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Being Responsible with Someone Else's Voice
Behind the Book: Ethics in interviews and storytelling
So, I’m neck deep in book edits right now (if you are my editor or agent and you are reading this - they’re coming soon I promise!) and one of the biggest struggles I’ve had with this book is the responsibility of other people’s voices.
I’ve interviewed people for my previous two books. It’s not new to me, even if I wouldn’t call myself an interview-style journalist. The conversations that I’ve been able to have with people over the years have deeply enriched my work and I’ve enjoyed every part of the process - except for the transcribing. But there’s a difference between an interview or two to provide depth to a chapter and what I’ve been trying to accomplish with this book.
With Be A Revolution (that’s the name of the upcoming book, btw) I’ve been centering the work and the stories of movement workers across the US. This is a book where these amazing people’s voices will be at the forefront throughout. I’m very excited about this book. And perhaps, in that excitement, well…I’ve created a lot of work for myself.
For starters, I am working with a bajillion hours of interviews. I’ve met with and had in-depth conversations with over 30 movement workers across the country over these last few years for the book. These conversations have shaped a lot of this book, and taken me down numerous unexpected avenues. I have been changed by this book (as a writer, movement worker, and human being in the world) in ways that no other work I’ve done has.
But y’all….it’s so many words.
The ethics of my writing are central to my work. I’m perhaps a bit over-careful at times with trying to be as ethical as possible. I think this stems from 1) recognizing as a Black woman how easily marginalized communities have been harmed by unethical or careless representations in media and 2) knowing that I have ADHD which makes me prone to the most ridiculous errors that can really fuck things up if I don’t have a lot of checks and balances in my work.
But I had been entrusted with 35 different voices. Stories from people I deeply respect and admire. And wow - it completely froze me in fear for a long time. I know that many writers struggle with how to write someone else’s story. And that difficulty and fear is necessary. It’s so important to get right. But THIRTY-FIVE people’s different stories. Thirty-five different voices.
I really just stared at these transcripts for a very long time (like, multiple months), unsure of where to start. The responsibility of it all felt crushing. Eventually I just cobbled the transcripts together in some sort of chapter order - editing out about half of the “ums” and adding bits of commentary like I was Ron Howard narrating Arrested Development.
And I ended up with a document that was about twice as long as the agreed upon manuscript size, and kind of unreadable.
I’ve had to work over these interviews and chapters multiple times (far more than with my previous two books) in order to get to where I’m at now, where I’ve been actually writing a book. And I’m very excited about how beautifully these amazing people’s words and stories are shining on the page. I’ve been really inspired and educated by these stories and so far those who’ve been taking early looks at the book have been as well.
So, I figured if any of you are in a similar situation with your writing, I would share what I’ve learned so far. You’ll have to get the book early next year to see how it turned out and if this advice is sound or not!
People should sound like themselves: If you’re sharing someone’s words from an interview or conversation, let them sound like they sounded when you spoke with them. That means that you leave some distinctive speech patterns or vocabulary in, that you leave in regional or cultural speech that may not be considered “grammatically correct.” You want people who know these people to be able to say “yup, that sounds like them” when they read your work.
You really should edit though: I asked every person that I interviewed if it was okay if I edited out “um”s or false starts in sentences and the like, and I let them know that I would edit for clarity and brevity. Almost everyone I spoke with was glad to know that I would, and some had horror stories of interviews where every single “um” and pause and false start was left in, making the interview unreadable and making them sound like people who were far less eloquent or knowledgable than they actually were.
You have to respect the interviewees intent: This is so vital, and I wish I could say that it was a regular practice. But I’ve seen so many interviewers twist the words of the people that they interview to fit their agendas. They can edit or paraphrase in ways that do real damage. If you want a wild example, read this piece about how really unethical editing of an interview with Martin Luther King Jr. has shaped a lot of how we have thought about his relationship with Malcolm X for decades.
Ask if you aren’t sure: If you aren’t sure what the interviewee meant, or part of your recording is unclear, or it seems like the interviewee may have misspoke without their knowledge, reach out for clarity.
Research for further information: This is something that people can neglect to do with interviews that drives me batty. Ever read an interview where it’s clear that the interviewer doesn’t really know what the interviewee is talking about? I sure have. It’s a painful read. A little less painful, but still unpleasant, is when it appears that the interviewee and interviewer do know what’s being discussed, but nobody seems too interested in explaining it to the reader. Do research to fill out the piece with context, to make sure that the information you are providing is accurate (people do get important things wrong in interviews quite often), and to make sure that the reader can fully benefit from the interviewees words.
Remember that you are a writer: This is honestly what I struggled with the most here. Yes, I know that I’m a writer - it’s in my bio! - but as I was working through these chapters it took a while for me to get comfortable with using my full writing experience and expertise to shape these profiles. Most of the people I was talking with are not writers or public speakers. They are out every day in communities doing important and difficult movement work. I have the skills to honor that work by sharing their stories in a way that can engage readers and introduce them to this vital work. And so, I’ve been taking long paragraphs of conversational text and turning them into succinct summaries. It has taken a lot of work to get comfortable with this, and this process has made me value my writing and it’s role in liberation work in a way that I hadn’t before. My current rule is, it’s not a direct quote unless it’s a fire quote. Where the direct words of the person I’m speaking with can really shine, I’m leaving them in. Where my work as a writer can help those words shine, I’m stepping in to help tell the story.
So, I hope that if you are struggling with interviews, or have been avoiding interviews, that this may help you as it’s helped me. But now, I’m going to go put all this to work again as I finish these edits.
Best of luck with your writing!
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