When you incorporate original interview data into your writing, you are developing new ideas by using quotations and often sources that no one else has accessed. Drawing from interviews can liven up your writing, ground your big concepts within the specific circumstances of particular individuals, and introduce you to insights you might never have considered on your own. Additionally, interviews are an exciting way for you to provide a larger audience for people who might not otherwise have opportunities to share their stories, perceptions, and experiences.
There are lots of good reasons to incorporate original interview data into your writing. But doing so also involves making many, specific writing decisions. On this page we explore some of those decisions by considering briefly the process by which interview data is gathered, presenting models for interview incorporation, and identifying ways that writing with interview data can be like writing with information from any other source as well as some of the unique writerly considerations that interviews raise.
Before You Write
Of course, before you can incorporate interview data into your writing, you need to plan and conduct your interviews and begin to analyze your findings.
Interviewing is a common form of research and information gathering in many different fields and across many different genres. In order to develop and actualize a plan for why interviews will help you answer the questions you’re asking, whom you’ll interview, and what you’ll ask these subjects, you’ll want to consult a range of resources. Talk with your instructor, mentor, or advisor about common ways of approaching interviews for this assignment or in this discipline. Additionally, many undergraduate textbooks about research in the social sciences and humanities offer introductions to interviewing. We’ve listed a few great resources to help you learn more.
For comprehensive introductions to research methods used in the writing research that include some information about interviews, consider:
- Jackie Grutsch McKinney’s book Strategies for Writing Center Research—especially pages 55-69. While Grutsch McKinney’s is focused on writing center research, her close consideration of the different ways to structure interviews as well as how to plan and conduct them can be applied to all interview contexts. Additionally, her treatment of data analysis in chapter 8 provides a step-by-step guide for coding qualitative data—one of the approaches you might use to make sense of what your interview data means.
- Joyce Kinkead’s Researching Writing: An Introduction to Research Methods—especially pages 37-39. This is a potential textbook for that could be used for a class specifically about the formal study of writing. However, its direct and specific information about interviewing is applicable for any social science researcher preparing to use interviews for research.
These resources focus more specifically on qualitative research methods in particular and interviewing in particular:
- Robert Bogdan and Sari Knopp Biklen’s Qualitative Research for Education: An Introduction to Theories and Methods—especially pages 103-109. Bogdan and Knopp Biklen’s treatment of interview practices provides a brief overview of how to approach and implement this research methodology.
- Irving Seidman’s Interviewing as Qualitative Research: A Guide for Researchers in Education and the Social Sciences—especially pages 78-94. This entire book explores interview practices, logistics, and applications, but chapter six in particular usefully details particular interviewing techniques and provides transcripted examples of some of these strategic techniques in action.
The rest of the information on this page assumes that you have learned to develop and implement your interview plan, that you’ve analyzed the information you’ve gathered, and that you’re now ready to start weaving that information into your writing.
Different Models for Incorporating Interview Data
You can use interview data in many different ways. Most often, you will probably be making an argumentative or analytical point and illustrating and supporting it with evidence from your interviews. For example, in the following passage from the book Booty Capitalism: The Politics of Banking in the Philippines, Paul D. Hutchcroft, a political science professor at Australian National University, begins with an original claim, follows that with a quotation from an interview subject that exemplifies that claim, and then offers additional commentary on that issue. Note how the quotation from the interview both connects the concepts of banking and politics and introduces the prism metaphor that Hutchcroft continues into the next sentence.
The major focus of this [book] is two arenas that offer particular insights into the nature of relations between state and oligarchy in the banking system: bank supervision and selective credit allocation. “Banking,” observes one former bank president, “is a prism through which to understand power politics in the Philippines.” A study of the banking system highlights larger patterns at work within the political economy: how a predatory oligarchy extracts privilege from a patrimonial state, and how developmental policy objectives are continually choked out by a clamor of particularistic demands made by those who currently enjoy proximity to the political machinery. (7)
Generalizing about a Trend or Theme
Using information from an interview to support your claim is the primary purpose for incorporating interview data into your writing, but how you do this may change according to your specific intent. In what follows, we explore different models for weaving interview data into your writing and provide examples of what this looks like.
It is important to consider the politicization of the nationality responses in context. On the whole, the vast majority of republican executives did not try to influence the process, and the nationality question was a non-issue in the predominantly ethnically Russian regions. In my regional interviews I found that in the oblasts and krays, there were almost no reports of difficulty with the nationality question. Officials in those areas reported that respondents who were not ethnically Russian had no difficulty citing a different nationality. This finding corresponded with my observations of the enumeration process in Moscow. There were sporadic cases of respondents in ethnically mixed marriages registering one child as of one parent’s ethnic group and the other child as of the other parent’s ethnic group. However, this is a conceptual issue rather than a problem of politicization. (367-8)
Quoting to Illustrate a Trend or Theme
Sometimes interviewees say things that are so strikingly similar that it is useful to draw attention to these complementary concepts and word choices by putting them together. In the following passage, Jane Calvert, a professor at the University of Edinburgh, and Joan Fujimura, a sociology professor at UW-Madison, use this strategy while writing about scientists’ responses to the new and developing field of systems biology. Note that these authors carefully tie quotations to specific anonymized interviewees through parenthetical citations.
In another US university, the decision to build an interdisciplinary research centre was top-down, initiated by university and funding administrators and initially opposed by most campus laboratory scientists. The building of new interdisciplinary structures is challenging for the existing disciplinary “fiefdoms” (Biologist19) and “silos” (Biologist9 and Biologist12) “where people feel protected and safe” (Biologist19) because they are not required to step outside of their “comfort zones” (Biologist7).
Putting Two Sources in Conversation with Each Other
Sometimes writers can use one interviewee to contribute to or complicate what another interviewee says. The following paragraph from Hutchcroft’s Booty Capitalism shows this practice at work. In addition to bringing two sources together, in this passage Hutchcroft also strategically incorporates paratextual insight gained from the interview process into his analysis. He uses the former governor’s laughter to showcase an attitude that directly contrasts with what the former bank supervisor says.
Even when the Central Bank has acted against those who milked their banks, former bank owners have been known to use personal connections, even up to the Supreme Court, to confound Central Bank discipline. Former Governor Jaime Laya noted that even martial law “didn’t seem to stop the lawsuits against Central Bank personnel.” He actually laughed as he told me how the Central Bank legal office has “never won a case.” But the former head of the bank supervision sector, who has herself been sued, doesn’t find it a laughing matter: “Why only in this country,” she exclaimed, “do the regulators go to the jail, and the bankers go scot-free?” (9)
Providing a Profile/Telling a Story
Sometimes your writing needs to focus on your interview subject as a full and complex individual. In order to analyze an issue, you need to write about this individual’s background, family, and previous experiences. In this situation, you’ll weave together information you gained from your interviews with quotations from this person. This kind of writing is common when you are using interviews to develop ethnographis case studies. In the following example of this technique, Kate Vieira, a professor in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction at UW-Madison, tells the story of Jocélia, an undocumented Brazilian immigrant living in Massachusetts:
Jocélia, a 22 year-old Brazilian woman who grew up in a favela (shanty town) in Brazil, came to the United States to study and to earn money. When her visa expired and the small sum she had borrowed from cousins ran out, she quit her ESL classes and began to work illegally. When I met her in 2008, she had been in the United States for 4 years, had managed to buy a house for her mother in Brazil, and had plans to buy another one for herself and a car. To earn money as an undocumented worker, she held down two jobs: one from 3 p.m. to midnight and another from 5 a.m. to afternoon. One evening, exhausted from having not slept in days, she nodded off as she drove home from work, resulting in a serious accident that led her to a friend’s house in South Mills and to a Catholic retreat.
When I came here, I was not a youth who had fun. I only worked, and this made me a little frustrated, you know? Sad, lonely, understand? And nobody could change my mind. I had to work . . . But the Lord showed me something different, that I can’t live only for work . . . So I went there [to the retreat] and I really felt that the Lord touched us. It was a very good experience . . . (444)
Attending to Language
As explored in greater depth in the discussion about verbatim transcription, sometimes you want to analyze or consider the language an individual uses or the implications of certain kinds of words or even pauses. For example, in the following passage, Beth Godbee, a writing and rhetoric professor at Marquette University, meticulously considers the implications of her subjects’ specific words and phrasing. Although this example is taken from Godbee’s analysis of a conversation she recorded between a writer Susan and a writing center tutor Kim as opposed to a direct interview she conducted, the attention she pays to language could just as well be applied to information from an interview.
Kim reinforces Susan’s qualifications: “You’re gonna—you’re the specialist in this area. You know these kids; you see what know the effects are, and maybe where some change could be made” (lines 558-561). Here Kim revises her projection of Susan as a “specialist” in the future tense (“gonna,” as in “you’re going to be”) to a statement of her current position (“you’re,” or “you are now”). By repairing her speech mid-utterance, Kim emphasizes Susan’s current status and qualifications to write, thereby reframing her institutional power to assert her right to speak. (185)
Summarizing, Paraphrasing, or Quoting
As the above examples show, interview data is incorporated into writing through summaries, paraphrases, or quotations. In some ways this makes working with interviews just like working from any other kind of outside. As you choose between summarizing, paraphrasing, or quoting, a guiding question for you to consider is: What is most important about this information?
- Is it the overall story it tells or the general perspective it provides?
Then summarizing might be the best option.
- Is it the particular take on a complex issue?
Then paraphrasing that idea in your own words to make it as understandable as possible might be best.
- Is it the memorability, specificity, or authenticity of the language the source used?
Then probably go with a quote, but be sure to contextualize this quotation by providing necessary background and commentary.
Of course, in working with interview data, you might go with all three incorporation strategies by, for example, summarizing early in a paragraph to provide an overall sense of what this source is saying, paraphrasing a key idea or two, and then including a poignant quotation that exemplifies the argument you are making. For more information about quoting and paraphrasing outside sources in your writing, check out our resources on this issue.
Referring to your Interviewees
In certain writing situations, you are expected to identify the people you interviewed by using their real names. This is often the case in journalistic writing as well as when you have consulted with an expert on an issue. But, even in these writing contexts, you must receive permission from them to associate their words and insights with their names by clearly establishing whether or not they are talking with you “on the record.”
However, when you are conducting interviews for academic research, you are frequently expected to use pseudonyms so that your subjects’ responses are confidential. Protecting your subjects’ privacy should be your primary priority. They are giving you access to personal experiences and trusting you with their individual insights and observations; you must honor that trust by anonymizing their identities so that readers can’t figure out who your subjects were. Developing a research methodology that keeps all of your data confidential is an important part of the IRB (Internal Review Board) process, and in order to receive permission to do research at your institution you’ll need a plan that outlines how you’ll achieve confidentiality. Part of that plan will involve using different names for your subjects. But selecting pseudonyms is a bigger issue than just choosing different names at random.
Ruth Allen and Janine L. Wiles, Social and Community Health scholars at the University of Auckland, have closely considered the many issues surrounding pseudonym selection in connection to their original psychological and health-related research. They advocate that researchers think critically about this process and even bring their subjects into these discussions of identity and confidentiality. You need to be thoughtful about what aspects of your subjects’ true identities you are communicating or obscuring through the pseudonyms you use. The following questions are adapted from ones Allen and Wiles recommend researchers ask themselves when preparing to use pseudonyms for participants:
- Does the researcher or the participant choose the pseudonym? How does this issue get talked about with the participants?
- Is it important, valuable, or expected to use first name or also include last names and/or titles (i.e., Cara, Mr. Terrance, Dr. Jean Nichols)?
- Within the context of this writing, should the names to be associated with a specific gender, ethnicity, and/or culture? Should those nominal identity markers align with the participants’ actual identities?
- Do pseudonyms need to be selected for other people, places, activities, and organizations mentioned in the interview? And if so, who makes those choices?
How you answer these questions should be informed by your specific context. For example, in relation to that fourth question, if a participant is talking supportively about a small on-campus organization that you want to bring attention to through your writing, it might make sense to refer to this organization by name even though its size might make it harder to disguise your participant’s identity. However, if your interviewee is speaking critically about a large, multi-national corporation where she works, you might want to develop a pseudonym for that company in order to protect this individual as much as possible.
Using Verbatim or Non-Verbatim
When you are conducting interviews, you are engaging people in very focused conversation. But when we converse, we say “like” a lot and “um” and “ah.” We start sentences and then interrupt ourselves and never return to complete those earlier thoughts. Conversation is never as direct and naturally coherent as writing can be. As a result, when you’re representing other people’s speech, you need to decide if you’ll be employing what is called “verbatim transcription” or “non-verbatim transcription.”
In “verbatim transcriptions,” you write out what people say exactly as they say it. You include all the filler words, false starts, and grammatical inconsistencies. You may even choose to include even coughs and laughs. Scholars have traditionally upheld verbatim accounts as being accurate depictions of the interview process, but as Blake Poland pointed out, “much of the emotional context of the interview as well as nonverbal communication are not captured at all well in audiotape records, so that the audiotape itself is not strictly a verbatim record of the interview” (291). “Non-verbatim transcriptions,” (sometimes called “intelligent transcription”) respond to this acknowledged gap between the complexities of real conversation and the limitations of writing by encouraging writers to focus on the primary substance of participants’ quotes. In “non-verbatim transcriptions, you eliminate the unnecessary utterances like “er,” “well,” and “you know” and just include the foundational meaning of the interviewees’ words. For example:
Verbatim Transcription: Well, you see, I was [pause] the problem, as I saw it, was more of a, a matter of representation, you know? How can I, like, be the one that’s just out there just declaring the way things are when I’ve not even, like, you know, experiencing the whole process for myself?
Non-verbatim Transcription: The problem, as I saw it, was more a matter of representation. How can I be the one that’s out there declaring the way things are when I’ve not even experienced the whole process for myself?
The choice to use verbatim or non-verbatim transcription in quoting your participants should be informed by intentional considerations you are making as a writer. There are good reasons to use either forms. As Mahesh Kumar has identified in a blog post for the Transcription Certification Institute, verbatim transcription is useful for showcasing the thought process by which interview participants develop their ideas. False starts and self-corrections track down how someone is thinking about an issue in real time, and some fillers can be useful expressions of personality. Additionally, some linguistics research and conversation analysis methodologies expect highly structured, verbatim transcriptions that even account for pauses and simultaneous dialogue. However, quotations presented through non-verbatim transcriptions are clearer and easier to read and enable you to present your interview subjects as articulate (Poland 292). Whether you go with verbatim or non-verbatim transcription, make sure that you are being consistent with this choice across your article, paper, report, or essay. Also, if it’s common in the genre you are writing to discuss your methodology choices, it may be useful to clarify which transcription form you have chosen to use and why this was an appropriate choice.
Allen, Ruth E.S., and Janine L. Wiles. “A Rose by Any Other Name: Participants Choosing Research Pseudonyms.” Qualitative Research in Psychology, Dec. 2015. Research Gate, doi: 10.1080/14780887.2015.1133746.
Bogdan, Robert C., and Sari Knopp Biklen. Qualitative Research for Education: An Introduction to Theories and Methods. 5th ed., Pearson, 2007.
Calvert, Jane, and Joan H. Fujimura. “Calculating Life? Duelling Discourses in Interdisciplinary Systems Biology.” Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C: Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences, vol. 42, no. 2l, 2011. Science Direct, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.shpsc.2010.11.022.
Godbee, Beth. “Toward Explaining the Transformative Power of Talk About, Around, and for Writing.” Research in the Teaching of English, vol. 47, no. 2, 2012, pp. 171-97.
Grutsch McKinney, Jackie. Strategies for Writing Center Research. Parlor Press, 2016.
Herrera, Yoshiko M. “The 2002 Russian Census: Institutional Reform at Goskomstar.” Post-Soviet Affairs, vol, 20, no. 4, 2004, pp. 350-86.
Hutchcroft, Paul D. Booty Capitalism: The Politics of Banking in the Philippines, Ateneo de Manila University Press, 1998.
Kinkead, Joyce. Researching Writing: An Introduction to Research Methods. University Press of Colorado, 2015.
Kumar, Mahesh. “Verbatim Vs Non-Verbatim Transcription: Differences, Requirements, & Jobs.” Transcription Certification Institute, 5 December 2017. Accessed online 19 June 2017. https://blog.transcriptioncertificationinstitute.org/verbatim-vs-non-verbatim-transcription-differences-requirements-jobs/.
Poland, Blake D. “Transcription Quality as an Aspect of Rigor in Qualitative Research.” Qualitative Inquiry, no. 1, vol. 3, 1995, pp. 290-310.
Seidman, Irving. Interviewing as Qualitative Research: A Guide for Researchers in Education and the Social Sciences. 3rd ed., Teachers College Press, 2006.
Vieira, Kate. “Undocumented in a Documentary Society: Textual Borders and Transnational Religious Literacies.” Written Communication, vol 28, no. 4, 2011, pp. 436-61.