How to edit interview and survey responses

So, you’ve conducted some interviews or focus groups and transcribed the content, or you have a body of text collected from responses to a survey. You’ve written up your research in a report and want to include quotes from the interviews, focus groups or survey to provide qualitative evidence of your findings. But how do you edit interview and survey responses while staying true to the respondents’ words?

Editing interview or survey responses for publication is a balancing act where you need to keep two groups in mind:

  • The respondents, interviewees or participants deserve to have their words presented accurately (especially if they will be named rather than anonymous).
  • The readers of your report need to be able to easily understand those words, so that the report conveys its message as effectively and as powerfully as possible.

I’ve edited a lot of interview and survey responses for both academic and non-academic (e.g. non-profits’) research reports, and I’ve seen many examples of what works and what doesn’t. This post looks at how to balance the two imperatives above – in other words, how to take potentially messy transcriptions and survey responses and make them easily understandable for a reader needing quality information in a hurry.

Tip: editing customer feedback

These principles also apply if you want to present feedback (for example, from customers or clients) without including any identifying or irrelevant information. You should treat such text like survey responses when you’re deciding which changes (if any) to make.

Why can it be difficult to edit interview and survey responses?

People don’t speak ‘Report-ese’ – they speak colloquially and idiomatically. They also don’t always know what they’re going to say when they start speaking a sentence, so they can meander as they find the words to express what’s in their head. They may also change their minds, backtrack, lose their train of thought or use different words from what they actually mean. Furthermore, when we speak, tone, inflection, pauses and body language do a huge amount of the work of communication, so we can get away with being much more sloppy than we do when we write.

As such, interview and focus group transcriptions are commonly littered with ‘filler’ words and sounds like ‘so’, ‘like’, ‘um’, ‘er’, ‘kind of’, ‘sort of’, ‘well’ and so on. Words will be missing too, and many sentences will not be grammatically complete, so functional words such as ‘and’, ‘is’, ‘because’, ‘to’, ‘the’ and ‘so’ might be missing.

Additionally, in a focus group, you might get multiple people speaking at once or in quick succession, which can make text tricky to transcribe accurately or understand when reading it back.

When it comes to survey responses, you’re likely to get fewer filler words but potentially more missing words. You’ll also face other challenges, such as spelling mistakes or ambiguous grammar (in my experience, people’s spoken grammar is usually better than their written grammar, perhaps because when they’re speaking they don’t get paralysed by questions such as how to use a semicolon properly). Some respondents will respond in full sentences (e.g. ‘We are tackling this area by buying more cake’) whereas others will respond more briefly (e.g. ‘Buying cake’), so it can be difficult to present answers to the same question together in a coherent manner.

In both interview transcriptions and survey responses, you’ll encounter abbreviations and jargon that need to be explained (and sometimes researched to find out what they mean). You may also find that different people use different terminology to refer to the same thing, meaning explanations or harmonisation are required.

There are various ways of tackling these issues.

How to edit interview and survey responses

1 Establish the basics

First off, establish which spellings and other stylistic basics (e.g. words or numerals for numbers) you’re going to use. People don’t use specific spellings when they speak, so it’s usually fine to use the spelling style in the rest of your report (e.g. UK or US English) for interview transcriptions. For survey responses, you’ll need to make a judgement call: is the spelling material to the content of the responses? It’s usually not, so you will probably want to standardise the spelling and style to match the rest of your report.

Next, establish the general approach to the editing. At one extreme are linguistics transcriptions (usually found in academic writing), where every tiny vocalisation and pause is recorded in meticulous detail. At the other end of the scale, you might have the respondents’ permission to rephrase the content silently (i.e. without the changes being visible to the reader) to make the words read smoothly. In most contexts, the approach will fall somewhere in the middle. For example, in the charity research reports I often edit, the goal is to make the quotes read clearly but without imposing perfect grammar. Filler words (see above) can be deleted silently, but any more substantial changes must be visible to the reader, to ensure transparency in the reporting and editing process.

2 Using ellipses and square brackets: the basics

Your primary weapons when editing interview and survey responses are ellipses and square brackets.

An ellipsis is three dots in a row. You use it when you want to show that text has been omitted. For example, you might edit ‘she well she likes cake’ to ‘she … likes cake’. Note that it’s almost never necessary to use an ellipsis to signal omission at the start or end of a sentence: readers will understand that a quote may be an extract from a longer piece of speech or text.

Square brackets are used to show when a quote has been added or changed. When you add text, simply add the clarifying word in square brackets. For example, if someone said ‘I like that coffee cake it’s very gooey’ you might change it to ‘I like that coffee cake [because] it’s very gooey’. You can also use square brackets to change part of a word. For example, if a survey respondent typed ‘cake’ but their surrounding grammar and the context clearly showed that they meant ‘cakes’, you could correct this as follows: ‘cake[s]’. Similarly, ‘baking’ could become ‘bak[ed]’.

Tip: curved brackets

Never use curved brackets to show changes as this makes it unclear which brackets signal clarifications and which are ‘normal’ brackets.

Sometimes people use square brackets to change the case (i.e. uppercase or lowercase) of a word at the start of a sentence to make it fit the context, e.g. ‘[A]nother thing is.’ In interview transcriptions, this isn’t necessary because the original is speech, and people don’t speak capital letters – so, you can change lowercase to uppercase (and vice versa) without using square brackets. The same is usually the case in survey responses too, but take care in case there are any special circumstances to be aware of.

You can usually also be fairly free with changing punctuation in interview transcriptions, because people don’t speak punctuation. Additionally, transcribers don’t necessarily have expert-level knowledge of grammar and punctuation, so any punctuation they have inserted will be based on their judgement, which might not be accurate. In survey responses, it’s often fine to make punctuation changes too, but be very careful as changing a seemingly innocuous item of punctuation can sometimes change the whole meaning of a sentence. If in doubt, use square brackets to show your change.

3 Using ellipses and square brackets: more complex cases

Some people put ellipses within square brackets, ‘like […] this’. It’s not strictly necessary to do this unless your quotes also contain ellipses to signal trailing off – for example, ‘I think… no actually let’s […] eat all the cake’. But you might still choose to always put ellipses within square brackets if you want to be extra-transparent. Whatever you choose, be consistent.

You can also use square brackets to combine an omission with a clarification. For example, ‘The cakes are where? Oh yes, there’ might be changed to ‘The cakes [are] there’ (omission of potentially inessential text plus addition of ‘are’ to make the text read smoothly).

In addition to adding basics words in square brackets, such as in the examples above, you might need to make a more substantial clarification. For example, someone might say ‘They went to Birmingham’ without it being clear who ‘they’ is. In this case, you have three options:

  • Add the clarification after the ambiguous word: ‘They [the students] went to Birmingham.’
  • Add and signal the clarification after the ambiguous word: ‘They [i.e. the students] went to Birmingham.’
  • Substitute the clarification for the ambiguous word: ‘[The students] went to Birmingham.’

None of these is correct or incorrect. You will need to pick whichever feels right for the level of transparency your publication requires.

4 Dealing with ambiguous text

Sometimes, it can be difficult to understand what text from interview and survey responses means and therefore edit it appropriately. In this case you have five options:

  • Omit it: if it’s not especially important or you have a better quote from elsewhere, you could simply drop the tricky text.
  • Clarify it: if you have access to the original recording (in the case of an interview transcription) or can even talk to the speaker or respondent, you might be able to clarify what was meant (potentially without square brackets, if you get permission to do so from the speaker/respondent and if making a ‘silent’ change is appropriate for your publication). Alternatively, if you don’t have access to the original source, you can make your best guess and either make the change using square brackets or perhaps insert a footnote explaining your interpretation.
  • Clarify it with a question mark: if you’re pretty sure what the person meant but not certain, you could do something like this: ‘That filling [strawberry jam?] is the best’.
  • Include it unchanged with a caveat: you can include a note either attached to the tricky text or covering the whole report, saying something like ‘Quotes are presented verbatim, including any ambiguities, for maximum transparency.’
  • Include it unchanged without a caveat: if your readers will understand and expect quotes to be ambiguous, you might not need to include a caveat at all.

5 Dealing with offensive or potentially harmful text

There is no ‘right’ way to deal with offensive or potentially harmful text in interview and survey responses – if indeed you want to ‘deal with it’ at all. Sometimes the motivation for the problematic text is part of the very reason for the interview or survey, in which case removing it would not serve the reader or the purpose of the research.

If there is swearing in the text, this is fairly straightforward to address. You can do any of the following:

  • Keep it, if suitable for the readership.
  • Replace specific letters with asterisks (e.g. ‘that cake is sh*t’).
  • Replace the whole word using square brackets (e.g. ‘that cake is [expletive]’).

Sometimes you can omit the word and use an ellipsis, although that wouldn’t work in the examples just above. An example of where it would work is ‘that … cake tastes really bad’).

Deciding on the approach to take – with swearing and any other potentially harmful content – requires you to gauge your readership and how they will use your publication. This question gets to the heart of the whole research planning and writing process, and strictly speaking is beyond the scope of this article. However, once again, you’ll need to strike a balance between two needs:

  • The need to comprehensively provide whatever information prompted your interviews or survey to be commissioned.
  • The need to ensure anybody affected by the topic encounters the information in a way that is sensitive to their circumstances.

As I say, this is a very broad question and it goes beyond the nitty-gritty of editing. However, you may still find the options in points 1–4 helpful.

Editing interview and survey responses in context

The above examples cover some of the essentials that you can follow if you need to edit interview and survey responses. But context is everything, and there are many potential nuances to bear in mind.

For example, I’ve referred above to ‘smooth’ reading, but what does that mean exactly? In the context of English (the language I edit in), it usually means the Standard English of a majority English-speaking country (e.g. the UK or the US). However, often it will be desirable (or indeed essential) to preserve non-standard Englishes (i.e. dialects, or variants of English that are standard in other countries). Where this is relevant, a policy will need to be developed and agreed by the writing and editing team.

Another issue is when clarifications cluster so that they actually, ironically, lead to less clarity. In such cases, careful decisions need to be made about which to keep – or whether to change the whole approach.

Interview and survey responses are rich sources of information for research, reports and studies. They can bring an issue alive and provide human context for statistics. Using the techniques above, you can ensure they are clear and incorporated in a way that is sensitive to the needs of your intended audience.

About Hazel Bird

Hazel delivers editorial services that empower non-profits, charities, businesses and authors to confidently share their expertise and impact. An editor since 2009, she aims to see the big picture while pinpointing every detail. She has been described as ‘superhuman’ and a ‘secret weapon', but until Tony Stark comes calling she's dedicating her superpowers to text-based endeavours.

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