurrence.
Spell out one through ten, above that use the number. For further details, study Chicago Manual.
Long unbroken passages are visually off-putting and may be hard to follow. Suggest: add paragraphing for readability. Pay attention to changes in train of thought. Aim for a new paragraph every ten lines or so if possible.
However, make sure paragraphs reflect true organization of thought, rather than arbitrary breaks.
Leave in, as these words communicate the force with which a particular point is made. Also, a transcript peppered with [expletive deleted] reminds one of the Nixon tapes and Watergate.
- If only the last or first name is used, put the other in Roman type in brackets at the first appearance of the name only. This applies to all names, even those that are extremely familiar. Assume that your reader is reading this a hundred years hence, and has no knowledge of anyone.
Examples: [Robert] Kimmitt, Kika [de la Garza]
- Avoid nicknames unless it is the appellation by which the individual is mainly known: Jimmy Carter instead of James Carter. If an unusual or unintuitive nickname is used, provide the full first name. If the nickname is expected, there is no need to spell out the full first name:
Examples: Bobbie [Barbara] Kilberg, Pete [Pierre] DuPont Jack [Jacquelin] Hume, Ed [Edwin] Meese, Al [Alphonzo] Bell, Bill [George] Christopher
Bob Packwood, Bill Roberts, Tom Donilon, Marty Anderson
Publication and Media Names
Italicize the titles of books, newspapers, magazines, movies, and TV shows.
For example, War and Peace, In Cold Blood, the New York Times, the Washington Post, Law & Order, etc. Note that "the" is NOT italicized or capitalized.
For quoted dialogue, always use double curly quotes, and put a comma before the quoted passage, which should begin with a capital letter.
Example: The President said to me, "Please have Sununu come to my office as soon as possible."
Never use quotes for interior monologue, which is by definition thought, not said. Instead, indicate the thought in Roman type, or with italics if it's a short passage.
Example: It had been such a long day, he thought.
I thought, What kind of a question was that?
These should identify the interviewee, the date of the interview, the specific CD on which the material was heard, and the page number. The edited document should be broken into continuous sections. If the break reasserts itself as a "new page" break, make sure "Same as Previous" is disabled when viewing the footer.
Running foot examples:
|L. Alexander, 05/11/2001, CD 1 of 12||14|
|P. Brady, 02/22/2001, CD 3 of 5||22|
No running head is necessary for transcripts.
Use one space after the speaker's name and before his/her words. Use one space between sentences. If necessary, you can easily eliminate extra spaces with a global search and replace.
Text FormatAll drafts: Typeface should be Times New Roman, 12 point, regular kerning. No hyphenation or widow/orphan control. Margins: 1" right and left, top and bottom. Use rag right justification for all text.
Copyedited draft: Double space with no extra spacing between paragraphs. Indent paragraphs after first paragraph when the same person continues speaking.
Final edited draft: Single space, no paragraph indentation, double space between all paragraphs and when speaker changes.
The easy way to remember this confusing rule for adjectival phrases or clauses: Use "which" after a comma. Otherwise, use "that." How to determine if a comma is needed? Use a comma if the phrase or clause is not essential to the meaning of the sentence.
Examples: The report that the committee submitted was well documented. The report, which was well documented, was discussed at length.
(Making it more confusing, the British do just the opposite.)
Tips/Techniques & Suggestions
To remove extra spaces between words: Use global find and replace. Find: two spaces. Replace with: one space. Repeat this action until 0 replacements are found.
Spell check: Use to add proper names and acronyms to the dictionary. Then make sure spell check is on when editing. This will find errors when name is misspelled.
Em spaces: Use global find and replace. Find: hyphens, en-spaces, em-space and following space, em-space and preceding space. Replace with: em-space.
Footnotes: If footnotes show up on next page or not at all, there is a remedy. Select the entire document, then under Format select Paragraph. Change Line spacing from "double" to "exactly" and set spacing at 28 points. Then go back and fix spacing on title page, which will be incorrect.
Name checking: Try alternative phonetic spellings. This usually works when a name is hard to find. "Kroll" might be "Crowell," for example. When a name is found on the internet, frequently it can still be spelled wrong. Try other spellings to see if you get hits that way too. If two or more spellings pop up, trust an official federal site.