Undergraduate Column: How Do We Create Our Writers of Mason Profiles?

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The Writers of Mason, based on the Humans of New York, attempts to capture the diversity of writers on campus by profiling students, faculty, and staff through interviews and photos. To date, we have published 45 profiles on the blog, are currently processing multiple different profiles, and have snapped 189 photos of writers in our Mason community. Because we strive to showcase the human experience, creating a profile for an interviewee takes time and patience; each profile must go through a series of stages: conducting the interview, transcribing the interview and selecting the quotation to publish, taking and adding the finishing touches on the photo, and then editing and publishing the profile. Now that we have been publishing these profiles for a while, we thought we would share a little bit about the process of creating our Writers of Mason profiles.

At the beginning of the project, we drafted a script of eight questions. Our script included questions like, “Do you think you are a good writer?” and “What feedback, negative or positive, has stayed with you about your writing?” These questions are open ended to allow for an interviewee to provide an authentic response. Interestingly, two questions seem to trigger the strongest responses. When I ask an interviewee if he or she is a good writer, I often see hesitation to claim the title of ‘good writer.’ People tend to shy away from calling themselves that and will respond with, “I’m a competent writer,” “I’m a strong writer,” “I write well enough for my field,” or “I have been told that I’m good writer.” Only a few participants have called themselves good writers.

The other question that triggers a strong response is: “What feedback negative or positive has stayed with you about your writing?” This is my favorite question to ask because the answers I receive touch on all of life’s stages; interviewees have told me about experiences occurring in elementary school, college, and their professional lives. When a person recounts how he or she received feedback, they will share intimate pieces about that memory, and that intimacy is something that we aim to capture during our transcription process.

While transcribing the interviews, I always develop a different sense of the person. I am trying to type down everything they say, but the aim for a project like this is to catch not only the words but also the way our interviewees say them. I have to pay attention to the way people are speaking in order to truly create a glimpse of that person. People do not always speak in complete sentences. There are pauses in their speech, or sometimes there are no pauses at all. When transcribing the interview, we want to recreate that person’s speech patterns. This leads to using punctuation differently to represent when they are pausing, just trying to recreate the way they speak. To transcribe all of the interviews, I use a software program called F5. It has the basic controls of any transcription program, but F5 has a side bar, which I can program with short cuts to help my transcribing go faster. I will code certain behaviors and sounds like ‘I’ for something incomprehensible or ‘R’ for a long pause.

The transcription of the interview is the easiest portion of creating the profile. Once the transcription is done, I move on to selecting the quotes so my editor can choose the final quotation that best fits the photo; I usually provide three or four quotes. Sometimes there is a moment during an interview where I just know which quotes I will select. People say interesting things naturally. Most often the quotes that are selected are when people seem to feel most at ease during the interview. When I am interviewing a person, the interviewee has a certain apprehension that fades away during the interview process. That is the moment when I know I will have a good quote. There are other times when I have no idea what quotes I will use from the interview. That is when transcription of the interview becomes so much more useful. When I reread the interview, the quotes I need, that I thought I didn’t get, are often right in front of me. When I’m selecting quotes, I think about how they grab my attention, how they stir a reaction in me, and how well I remember them when I look away.

In my opinion, the hardest part of this process is getting the photo. The photo needs to be sharp, pop with the right amount of saturation, and provide that ‘wow’ effect. It has been a journey to get there. Taking a photo is more than just point-and-shoot. There are a lot of factors that I have to take into consideration. The ones that have been the most challenging for this project is time and lighting. When I go into someone’s office and conduct the interview, I only have about 5 minutes to get a good photo. If I can, I will stop by a person’s offices before the interview, so I can adjust my camera settings. This way I’m able to take a quick and decent photo. Most of my time for the project is spent processing photos. I was once told that if I cannot see the individual eye lashes, then the image is not sharp enough.

After the interview is transcribed and the photo finished, the editor chooses the quotation to publish out of the few that I have identified. We look for quotes that offer a unique perspective on writing, funny or interesting anecdotes about writing, and helpful tips that writers would find useful. We want the quote to reflect the overall interview, and this means looking for the story that is hidden in the quote. The quotes are often pulled out of context, so it is important that they are able to stand alone. The editor aims to preserve the personality of the interviewee through their voice. By preserving these details, the quote is strong, can stand alone, and lets the reader get a sense of the person.

Everyone here at Mason writes. We send emails, turn in papers, write reports, draft technical documents, edit books, and write reviews of other people’s writing. The goal of this project is to catch a glimpse of our collective writing experiences and showcase the diverse writing community and culture we have here at Mason. This project has been a lot of fun, and we look forward to continuing our conversations about writing with the Writers of Mason.

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