A transcript is not an article.

A transcript is not an article. It is not a chapter. It is an unedited speech, or conversation. If your purpose is to reach readers, then you must consider how the oral material you collected can have its intended impact.

First, decide how much you will edit the transcript. Is your intent to share a sermon or inspirational message? Is it to provide a fascinating glimpse into a leader or celebrity? Is it to inform your readers about a movement or industry? Is it to help your readers make informed decisions about legal or political matters? Your purpose will influence your editing choices.

Next, set the context. Answer the basics: Who is speaking? To whom? Where? When? What is the topic? Why does it matter? Even with an unedited transcript, your reader will benefit from an informative title for the piece, an introductory paragraph or two, photos, and captions that provide this necessary information. In facing the avalanche of news and content available online and in print every single day, we increasingly appreciate data to help us decide whether an article is worth our time.

Then, transform the transcript.

When people speak, they present material in a different way than they do when it is to be read. Pay attention to the following issues that arise in editing oral communication:

  • Speaking ability. Effective communicators use volume, tone, sound effects, growls, pauses, alliteration, rhythm, rhyme, word play, and much more to make their speeches dynamic. People who have less experience hem and haw, use the same expressions over and over, and have all manner of verbal tics. When the material will be read, rather than heard, ask yourself when it is vital to present your preacher’s voice just as it was, or if it can and should be improved. What serves the message—and your readers—best?
  • Non-verbal cues. Speakers use facial expressions, hand gestures, posture, and props. Body language is not communicated in print. As an editor, you must decide whether and how to convey these missing cues. Will you include insertions in the text in brackets? Will you use italics or all caps for emphasis?
  • Continuity. A speaker is more concerned about establishing a connection with the audience than with being grammatically correct or giving a perfect message. He or she might start a sentence, change mid-stream, address a portion of the audience, switch from “I” to “you” or from “us” to “they” without realizing it, and so on. These changes can make it much harder to follow the speaker’s thoughts in print, so an editor needs to smooth them out.
  • Tone. To win the audience over, speakers may use slang or popular expressions that can confer a sense of familiarity. But phrases that work in a live setting can have a different impact in writing. The end result of the transcript might need to be more formal than the original message—for example, when you are turning sermons into chapters of a book.
  • Pacing. A speech doesn’t include proper punctuation. When you speak, you put in words like “and” or “so” or “then” and just keep going; this means your transcription is chock-full of run-on sentences. You have to fix these and many other errors.
  • Repetition. Speakers repeat themselves for emphasis much more often than is necessary in writing. A good preacher proclaims the truth, repeats it, and repeats it again to make sure that people not only hear an idea, but understand it and accept it. But in writing, we must remember that our readers have our words in their hands, in front of their eyes. They have the choice to read them as carefully and as many times as they like.
  • Asides. Speakers say things that make sense to the audience, but not to the single reader who will study the edited transcript on your blog, in your magazine, or in a book. A speaker might comment on the temperature of the auditorium, or warn a congregation that his message will not keep them from enjoying the football game after the service. Those kinds of asides probably need to be deleted for readers.
  • Feedback and interruptions. Audiences may react to the speaker’s words. Technical issues might arise with the audio equipment. Those moments may be significant and worthy of inclusion in your article. How will you include them? You could interrupt the flow of the speech with a paragraph of narrative: “At that point, the room was so quiet you could almost hear your own heartbeat…” You could insert the reaction in brackets: [Laughter.] Whatever your choice, your aim is to help your reader. What will work best?

A transcript is not an article, but it can certainly become one!

“Set a guard, O Lord, over my mouth,” prayed David, “Keep watch over the door of my lips” (Psalm 141:3). You are the guard and the watcher the Lord has provided for this particular message to find a broader audience. The conversation you captured can be compelling to read. The sermon can inspire more than just the people who warmed the pews that day. The guest’s responses can enlighten and encourage—but before they do, go through every single word and phrase, fix what needs to be fixed, and make the end result suitable for your readers.

By Kim Pettit, chair of MTI board

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