The Terkel Rules

Translating From Speech to Prose

Chicago Reader, October 31, 2008

photo by Kathy Richland

By Michael Lenehan

I had some important questions for Studs Terkel. He’s getting on in years, I figured, better get him before he leaves us and takes the answers with him. So I called and he graciously invited me over to his house on Castlewood Terrace, a street of grand old houses close by Lake Michigan on the far north side of Chicago. He’s 89 years old, I mused, riding the bus east on Lawrence Avenue, evidently in a mood of some self-importance. Hell, this could be his last interview.

That was about seven years ago.

Terkel had just published Will the Circle Be Unbroken, his book on death and faith. It would have been a fitting capstone (and it’s probably what got me thinking that I needed to hurry), but by the time we met he was almost finished with his next book, Hope Dies Last, and after that he republished a collection, The Studs Terkel Reader: My American Century, and released an audio CD, Voices of Our Time: Five Decades of Studs Terkel Interviews, and wrote (with his longtime collaborator Sydney Lewis) his second memoir, Touch and Go, and brought out a collection of old but previously unpublished interviews, P.S.: Further Thoughts From a Lifetime of Listening. When he died today he was 96.

He answered the door with a cigar going and promptly asked if I would have a drink with him. It was 11 AM, too early for martinis, so he poured us each a little scotch and we sat down in his living room and I fired up my tape recorder. Here’s a small portion of our conversation:

“I don’t just—I don’t work at—that’s about [indecipherable word]—like I thought I finished the book, this one, with Emmett Till’s mother, Mamie Mobley, seeing her son, and then 35 years later, and then—I remember years before I just couldn’t end this way because it’s the crucifixion of the kid, Emmett Till. They crucified—she says, I looked at—it’s a Pieta, it was the Pieta—you know the Pieta, the painting—and it’s the Pieta she sees her son, and so Mary sees her son, she said I saw the stigmata of Jesus in Emmett. If Jesus died for our sins, what did Emmett die for?”

See, this is exactly what I wanted to ask him about: gibberish. I’ve quoted Studs verbatim not because was an uncommonly kinetic or inarticulate conversationalist. He wasn’t. He digressed, to be sure, but he was more aware of it than most people are and he always got back to the main road. My point is simply that speech—anyone’s speech—often looks like gibberish when committed to paper. Spoken English and written English are almost different languages, and rendering one into the other is akin to translating. I have an interest in the translation process and Studs was the master of it. I wanted to ask about his technique.

After more than 20 years as a Chicago broadcasting personality, on early TV (from which he was quickly blacklisted) and particularly on radio station WFMT, Terkel reinvented himself at age 54 with the publication in 1967 of Division Street America, the first in a series of oral histories with short titles and big subjects: Working, Race, “The Good War” . . . These books consist of tape-recorded conversations with mostly common people; after a brief introduction from Terkel, each text unspools almost seamlessly, with only an occasional nudge from the questioner. The people speak clearly, coherently, and sometimes in the shape of a true story, with a conflict and a climax and a moment of truth.

But here’s the thing: most people don’t talk that way. In a career of interviewing I have met one, a judge who presided over the fraud trial of a guy who persuaded investors he could make gasoline out of water. (He was acquitted, which is what made it a story.) The judge waited for me to get my tape recorder going and then told his tale from beginning to end with such humor, drama, and precision that all I had to do was type it up. But he had been telling this story for years, no doubt polishing it with every retelling. That’s not the way interviews usually go. Usually people stop and start and change direction in mid-sentence; often their subjects do not agree with their verbs and their pronouns have no antecedents. Sometimes they give too much information and sometimes too little. Sometimes they ramble incoherently for a while before saying something that brings the rambling into focus: everything would have been clear if only they’d said at the beginning of the thought what they said at the end.

I’m fond of using long quotations in my writing. I like to give readers a break by letting them hear a voice different from my own. But it takes a lot of massaging to turn spoken words into readable prose. And massaging quotes—well, this is a topic of passionate debate among journalists. For example, on WriterL, a daily e-mail gathering of literary journalists and those who want to be (conducted by storytelling guru John Franklin and his wife Lynn), the debate pops up every year or so: What do quotation marks mean? Is it ever permissible to edit or change a quote? The old-school newspaper writers and hard-ass purists in the group tend to insist not. But if you want to quote more than a sentence or two—if you want to do the oral history of a steelworker, or quote the reminiscences of a doo-wop group, or give a doctor’s account of a medical mystery . . . if you want your subject to spin a yarn, set a mood, speak with a voice—the question is not can you edit but can you avoid it?

I don’t think you can—at least not without driving your readers away or discarding 95 percent of your interviews. And Studs Terkel, the premier oral-history journalist of our time, agreed with me, as I knew he would. So here, set down for posterity and for the guidance and protection of recorder-toting journalists everywhere, are the Terkel Rules. Or maybe they are the Lenehan Rules as annotated by Terkel. You can judge from the following conversation.

Which has been liberally edited, of course.

Lenehan: I’ve been working on an oral history project lately, and the results are turning out a lot like your interviews. For example, I’ve been cutting most of my questions out, so the piece reads more like a monologue than a Q&A. It’s got me thinking about how you edit a spoken conversation. I want to ask about the rules you use when you’re editing. I want other writers to be able to read about how you do it.

Terkel: There is no rule. It depends upon the individual you’re talking to, see. For example, you said that you cut your questions out and you make it sort of a soliloquy. Well that’s what I do, you see. I keep the question in when it’s necessary, as a transition moment, or when a humorous or whimsical aspect can be revealed in an exchange. But generally speaking, I shift things around. An interview is not written in stone. You can adjust the sequences. But never altering the words—the words are the words of the person, that’s clear.

You don’t transcribe your own tapes.

No, I’m no good at that. Sydney Lewis, and before that, Cathy Zmuda. I called Cathy the empress of transcription. She was great, Sydney is just as good. Sydney Lewis is a writer herself. She has a book called Hospital, same technique. She also knows the way I talk and think, you see, and she can make out some of my gibberish.

Does she try to give you verbatim transcripts?

Oh absolutely. Oooh definitely. I want it absolutely verbatim. Even with the pause, even with the laugh. Because that brings back to me the moment. And that adds, see. Oh no, I gotta have that, because—verbatim, absolutely.

She doesn’t filter anything out?

No, no no, she can’t. That’s mine. No. Verbatim.

And then you edit.

Here’s the analogy: I’m a gold prospector. That’s what I am. In 1849 gold was discovered in California, right? And so all the covered wagons went there, Pike’s Peak or bust, the song “My Darling Clementine” was part of that. The gold prospector puts a stake in the ground, that’s gonna be his piece, and he starts digging and digging, out comes tons of ore. I start the interview and of course it goes on for an hour or two hours, and it turns out to be about 40 pages of transcription. Well, it’s full of repetition and everything. Now comes the editing—what the prospector calls filtering. And out of the tons of ore is a handful of gold dust. And out of my editing—and that’s the ticklish part—instead of 30 pages there’s ten pages. Now that’s ten pages of my gold dust.

I’d like to tell you the things I’ve been doing to get my interviews into readable shape, and you tell me whether you think they are acceptable.

My view means nothin’.

But you’re the guy who set the form, Studs. I think it will be useful; writers are going to be interested to know what your rules are. So, for example, I would take a paragraph from the end and put it at the beginning, if that made the story go better.

Right. That’s right.

I would take a sentence from the end of the paragraph and put it in the beginning if that made it clearer.


I would change the order of words in a sentence, if that made it easier to read or understand.

That’s right.

If my subject said the wrong word—like he said “confluence” when I know he meant “coincidence”—

That’s an interesting point. See now there, you see, you gotta be as truthful as you possibly can. At the same time you don’t want to embarrass the guy either. There’s one guy who asked me—the only person in all the thousands I’ve done—asked if I’d change the grammar, and that was Russell Long, the son of Huey Long, he was a senator. And Russell Long said look, my English is not that great, I want you to—and I said don’t worry about that, I will, I’d alter it, see. But you want that language. I wouldn’t change goin’ to going, or ain’t to aren’t. But “confluence,” if you make it clear, without embarrassing the person, that it is “influence,” or “coincidence”—I think I would change it in many cases. For clarity. He meant “coincidence,” I would make it coincidence.

(In this matter Studs and I and all Chicagoans are guided by Earl Bush, press aide to the late Mayor Richard J. Daley, who famously scolded reporters for quoting what the mayor said instead of what he meant.)

Increasing degree of difficulty as we go along here: Would you change a word not because it was the wrong word but because you knew you could make the speaker’s intent much clearer than the word he actually used?

That’s, see—you’d almost have to do it individually. You can’t answer that directly. It would have to be an individual case, in connection with the whole thing he’s saying. You see, you may have to. I wouldn’t rule it out.

Because I take certain liberties with an interview, in order to make the story flow and everything clear, I usually find that I want to show the edited version to my speaker—to get him or her to sign off on it, and to be sure that I didn’t make any mistakes.

Or distort anything.

Do you do that?

Some, yes. I don’t do it ordinarily, no. They just let it go. But now and then someone wants to see it, I send it.

Do you think readers understand the extent to which we have to massage an interview to get it to come out the way it does?

I think the reader doesn’t think in those terms—doesn’t go so far as to think in terms of what you did. What they think is, Does that sound real to me? Does that bring back something to my mind? Oh wow, that happened to me!, see. Give you an example: There are certain key moments in my life, rewards I get that are not monetary but are far far more important. A guy stopped me once—I did Working, and had all kinds of portraits, and one is the portrait of a waitress, Dolores Dante, she used to work at the Erie Cafe, when it was an expense-account joint. She was great. She talked about the day of a waitress. So one day this guy stops me on the street, and he corners me, on Michigan Boulevard Bridge—you know, people stop me now and then, not celebrity, just me, you know, they know me. He says listen, I want to tell ya—since I read about that woman Dolores in your book Working, I’ll never again talk to a waitress the way I have in the past. I’ll never again. Well that’s pretty good, that means I’ve touched him.

So a reader reading it—oh, they like it. Well, I’m talking about not literary people, but readers, who pick up the book and read. “That’s me. Yeah, yeah!” And so that’s the kind of stuff.


“Cut and paste” is the term most writers would give to the sort of liberal editing described above. It’s a dirty term to some, but I would speculate that the technique is used by almost every writer who deals with extended quotations. (By extended I mean more than a paragraph of 100 words or so.) The deal, though it usually goes unspoken, is this: all these words came out of the subject’s mouth—but not necessarily in this order and a lot has been left on the cutting-room floor.

Sometimes, I confess, it goes even farther than that. Sometimes I add a word, or in rare cases even a short, direct sentence, when no amount of rearranging can make the meaning and the voice come out right. I have my scruples: if a small number of judicious additions, rendered as simply and straightforwardly as possible, will not make the copy flow while saying to readers what the subject was trying to say to me, I’ll abandon the project or change the form of the piece (or passage) so it’s presented in my own voice rather than the subject’s. And I don’t do this without the subject’s permission. She’ll read the whole text and I will point out the additions. “You didn’t really say this in so many words,” I’ll say, “but I think it’s what you meant. Is it OK with you?”

I would not presume to say that Studs Terkel did the same. Terkel quite explicitly said that “the words are the words of the person, that’s clear.” But he also said that the main rule is there is no rule. It’s people. It’s language. It’s complicated. It depends on the situation.

Some writers will say that I am abusing the meaning of the quote mark and that I shouldn’t use it in the kind of text I’m describing. Well, sometimes I don’t use it; then again, sometimes I do. Some will suggest using devices such as “edited by” or “as told to,” but how much disclosure is that? Do these code words say anything useful to a general reader? Some will say I should explain to readers exactly what I’m doing. I probably would explain in some circumstances—say, a whole Terkel-like book of interviews—but in other contexts it would seem inappropriate; sometimes it would take as long to describe the technique as it would to tell the story.

Studs Terkel never felt the need for any of this. Is anyone objecting?

In the end, I’m afraid, you just have to trust me. That’s not easy to say in a time when so many writers are cheating, but trust is what it comes down to. Anyone who thinks we can read or write without it is living in a fictional world.

Copyright 2008 by Michael Lenehan, all rights reserved.