I’m getting feedback (and flak) on my rant against recorders. I get dogmatic about this subject because, as a writing coach, I constantly deal with writers hobbled by them. But, as my friend Tom Berner reminds me, “The fault lies not with the recorder, but with the person using it.”
There are good ways and bad ways to use them, depending on your memory, listening and notetaking skills, intensity of the interview, and time schemes. An investigator writing a book may have time to transcribe a whole tape, but a city-hall reporter on deadline does not, although they may be the same person.
Tom told me he always uses a recorder to write his bi-monthly newsletter pieces. Taping means he “can actually listen to the person and not fret about getting everything on paper. I can also frame follow-up questions rather than following my script.”
Later, he explains, “I download my interviews to my computer, type my modest notes, then listen to the interview and fill in the blanks. I’m listening for the salient quote, not the run-on sentence, and for the interesting fact I missed in my handwritten notes.”
They key phrase here is “not fret about getting everything on paper.” Many writers fail because they try to bring back everything the source says. If that’s what you need, perhaps for a Q&A format, you use a recorder, and you need to transcribe it. But in general, taping and transcribing are the tools (and the downfall) of procrastinators.
My friend John Sawatsky called up to berate me about my aversion to taping. He’s a former investigative reporter and biographer, the world’s best teacher of interviewing. He looks for concentrated moments of news, and finds that heavy notetaking takes too much energy and attention away from what he calls “big themes.” But, when writing news or on deadline, he “takes notes as if I didn’t have the recorder.” He always writes down the counter numbers of key quotes.
He shared his technique for using a recorder on fast-breaking news. He would take notes, including counter numbers. He’d mark up his notes, transcribing key moments from the recording, write the first two sentences, and then dictate the story on the phone to a rewrite man using his notes and selected transcriptions.
Maybe I shouldn’t be so snarly about transcribing as a waste of time. But notice that both Tom and John transcribed only key quotes, not the whole recording. Tom Berner is right; it’s how you use your tools and techniques that counts.
[Want to get into this debate? Let’s hear what you think.]