Shelf Indulgence – Feb 2019

Books I read in Feb 2019

Tim Peake is the British astronaut who spent 6 months on the International Space Station in 2016, and did an amazing job of enthusing the country as a whole about space and science. Ask An Astronaut is a collection of all the various questions he’s been asked since, and it covers everything from astronaut recruitment, to training, to living on the ISS, and returning to Earth. It includes the obvious question of course (ie, how do you go to the toilet on the ISS?), but even though it is presented in a very accessible and readable way, the main thing that I have been left with having read this is the sheer amazing amount of scientific knowledge that has gone into building, running and maintaining life on the ISS (and space exploration in general). A very good (and not too taxing) read. 4/5.

Rabbit & Bear: Attack of the Snack is one of several kids’ books I got from the library to look at things like story length, level etc (I’ve got one pre-school picture book on the go, but want to see about writing for slightly older kids too). Although I’ve not come across the author Julian Gough before, Jim Field is one of my favourite illustrators (we have all of his Oi! children’s books and they are a big hit in this house!), and Neil Gaiman has given a glowing quote for the back cover, so I was looking forward to this very much. And it didn’t disappoint! This is actually the third book in the series, and I’ll be looking out for the other ones. Rabbit and Bear are two friends, and in this book their tranquil life is disturbed by the sudden appearance of a small, dazed baby owl. Bear wants to help, but Rabbit immediately remembers his dad’s tales of scary huge owls, and instantly jumps to the conclusion that the owl is dangerous and needs to be imprisoned. Basically this is a fable about ‘fake news’, and about how easy it is to be deceived by loud voices and people jumping up and down labelling ‘others’ (there’s even a fleeting, but unmissable, throwaway nod to the current occupant of the White House). This does have a happy ending, with various of the animals realising the error of their ways, and they all end up as (slightly wiser) friends in the end. Highly recommended! 4.5/5.

Second-Hand Time is the most recent book by Nobel prizewinner Svetlana Alexievich. It’s the first book of hers I’ve read, although I do have The Unwomanly Face of War on my TBR pile and I’m now keen to get to that too. This book is an oral history, she interviewed dozens of people throughout the former Soviet Union about their memories of the Soviet time and the end of communism, and their thoughts on contemporary life in the new post-Soviet countries. Nearly all of it is basically verbatim what the people tell her, with almost no commentary or interruption by the author; that took a little bit of getting used to, but I found I really liked that, and I think it shows a brave writer who doesn’t have a fragile enough ego that she has to keep getting in the way. The people she spoke with ranged from survivors of the gulags, students who’d taken part in the demonstrations in the early 90s, parents whose children had died either through suicide or conflict, as well as people from many of the various republics that are now independent but at the time had been part of the Soviet Union (Armenia, Tajikistan, Belarus, Ukraine, etc as well as Russia). There were quite a few common themes, even though the stories themselves were all highly individual – domestic abuse, alcohol, the kitchen as a place of communal discussion, salami as the symbol of ‘freedom’, and many others. I really liked how she interviewed people from all sorts of different backgrounds and generations, this gave a really rich picture of the Soviet Union and what has followed it. I would have liked to have heard an account from someone from one of the Baltic states, as their experience of the Soviet Union would have probably been quite different again. But that’s a small criticism, as the book as is is already epic in both scope and size (t’s over 700 pages, so quite a chunkster). A very interesting book, and I really want to read some of her other work now too. The translation I thought read really well, so hats off to the translator, Bela Shayevich. 4.5/5.

Dana Stabenow is a well-known crime and thriller author, but she was also, for 5 years in the early 2000s, a columnist for ‘Alaska Magazine’. Alaska Traveler is a collection of her columns over that time, and details travels and events all over Alaska. It just sounds amazing there, I’d love to go! I loved her easy-going style, her obvious enjoyment, and her appreciation of everything she saw. 4/5.

Three Things I’d Tell My Younger Self is a short little freebie ebook that I picked up last year. The instigator is the author Joanna Cannon – she wrote one of my favourite fiction books of a few years ago, The Trouble with Goats and Sheep, and this I think was a bit of a ‘magnet’ for her new book, Three Things About Elsie (which I’ve already got on my TBR). It consists of advice collected by Joanna Cannon from people in various walks of life that she looks up to (ranging from other authors, publishers, doctors, and even her mum), written to the authors’ younger selves. It was published I think on the day that A’level results came out in England, and most of them seemed to be variations on the themes of ‘don’t worry it’ll all be fine eventually’, ‘don’t spend ages worrying what other people think of you’, ‘your choices aren’t set in stone’, ‘it’s worth waiting’ etc etc. Nothing particularly earth-shattering, but a nice way to while away 3/4 of an hour, and there’s an opening chapter from Three Things About Elsie included too. 3/5.

Comradely Greetings is a short collection of letters exchanged between philosopher Slavoj Zizek, and Pussy Riot member Nadya Tolokonnikova, whilst the latter was serving her 2 year sentence in a Russian labour camp after their ‘punk protest’ against the Putin regime in the cathedral in Red Square in 2011. Initially the two discuss philosophy in the context of repressive politics, and then the final two letters are after Nadya is released, and she can be a bit more open about the situation and conditions in the labour camps, as well as her post-imprisonment activism. That was the bit I found most interesting. She included some interesting thoughts on the fate of Edward Snowden, the American whistleblower who ended up living in Russia where he was unable to speak freely. Tolokonnikova (herself a philosophy graduate) is more than able to hold her own in discussions with Zizek. 4/5.

First Generations: The Stirling Area from Mesolithic to Roman Times is one of this month’s library books, and is written by Lorna Main, who at the time of publication (2001) was Stirling Council’s Archaeology Officer. The book details the various archaeological finds in the area, and how the area developed in terms of population, trade, farming etc etc. 3.5/5.

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Shelf Indulgence – Jan 2019

As well as writing I’ve really increased my reading over the past few years – primarily thanks to challenges over at LibraryThing. It occurs to me that blogging my reviews here as well won’t hurt (especially if I liked the book!), not least because it will be something that I can easily blog about regularly. I’m going to aim for monthly posts of what I’ve finished reading in that month, starting from the beginning of this year, so this will be the first of three catch-up posts.

What I read in Jan 2019

William Zinsser’s On Writing Well, 30th anniversary edition was one of the books I bought in the final week of 2018. I had bought Stephen King’s On Writing with my Christmas money, and so kobo is now recommending loads and loads of writing craft books to me. This one was cheap, so I added it to the basket. The author was a columnist for many years with the New York Herald, and also taught creative writing at Yale and New College in New York. Some of the book I found a bit fussy (basically some of the grammar/word choice fussiness didn’t work for me, possibly because I’m fussy about different grammar/word choices! Although I did get his point!), but other chapters on specific topic types (sports writing, arts/culture, etc) were better, and it was worth the money for the chapter on memoir writing alone. This isn’t a how-to book (you won’t find writing exercises here) so much as the author’s thoughts on different genres and types of non-fiction and on the writing craft. It’s very readable though, and I did enjoy where he took a newspaper article he’d written and annotated it to show why he made the decisions he did. 4/5.

I read poet Jackie Kay’s collection Fiere last year, where she used her poetry to beautifully discuss identity, adoption, Scotland, Nigeria, and family, amongst other things, and I discovered then that it was published around the same sort of time as her autobiography, Red Dust Road, which covered the same sort of topics. I’m so pleased I got to read this book too – this is her account of growing up knowing she was adopted, of her adoptive family, of her search for her birth parents, of being both Scottish and Nigerian, of writing, of racism, of family, of identity. I thought it was brilliant – what could have been quite heavy was written with a light touch, and was both profound and in places very funny. I know I share a name and initial with her – I wish I shared her writing talent too! Fabulous. 5/5.

Robert Macfarlane is one of my favourite authors, in one of my favourite non-fiction genres (broadly: nature writing). The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot details walks that he took primarily throughout the countryside of England and Scotland, following ancient paths, but also with chapters of walks in Palestine, Spain, and Tibet. It took me a couple of chapters to get into the rhythm of it, but by then I was hooked, this is beautiful writing and really brought the places alive. It included a couple of chapters on ‘sea paths’ around the Hebrides (so involved sailing as well as walking). There were a couple of places that I’d not heard of – I really really want to see and experience the Broomway on the Essex coast (although whether I’d dare walk it, I don’t know). Gorgeous. 4.5/5.

Asterix and Cleopatra sees Asterix, Obelix and Getafix in Egypt, helping to build a palace for Caesar in 3 months in order that Cleopatra can win her bet with Caesar that the Egyptians aren’t lazy has-beens. This has all the usual fare – superhuman strength from Getafix’s magic potion, hapless Romans, pirates in a losing battle with the Gauls at sea, Obelix trying to sneak some of the potion – another solid and reliable book in the series. 3.5/5.

Health for All Children, 5th edition

I’m delighted to be able to plug the latest edition of Health for All Children (5th ed), edited by Alan Emond, particularly because I co-authored one of the chapters (on Opportunistic Surveillance in Primary Care).

I was very pleasantly surprised but happy to be asked to co-author the chapter with Prof. Philip Wilson from the University of Aberdeen, with whom I first interacted after my blog post of 2013 about Triple P (still the piece of writing I’ve done which I’d say has had the most impact, in terms of comments, quotes, links, and opportunities for connections such as this one). I found the co-authoring process really positive and very much enjoyed it (despite a few early pre-work starts and use of annual leave to get it done – not something I’d recommend!). We met up and discussed what we wanted to include (as this is a topic which had not appeared in previous editions of the books, so we had a pretty blank canvas), and then divided up sections between us. I then started the chapter, sent it to him for comments, edits and for his further input, and then we pretty much batted it back and forth between us till submission. This continued after we had received first editor and then stakeholder comments, and so I can say that it was a truly collaborative effort where the joins between the two authors’ writing isn’t immediately obvious!

The chapter summary is as follows:

This chapter:
* looks at the opportunities that clinicians in the primary care team have to identify and assess problems in child development in contexts other than scheduled assessments, when parents may not themselves have identified a developmental concern
* describes the domains of child development in which clinicians might identify problems opportunistically, how opportunities for identification can be maximized, and how common problems might be picked up and confirmed.
* considers how practitioners need to be aware of, and alert to, concerns about physical and social/emotional development, as well as signs of maltreatment and neglect and the quality of parenting.

It has been a while since I was involved in any significant academic writing, having left academia in 2015, so I was a bit apprehensive and nervous about writing this, but my co-author was very supportive and believed in the contribution I could make, which helped enormously. Also helpful was the fabulous PhD by Caroline King (currently based at Glasgow Caledonian University) critiquing the previous edition of the book in the context of a qualitative study of health visitors, which gave me the mental and intellectual headspace to get back into an academic as well as practice-based mindset. And whilst I am not likely to do lots more in the way of academic writing, the opportunity to use my brain and critical faculties in examining and evaluating the relevant research was a very fulfilling experience. I hope that the chapter, and the book more widely, is useful for primary care practitioners working in the area of child health.

Baby steps to publication – goals and beta readers

In my ‘rebooting the blog’ post from a few months ago, I mentioned that one of my aims for 2019 is to try and establish myself as a writer. I’ve got quite a lot of ideas swimming around my head, a few of which I am starting to commit to paper/screen. I thought it might be useful to occasionally blog about where this is at, partly so that I can see my progress/give myself the required kick up the backside (delete as applicable), and partly to give my handful of readers an insight into the early days of trying to make a dream more of a reality.

Goals

One resource I’ve found super-helpful is the Bestseller Experiment podcast, a weekly podcast aimed at writers featuring interviews with authors and publishing industry insiders, and the two Marks’ drive to make their book Back to Reality a bestseller. One of the things they emphasise is the public declaration, as a way of encouraging people to commit to something concrete and work towards it. My goals for the first half of 2019 were:

1. Finish my children’s picture book text and get it in a good enough state to start hawking it around to agents/publishers – by end of Jan 2019.
2. Start the research and end up with an initial draft for a second children’s picture book – by end of June 2019.
3. Outline my ideas for an early reader’s chapter book – by end of June 2019.
4. Have first drafts of ten non-fiction essays – by end of June 2019.

Now that I’m beyond the first deadline, I think it’s worth taking a look at where I’m at, and what I’ve done so far.

1. I sent this out to beta readers in January (more about that in a minute) and am now working through the comments. So I’m now aiming to have it in a hawkable state by the end of this month.
2. I’m in two minds about this book. I’d still like to do it, but part of me thinks it’s a non-starter, so although I’ll keep it in mind it’ll be more on the back-burner. I think it will be a useful thing for those days when I can’t face any of my more pressing projects, to keep me still writing, and maybe a nugget of gold will emerge from it. But I’m not going to prioritise it, for now.
3. This is still possible – but at the moment I have lots of snippets of ideas, and no coherent story. I did though listen to a fantastic interview on Tim Clare’s podcast with one of my favourite authors, Melissa Harrison (show notes here), where she said of her first novel that she had a series of ideas, sent them randomly to her agent, who said ‘I think you’re writing a novel’, and then she burst into tears and had to try and fit them all together. That sounds very like where I feel this particular story is at – lots of random ideas that will need a lot of work to piece them together into something coherent (and which will possibly make me cry).
4. I’m doing well with this. I’ve got three essays finished or nearly finished – so far I’d say one is rubbish (but that’s OK – I can move on from it now), one has potential and one is pretty good (and those latter two might well be combinable into something even stronger). I’ve written a list of subjects that I could write about, and use a random number generator to come up with which one to write about next. I’m even kind of enjoying this!

Beta readers

So last month I sent out the children’s book to some very kind volunteers to take a look at it and offer their comments. It reminded me of sending my first tentative drafts of my PhD thesis to my supervisors – I knew it would need some work, and that it had flaws, but really hoped they wouldn’t be too brutal! I realised that, apart from at a creative writing workshop last year when I first mentioned the idea, this was actually the first time that it had any kind of audience beyond the inside of my head, and this felt really huge! So my grateful thanks to all my beta readers, who were unremittingly kind and constructive, positive even, with my little embryonic book, and who didn’t make me want to give up and never write again!

I’m going through their comments at the moment, and a few things have struck me. I had specifically asked them if they would comment on the ‘level’ of the book – it is aimed at 3 year olds and their parents, but my daughter is now 5, and although I could imagine reading it with her, I suspected I had written it at a 5 year old’s level rather than a bit simpler for a 3 year old. I had mixed comments about this – some agreed that the child in the story seemed older than 3, but others suggested additions which to my mind, whilst clarifying the concepts, seemed to me even older than 5! The trick, of course, will be to clarify the concepts whilst also simplifying the language, which is an interesting challenge!

Another thing which came up was a very definite UK/US divide around one particular word. I’ll be keeping the UK word, but if the book ever gets picked up by a major American publisher (I can dream!) I’ll definitely know to change it for a US audience, so that was a super-useful thing to learn!

I appreciated the many comments about how the book is a good idea. I thought so, obviously, but it was great to have that confirmed, and it gives me more confidence when pitching the book that there is a potential place in the market for it.

Finally, something mentioned by one of the beta readers led me to wonder about a slight layout change (adding in a separate page specifically aimed at parents), and that was then more specifically suggested by another. Hopefully this is a case of great minds thinking alike!

As a first experience of using beta readers, I’d say this was very positive. What I’ve learned in particular is that it’s really helpful to provide some guidance about specific questions you want to clarify (in my case whether or not the language was pitched at an appropriate level, as well as pointing out if anything is particularly clunky or awkward to read). It’s given me a lot of food for thought, and should make the book even better.

The next step will be researching where to pitch it. This is how I feel about that.

Complicating transcription (2)

Following on from my previous post, I want to use this post to think about some of the more practical issues researchers might need to think about when considering hiring a transcription service. Much of this I’ve learnt the hard way in this first year or so of my business, and I hope that people find it helpful.

DIY, or get somebody in?

A few times I have been contacted by researchers who have undertaken some interviews, started transcribing themselves, and then got completely bogged down in the task. As raised in Julie Mooney Somers’ blog post (here), sometimes grant funders may be reluctant to release a lot of money for transcription, and it may be tempting to see transcription as something that you can just do yourself, to save costs. However, I think it is worth having a think about that. As mentioned in my previous post, I charge £15 per hour of my time, and would expect to take between 3-4 hours (usually around 3.5) per hour of sound recording. I usually quote 4-6 hours, just to cover myself if the recording quality is particularly poor, or if it is a focus group with lots of different, not-always-identified speakers, but I only charge for the time I take. If you are planning on doing (say) 40 interviews of up to an hour long, this would mean requesting up to £3,600 (if I’ve got my maths right!). I actually think that’s a pretty reasonable amount, but some funders might question the need for it, or ask for it to be reduced. It might be tempting to pay a student the national minimum wage (currently £7.83 per hour for over-25s) to do the work instead, but if you decide to go this route, then it is worth thinking about how long will it take them? Most students, whilst they can find their way round a keyboard, are not 80+wpm typists. They may not have access to good transcription equipment, such as foot pedals, so the stopping and starting the recording could be slower. Therefore, they may take considerably longer to do the same amount of work, and so the savings to your budget start to shrink. In addition, if they are taking 6 or 8 hours to do a piece of work that would have taken me 3.5 hours, then as well as costing you £46.98-62.64 (instead of the £52.50 I would have charged) that is in effect a day that they are not able to work on their own research. If you happen to have a student who is an amazing touch-typist and who can do the work quickly and accurately, and has the time for it, then it can be really beneficial for both parties, and probably the ideal solution, but don’t assume that employing students will necessarily always lead to a huge cost-saving.

Also, don’t forget that if you decide to do it yourself, you are in effect taking away your time from other important tasks (analysis, writing, applying for grants, teaching), and that your time too is costly (and presumably more than £15 per hour, if you have a substantive contract).

Finally on this point, if it seems too good to be true, it probably is! There are automated transcription tools out there, some of them free, which can do a job up to a point. However, I have been told by a few researchers who have started off using them that they ended up being just as costly and time-consuming as they required so much editing and checking. They are great for people who simply cannot afford services like mine (particularly, as mentioned in the previous post, student researchers), but are not the magic free solution they are often touted as.

Who to choose? Agency or freelancer?

If you decide to go down the route of employing a transcriber, you will need to check with your university how much choice you have. Some friends of mine have regretfully said that they can’t use my services because the university they work for only have one preferred supplier (usually an agency – issues around these and the amounts paid to the people who work for them are discussed in my previous post and in Julie’s blog post). If you do have the freedom (and make that choice) to go with a freelance transcriber such as me, there are a number of things to think about.

* Recommendations. Although I do occasionally try to ‘advertise’ my services on social media, most of the work I get these days is repeat business from people who know my work, or recommendations from others who see a discussion about transcription and say “I used Jackie for my transcription and she was great”. I absolutely recognise that taking a chance on someone whose work you don’t know is a risk, particularly when public money is involved, so if you can find someone who comes recommended then that is obviously ideal. As a researcher in the past I mainly went this route, but occasionally did use people who had cold-contacted us – this was only if we were overrun with files that needed transcribing and our usual transcribers didn’t have enough capacity. If you do need to use someone whose work you’re not familiar with, I’d recommend a trial period first – so maybe give them just one or two files to start with, and see how they go with that, before making the decision to take them on for the rest of the project. I’ve had a bit of work that way too, and am always happy to do the odd one-off job as well as work for my ‘regulars’.

* Are they registered with your university as a supplier? This is a HUGE issue for freelancers. In these days of GDPR etc, universities don’t just pay on receipt of invoices. Many have a purchase order system, so they need to have provided the transcriber with a purchase order before they can send in an invoice, and they won’t do that until they have registered that person as a supplier. To make things even more complicated, each university has different requirements as to what makes a supplier GDPR-compliant, and often require several forms to be completed and returned to them before you can get set up as a supplier on their payment system. One thing I have discovered over the past year or so is that, depending on the finance department, this can take a LONG time. Practically, this has led me to having no work one month (despite the researcher having the sound files ready and waiting for me to start on them), because the process of filling in forms and getting them approved took so long. It has also led in one case to me not being paid for months and months (most places do get there eventually, but it is time-consuming and stressful to have to keep chasing). This has led to many researchers being very embarrassed and angry on my behalf, but feeling quite powerless. Therefore, something that you can do practically as a researcher is start the process of getting your preferred freelancer set up on the university finance system early, in the hope that that will mitigate against payment delays in the future. If you have already got the work done and you’re trying to chase up payment for your transcriber, be aware that it can take a long time, so please keep your transcriber in the loop and let them know what is happening. If you can find someone efficient and helpful in the finance department, cultivate them! (and keep badgering them!)

Funding

The other big issue! My advice and plea to researchers would be to always include a budget for transcription in your applications for grants for qualitative research. This might sound really obvious, but I’m amazed how much research is started without this, with the assumption that the researcher themselves or a research assistant will do it as part of their job, and then it just gets more and more delayed, or important things aren’t done, because so much time is being taken up doing the transcription that could have been farmed out. Sometimes in desperation the transcription then will get farmed out a bit further down the line, but without a budget for it the researcher might well end up paying the transcriber from their own pocket.

I hope in these two blog posts that I have been able to show that as well as a valuable task, transcription is a skill and a good transcriber represents really good value to research.

Complicating transcription (1)

Last week my attention was brought to this article on the ethics of transcribing qualitative interviews by Julie Mooney Somers, an Australian academic. She raises some really important issues, which I wanted to both reiterate and build on, from the perspective of (a) my freelance business as a transcriber, and (b) my experience as a qualitative researcher. I’ll break this down into two posts – this one looking at the ethical, political and intellectual issues around transcription, and the next one will give some practical things to think about for researchers who are thinking about employing a transcriber (costs, contracts, alternatives, etc).

I have to say I agree with pretty much everything Julie raises in her post. It is really easy to see transcription as a repetitive, dull, and onerous task – and therefore not particularly skilled or intellectual, and pretty much values-neutral. That’s certainly how I first thought of it, when I was doing my PhD back in the day, and it wasn’t until I came to review the transcripts of my interviews that I realised how much more there was to transcription. I have just gone back to my thesis, and reproduce in full here a section from my methodology chapter where I talk about the transcription process:

I made the decision that my interviews would be fully transcribed so that I could return later to everything that was said and decide during post-fieldwork analysis what issues were particularly important from the interviews. As I had conducted the interviews in a language that was not my mother tongue I arranged for the transcriptions to be done by native speakers, primarily due to time constraints, but also because although my spoken Romanian is good I was not sure that without the visual, non-verbal cues that take place in a face-to-face interaction I would be able to capture everything as accurately as a nonnative speaker. I had specified that I wished the transcriptions to be word-for-word, so that I could make the decisions on the interpretation and significance of the data; however on listening to the interviews once they had been transcribed it soon became clear that (particularly in the case of many of the Moldovan interviews) they had been ‘tidied up’ considerably. Sometimes it was just that one word had been substituted for another of the same or similar meaning; at other times points that had been repeated in the interview were only transcribed once; and more seriously in many cases entire sections had been considerably paraphrased. In one case the very important point made by the respondent had been paraphrased in such a way that the meaning in the transcribed Romanian was exactly the opposite of what had actually been said. I had not appreciated before the event the extent to which “[r]esearchers who delegate transcription work to others become distanced from this piece of the process and often are not aware of the decisions made on their behalf” (Tilley, 2003:758). After discovering the extent of the problem, with the original transcriptions to hand, I completely retranscribed the interviews myself, a task that took a considerable amount of time and effort but which was ultimately a rewarding way to immerse myself in the data and remind myself of issues which had arisen. During this process I also noticed other themes emerging which perhaps had not been apparent during the actual interviews themselves, so although it was a laborious process it was ultimately useful. As Silverman (2001:164) highlights, the process of transcription is not merely “a technical detail prior to the main business of the analysis” – the very process of transcribing the interviews involved detailed listening, thinking and reflection which ultimately benefited my analysis enormously. It also meant that, as the researcher who had conducted the interviews, I was able to make “informed interpretive decisions [and] decide whether the transcript was representative of the taped piece transcribed” (Tilley, 2003:762).

It is also clear that, as with translation and the use of a second language to undertake the research, the process of transcription is not neutral or apolitical. I had initially approached the issue of transcription as “mundane, technical, [and] unproblematic” (Lapadat and Lindsay, 1999:67), but it soon became clear that the very act of transcription is an interpretive one in and of itself (ibid, p.81; Tilley, 2003) and the finished text is a representation of an event rather than the event itself (Lapadat and Lindsay, 1999).

Because during this research I was working abroad, using a language that was not my first language, I had had to make some decisions about transcription that – if I had really thought about it at the time – would have been my first indication that there’s more to this transcription lark than necessarily meets the eye. Firstly, I was aware that a couple of my respondents were known to the people who were doing the transcription, and I therefore made the decision to not give those recordings to the local transcribers, but wait until I was back in the UK and try and find a native Romanian speaker who could help me out. There was also one interview where an issue being discussed (which was very emotive, and contrary to the beliefs of the person doing most of my transcription) could have caused some backlash to my respondent, and so I held that one back too until I was in the UK and could be more confident that the person I eventually found to transcribe the interview would not know the respondent.

As detailed in the extract above, once I had received the completed transcriptions and realised the extent to which I still needed to work on them, that was a very salutory lesson. Firstly, about the utility of doing the transcription myself as the researcher (I was able to immerse myself back in the data, pick up on things I hadn’t realised at the time, remind myself of things I had forgotten, realise how often as the researcher I interrupted or mumbled over the top of the speaker, etc). However, in my case I have the advantage and luxury of a fast touch-typing speed, which means that I can be considerably faster at the job than many, for whom not only would this be a dull task but also really, really slow. Secondly, it really opened my eyes to the political and values-laden possibilities inherent in transcription (which, as a healthcare worker who has worked with interpreters, I would say is pretty similar to the issues around interpreting and translation). Now that I have started my own transcription business, I am often surprised at how often I have to make quite active decisions about what I’m hearing – the process is so much more than just putting words down on a page. Even seemingly simple things like punctuation require me sometimes to stop and think, and actively decide what to do – we don’t realise until we listen to a recorded conversation that we don’t talk the way we write. Is that pause indicative of a finished sentence, or would a comma or ellipsis be more appropriate? If I put a full stop here, does that even change the meaning of what the respondent was saying? (it isn’t usually that critical, but theoretically could be). How do I render the conversation on the page when people are talking over each other? (a huge issue when transcribing focus groups, but not unheard of in 1:1 interviews too).

I like to think that, as someone who has undertaken qualitative research at a pretty high level, I can make informed and intuitive decisions about what I am hearing, and do my best to get those down on the page as accurately as I can. In those cases where I’m really not sure (beyond the unclear words which I will just mark and timestamp and expect the researcher to check themselves), I will always get back to the researcher if necessary and say ‘listen to this bit again – this is what I think they were saying, but I’m not 100% sure’. I remember one interview where the interviewer had laughed at something the respondent had said, which was a totally natural part of the conversation (I would have laughed too), but it then obscured a couple of words, and so I couldn’t actually tell if they were saying that they had done something or they hadn’t. Either way would have been making a really important (but opposing) point, and I simply didn’t feel that I could make a decision one way or another, and had to get it back to the person who was one half of that conversation to make that call.

An issue which wasn’t mentioned in Julie’s post (although I gather that subsequently it has been raised) is the responsibility of the researcher towards the transcriber. She talked extensively in her post about the ethical dilemmas of informing interview participants about the possibility of third party transcription, and I will direct you back to her post as I agree fully with what she says. However, there is also of course the issue, particularly in sensitive research, of the impact of listening to the interview on the transcriber. I am always grateful when a researcher sends me a file and includes in their email a note to the effect that this interview was a bit full-on, we discuss XY&Z, so you might want to brace yourself. Ultimately of course it is my responsibility to manage my feelings, and to speak out if an interview topic is more than I can handle (not that that has ever happened!) – and it has more often been the case that it’s been the unexpected, seemingly simple topics which have struck a nerve in me as I listen, and I’ve had to pace myself to manage the process well (eg by working on a different interview for a bit and then coming back to the difficult interview later). But I do think that that is an important issue for researchers to bear in mind – to what extent do they have a responsibility towards the transcriber to ensure that their wellbeing is considered too?

Although this isn’t primarily meant to be a pitch promoting me and my service, obviously I do have a business and am happy to discuss working with researchers and seeing how I can help support their research. I can’t finish this post though without acknowledging the ethical complications of funding for services like mine. The fact is, although I believe my rate for transcription is pretty reasonable (£15 per hour of my time, and I would expect to take between 3-4 hours per hour of recording for a 1:1 interview where the sound quality is reasonable; longer for focus groups and recordings with lots of background noise, etc) and compares well with agencies and other services providing transcription by an actual person rather than a bot, I am well aware that my service is probably out of reach of most postgraduate researchers, unless they happen to be working on a project which already has specific additional funding allocated for transcription. In those cases it is completely understandable that student researchers turn to the free or low-cost automated transcription services available online, and these might be a useful first port of call for them. However, it does need to be said that in those cases the researcher will still need to go through and listen and check and edit – as I understand it, many of those services are not great when it comes to things like punctuation, differentiating between speakers, or coping with people talking over each other – so it may end up being almost as time-consuming as doing the transcription themself. I’d also like to reiterate Julie’s point about transcription agencies, which whilst they may be charging less (so represent good value for the public purse), are still using people who will probably end up being paid considerably less for the same service (it is one of the reasons I chose to take my chance and go it alone). Whilst my transcription business is only part of what I do, and therefore I am under less pressure to bring in the money than others, it does need to be borne in mind that that the £15 per hour I charge is gross – I have to do a yearly tax return, and pay both tax and NI from that. That £45-60 I get for transcribing an hour-long interview might seem a large amount of money to the person paying it, but for me it represents half a day’s work, of which, once I’ve paid my costs (insurance, taxes, NI, etc) I will get to see not much more than £30. £15 per hour might sound a lot, but believe me I am not making my fortune this way! What I am doing is getting the satisfaction of a job well done, of being able to work for myself (and all the flexibility that that provides), of being able to support good research with a good-quality service. Just don’t think that what I’m doing is mind-numbing and basic – I hope this post has gone a way to show that there is so much more to transcription than getting a word from sound file to page.

References:

Lapadat, JC and Lindsay, AC (1999), “Transcription in Research and Practice: From Standardization of Technique to Interpretive Positionings”, Qualitative Inquiry, Vol. 5, No. 1, pp.64-86.

Silverman, D (2001), Interpreting Qualitative Data: Methods for Analysing Talk, Text and Interaction (2nd edition), London: Sage Publications Ltd.

Tilley, SA (2003) “”Challenging” Research Practices: Turning a Critical Lens on the Work of Transcription”, Qualitative Inquiry, Vol. 9, No. 5, pp.750-773.

Rebooting this blog!

Contrary to appearances – the last entry on this blog was over a year ago! – I haven’t actually disappeared! However, 2018 has been pretty busy and I seem to have had my fingers in so many pies that blogging has been left by the wayside a bit. I have decided though that I am ready to come back to blogging, and to be a bit more focused about my writing, so this post is to update where I’m at, and where I think I’m going.

Firstly, I now have three different jobs, and I have been really pleased at how well what I am terming ‘poly-working’ is working out for me. I am still doing some health visiting, but I resigned my substantive post at the end of 2017, and am now just doing that 1 day a week as a bank health visitor. This has given me some much-needed flexibility to concentrate on other areas of interest, whilst keeping my hand in with health visiting. This year I have been working at the same health centre where I had my substantive post, which has helped because I knew a lot of the families that I am working with already. From next year I’m not sure what will happen as a new full-time health visitor has been recruited and will be working there from January, but I hope I can still do that day a week or so somewhere.

As well as the day a week health visiting, I have also started a day a week (well, usually two half days) as the new Stroke Research Nurse at our local hospital. This has been a really steep learning curve for me – I last worked in acute care in the very early 2000s, and have since been either in the community or in academia, and things have changed enormously in stroke care since I last had any contact with stroke patients. I have been absolutely overwhelmed by the research nurse community online, and a number of very wonderful people, who don’t actually know me from Adam, gave me a huge amount of support and suggestions when I reached out on Twitter prior to my interview. As well as that, since starting in post I have had support from other research nurses in Scotland, including spending a day in Glasgow the other week shadowing the stroke research nurses there, which was incredibly generous of them. I’m planning on blogging more about research nursing when I’m a bit more settled in the job (although I won’t be discussing specific studies that I am involved in recruiting to).

And then on top of that, my transcription business has been doing pretty well and is filling up much of the rest of my time. So far I have done work for people from a number of different universities throughout the UK and Ireland, as well as a bit of non-academic transcription, and am really pleased with the feedback I’m getting on my work. I’m actually really enjoying it, and absolutely loving finding out about all the fascinating research that’s going on out there that I would have no exposure to otherwise. I have a blog post about transcription brewing too, so look out for that in the next few weeks!

On top of all that, what I am really wanting to foreground in the coming year or so is to do more writing, and see if I can add author to my list of ‘things I am and do’. After I left my postdoc position in early 2015, I found that my confidence in my writing ability was pretty low, and having previously blogged regularly for several years beforehand, and written academically too, I have written very little since then. I think it hadn’t really occurred to me that I could do writing that wasn’t academic, and I thought that the end of my formal academic career meant the end of any decent chance at publication. However, over the past couple of years I had the germ of an idea for a children’s book, and I did a weekend creative writing course earlier in the year to explore non-academic writing a bit (that course was led by the very lovely Rachel Marsh). Since then I have been exploring that side of my creativity a bit more, devouring a number of creative writing podcasts (particularly Death of 1000 Cuts by Tim Clare (check out his Couch to 80K writing bootcamp which I found super-helpful), The Bestseller Experiment, and The Creative Penn), trying to get my head round Scrivener, as well as reading as much as I can, both in the genre(s) that I wish to write, and also wider. Of course, all this reading and listening means that finding time to actually write is difficult, and so part of my intention in resurrecting this blog is to get me committed to carving out time to write regularly again, amongst all my work and family commitments.

As far as this blog goes, I started it at the end of my PhD to market myself whilst looking for an academic position (which is what I thought I wanted to do at the time). Now that I’m no longer in that place, I therefore plan on refocusing the blog to write about what I’m doing, and importantly what I’m learning (particularly about research nursing and about the writing process). There might well still be the odd academic-focused post, not least because I have a co-written chapter in a big high-profile book for health professionals coming out early in the new year, but my intention is that my emphasis will change towards the more creative side of writing here. So – watch this space!