More Stats from Last Year's Work

January 3, 2012

Low clouds over Highway 375, Nevada - October 5, 2011

A short addendum to yesterday's statistics shows that the words that get published are really only the tip of the iceberg.

The 110,000 words I had published last year were the finished pieces of work submitted and used. That doesn't represent the sum total of the work I produced, of course: there's lots of raw information used to arrive at those finished sentences and paragraphs. 

I didn't keep count of the source material I read, heard, watched and otherwise took on board - books, newspaper and magazine articles, reports, PDFs, pamphlets, radio and TV broadcasts, CDs, LPs, whatever - but clearly you need some familiarity with your subject before you can hope to write anything halfway sensible about it. In my music journalism I generally reckon on needing to listen to an album at least three times before I can write a review of it, and more than that before I want to sit down and interview the people who made it. For the defence work I've done, I generally find that I do a lot of reading around a subject ahead of interviews, then discover new avenues for exploration in the interviews and go off and do more research afterwards. I really enjoy this part of the job - learning stuff, and talking to experts in their field, are really the highlights for me, much more so than churning out the text. 

The worst part of the job, as any journalist will I am sure agree, is transciption. Everyone has a different approach, and mine is probably the stupidest in terms of the workload I saddle myself with: I transcribe every interview I conduct in full, usually close to the time that I write the piece up. I find it helps me ensure I don't miss out key material and means that, if I should ever have  an opportunity to write a second piece from the same interview, I can just refer back to the transcription, not have to go back to the interview recording. I've found life much simpler since I discovered Transcriva - cheap software for Macs which allows you to pause, rewind and fast-forward through digital audio files without taking your hands off the keyboard. I'm sure the software has lots of other useful features, but that's the one I use it for, and I think - though haven't got any proof - that it's probably halved the time it takes me to transcribe an interview tape. (I'm not on any commission for this, nor can I guarantee it'll make anyone else's life any easier; but it's definitely been a big help to me, so credit where due and all that.)

I've never kept a count before, but the figures for my interview work in 2011 don't particularly surprise me. I conducted 87 interviews during the year - 55 face-to-face and 32 on the phone. In addition, I recorded and transcribed material from eight press conferences (I think I went to more than that, but some I didn't bother transcribing); was given two interviews in audio form which had been conducted by an editor and transcribed those; transcribed two interviews done late in 2010 for pieces written in 2011; and used material from three older interviews (one done in 2009 and two from 2007) which had to be transcribed for the first time. That's a total of 102 different pieces of transcription. They yielded a total of 574,158 words. 

I don't think any of this is particularly remarkable - I'm sure most working journalists will probably find those ratios of raw transcript-to-finished work are similar to their own. So the purpose here isn't to fish for compliments for my thoroughness or praise for my workrate. Rather, I get the sense from what I read in comment threads below pieces of journalism (whether by me or not) that the average consumer of journalism doesn't really understand what goes in to the finished work, and while statistics can only give a sense of scale rather than anything more nuanced, I think this helps to show that writing for a living isn't just a question of sitting in front of a computer and spouting out the first thoughts to enter your head. I know there are plenty of people paid to write words for publication who could do a lot better, but most journalists I know work hard to make sure what they produce is well-researched, accurate and thorough. I'm sure there are processes I could put in place to make life easier for myself, and I'd love to find ways of making more and better paying use of all that "director's cut" interview material that never sees the light of day. But I'm not going to give in to the temptation to ease back on the work I put in: it'll show in the end product, which would let down everyone - my subjects, my editors, my readers and myself.


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