Transcribing Audio Files From Interviews and Focus Groups -->

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Transcribing Audio Files From Interviews and Focus Groups


Photograph of Tim McIndoo
By Tim McIndoo, Editor

Qualitative studies are common at Walden, but many students publish their transcriptions unedited. While it’s true that most of an interviewee’s words are sacrosanct, some of them can be edited to improve readability and clarity. This blog will suggest what should and should not be done while you are transcribing from the recording and then right after you’ve finished typing the interview.


The data in qualitative studies typically comes from interviews or focus groups. Both yield audio files that must be transcribed to make the data accessible and facilitate analysis. Transcribing is a task you’ll need to do or hire someone else to do for you. Either way, you are responsible for its accuracy and clarity.

To transcribe is to make speech readable. But it is not a matter of just recording all of the speaker’s utterances. Some sounds and some words convey little or no meaning, while some wordless gestures—a pause, a smile, or shrugged shoulders—can be evocative. Thus, transcribing requires vigilant listening, careful note taking, and sensitive interpretation.

I use the word interpretation because what we hear speakers say and what we understand is often not what was said. That’s because we interpret their words based on their body language, including facial expressions, and how their tone or pacing changes. We disregard their pauses and unconsciously reassemble their sentence fragments into coherent form. Having seen your speakers in person, you can do a much better job for your readers of presenting what they meant. While the process of transcription can take some time, here are some basic steps to speed up your work.


Soon after the interview, make a backup of the recording (just as you might do with new music for your mp3). Then listen to the whole tape. Pay very close attention. Hearing the interview a second time will improve your memory of what you heard and thus improve the accuracy of your transcription. (Inaccurate transcribing is unethical and could yield inaccurate interpretation of the data.) Some researchers recommend using an outside listener to double-check your work before you begin the edit.


Format the interview like a play. Rather than use your name, which could be confusing to your readers, identify yourself by role. Use a colon to signal the following speech:

John Johnson:
Jill Johnson:


Once you're confident that you’ve got an accurate copy of what was recorded, you can begin the edit. Editing requires judgment. It is governed by some rules, but they are flexible.

  1. Edit to avoid making your speaker sound bad—which means you may fix grammar errors—but without losing the full flavor of the language.
  1. Do not add or delete any words, with these exceptions:
  •  the or a can be added, as needed, for clarity. Just make sure to put brackets around any words you add.
  • ums and ahs can be taken out. No indication is needed.
  • The Minnesota History Center takes out what it calls habitual qualifiers (e.g., I think and I guess), habitual connectives (e.g., so, but, well), and crutch words (e.g., yeah, you see, you know, or like). But as you might suspect, not all qualifiers or connectives are merely habitual and not all crutch words are used as crutches. Careful judgment is needed. Here are some examples to think about.
Habitual qualifier example: Everyone has the right to carry a weapon, I guess. I think you can't take away a person’s Second Amendment. I think if they take away our guns, what’ll they take away next?

Habitual connective example: So then we decided to walk down Main Street. But so it started raining and um so we decided to call it a day.

Crutch words example: It was like, yeah, a big deal, you know?

  1. Because few of us speak in complete sentences,  

  •       Carefully reassemble the speaker’s phrases, in spite of the mumbles, pauses, restarts, and revisions.
  •       Use brackets in the transcription for talking directly to your readers. For example, (a) tell them when you're not sure what was said (put a question mark after the word or phrase in question) and when you're not sure what was said but have a clue (following the word or phrase in question, put a question mark after the word or phrase you suggest); (b) tell them when the interview has been interrupted, say, for a break or phone call; and (c) tell them what an abbreviation or jargon word means. 


When you’ve reread this version of the transcription a couple of times, you can use member checking to help confirm its accuracy.

  • [Updated] Note on transcribing profanity: The use of profanity is generally considered an important sign of the speaker’s attitude and tone. As such, it should be transcribed. However, if the language is so strong that readers could be offended, then the offensive word could be represented by its first letter followed by a double-dash (——) to represent the missing letters: d—— or f—— . The context would make the meaning clear.
  • The counterexample—the one to avoid—is that of the Nixon White House tapes, which made famous the phrase expletive deleted. While it avoids offense, it doesn’t distinguish between the use of mild or virulent profanity.


While an interviewee’s words constitute the essential data of a qualitative study, they are not inviolable. When edited with sensitivity and care, transcripts are more readable and do a better job of conveying the speaker’s message. 

This blog entry is based largely on the guidance published online by the Minnesota History Center and a few other oral history Web sites, including the Veterans History Project at the American Folklife Center of the Library of Congress.


  1. Thank you for the informative post! I will be conducting a qualitative study soon, and your discussion about when it is acceptable to edit the words of study participants will be very helpful. I noticed that you did not address the issue of participants who might use expletives in responses to interview questions. I do not foresee that this will be a problem in my study, but I would like your opinion on the topic. I would not want to include an expletive in my project study, but, at the same time, I would not want to minimize the intensity of the participant's response.

    1. Marsha,

      The Internet is fairly quiet on the issue of transcribing profanity, but from what I read (on oral history and medical transcription sites), the profanity needs to be indicated as an important sign of the speaker’s attitude and tone. However, if the language is so strong that readers might be offended, then it could be indicated with the first letter of the offensive word followed by a double-dash (——) to represent the missing letters: d—— or f—— . The context would make the meaning clear. (The counterexample--the one to avoid--is the Nixon White House tapes, which made famous the phrase “expletive deleted.”)


  2. So glad that our readers continue to find this advice helpful. Do any readers out there have any transcribing strategies that they would like to share?

  3. This is an eye-opener and hopefully it will be the guide that will leap me to greater heights. Thanks for being there when we need you most.

    1. We're glad you found our post helpful, Adan Makina!

    2. When you write your results in your study, how should you refer to the interviewees? can you use pseudonyms?

  4. Using pseudonyms isn't always the best choice. Instead, you might number participants and simply refer to them as "participant.” Example: "Participant 1". For more on maintaining the confidentiality of participants, you might refer to our blog: which offers additional Walden sources on this topic.
    We hope this helps!

  5. Thank you for this information. Any information for prompting to get more substance from the interviewee?

    1. This is a great question! I think a big part of this would be the questions you ask and how you follow up. If you are developing questions for an in-person interview you can prompt your interviewee directly. If you are working on an asyncrhonously completed survey, you might consider doing a practice in-person trial run to see what additional questions arise.