Becoming the Family Storycatcher, part 5b: Getting It Ready – Editing Tips


 Photo courtesy mobilechina2007 via Flickr.

In our last post, we looked at some ways to organize the raw materials from your interviews with your family narrator, including how to find a storyline and a narrative arc in their series of anecdotes. Today, I’ll provide a couple of keys to the actual act of editing the material – ones that apply whether you’re editing the final product into a book, a video, an audio program, or some other form of media.


I find that I use one of two basic editing approaches when I’m working on a personal or family history project, depending on how closely the flow of the interview tracked with the timeline of the story the narrator is telling for the project.


Chop Til You Drop

This is the most basic approach to editing a story, in which you trim away excess detail, or unrelated asides, but basically leave the arrangement of the questions and answers from the interview alone.

You don’t absolutely need a transcript or log of the interview to do this kind of edit, but that can also come back to haunt you. Even when a narrator basically tells a story in the order that it happened, there can be references to prior events laced throughout the latter part of an interview – ones that you might want to leave in because they are cute, funny, eloquent or really amplify the story. However, if you don’t have a transcript or log, and you remove the original reference (and/or even worse, you don’t save a copy of the raw footage/tape/notes), you may have to get very creative in order to salvage that awesome second reference. And that is guaranteed to take some time to figure out.

When I take this approach to editing, I often say I am condensing or distilling the interview. The end result packs the same punch as the unedited story, but presents it in a more entertaining, user-friendly way.


Building a Story Blueprint

This second approach is suited to more complex stories – the kind with multiple chapters, characters, or narrators. If your narrator related a great story to you, but did it in a disjointed fashion, this is the way to edit it into a coherent presentation.

To build a story blueprint, you will have to have some sort of tangible collection of building blocks. Even if your interview log is very simple, giving just the topic and length of their remarks, this will give you what you need to draw up a blueprint, which I call an edit decision list when I’m using it to edit a video or audio story. It could be considered a detailed outline if you’re working from interview notes to construct a written story.

I start my story blueprint with the best quotes from my narrator and arrange them in roughly the order I want them to appear. If they flow from one quote to another with very few transitions needed, then the story-crafting portion of the project is almost done.

If not – and I find this is the case most of the time – the next consideration is how to provide transitions. Some possible methods that are appropriate for a family history project include:

  • On-screen title cards to frame the question being answered or provide more information.
  • Run the interview question being asked, as well as the answer.
  • Voice-over narration to act as a bridge between quotes.
  • Film/record a second narrator to provide context for primary narrator’s remarks.
  • Create sidebars in a print project that help guide the reader from one quote to the next.

Once you’ve got the heart of your story refined, it’s time to consider how you are going to introduce it. Do you have anything that shows us the narrator talking about who he/she is, or about the time period of the story in question? Some of the methods mentioned above for dealing with transitions also would work for an introduction.

Finally, look at your edit decision list or outline and consider the end of your story. Does the narrator set the audience down at a satisfying stopping place? It doesn’t have to be the ultimate end of their story – chapters can end satisfyingly, just as much as books can. But if your narrator’s story started with a question mark (?) to hook the audience into following along, and the middle contained enough of an exclamation point (!) to keep them interested, the end should have enough resolution to feel as if a period (.) is helping them find the resting place before they move on to another story.


Resources related to editing

I’m Ira Glass, Host of “This American Life,” and This Is How I Work

From the Lifehacker blog. Pay special attention to Ira’s answer to the question,”What everyday thing are you better at than everyone else?” He gives detailed instructions (complete with illustrations) on how he turns a mass of audio interview tape into a compelling radio show.

My Kingdom for Some Structure |

Rob Rosenthal, host of the always-entertaining podcast HowSound (“the backstory to great radio”), provides analysis and cocktail napkin drawings of typical stories played on several different national NPR programs. It’s a nice deconstruction of the way several programs on the same network approach a topic in their own unique style.

How to Make an Outline of a Memoir | eHow

This very brief outline is a little choppy, but if you need a simple checklist to help you start organizing interview/research material for the family/personal history you’re writing, it doesn’t get more basic than this. I do especially like the suggestion to find the climax of your story first and work backwards from there.

 Structuring Your Memoir

Fiction writer and memoirist Wendy Dale has produced a marvelous explanation of the classic dramatic three-act structure and how you can apply it to a life story. Even better than that, she goes on to discuss how to provide literary twists to your real-life plot so the story you’re writing is not ho-hum predictable because of the structure.

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