Working as a professional transcriber

27 Mar

In  previous posts I’ve talked about why it’s necessary for humans (rather than machines) to do transcription work and how to work out if this is a career for you. This article goes into more detail about the technology you can use to help you, and how to produce a professional transcription that will bring you repeat and recommended business.

Technology for transcription work

The first thing you need is a word-processing package, of course. I use Microsoft Word. Then you need some software to manage your recordings. I use NCH ExpressScribe. It’s also a good idea to sign up to (the free options of) services like Dropbox and YouSendIt, and to be aware of these services, as the audio files people will want to send you might well be very large – too large to send by email attachment.

Why do I need to use transcription software?

When I mention transcription software, some people think I sneakily use special software to do the actual transcription! Not at all! What ExpressScribe does is allow me to

a) manage my transcriptions – I load all the ones I have to do into the software and I can see how long they are and keep my place in them. As I complete them, I delete them from the software (they’ll still be in my files on my PC, though).

b) manage aspects of the tape like the loudness and speed of the tape (if people are talking really slowly, I can speed the tape up slightly and get through it more quickly)

c) start, stop, rewind and fast forward the tapes using the function keys on my keyboard (or any other keys I choose to assign – I messed around with this a bit and did move one function key that I kept hitting by accident, causing the tape to slow to 50% speed!). You can connect the software to a USB foot pedal if you need to save keyboard movements and use your feet to stop and start the tape.

NCH express scribe

How can Word help me to transcribe faster?

The way Word can really help  you is through the use of shortcuts or AutoCorrects. I have written two articles about these previously (what it is and how to find it and how to use it to speed up your typing).

Basically, you need to get good at:

  • Identifying commonly used words or phrases, especially
    • longer sets of words or phrases
    • words that you stumble over typing, however short
  • Assigning keyboard shortcuts to them that you can remember when you’re typing

In this way, you can type something like:

v imp to give envl pons to all ppl in the group to save the env.

and have Word turn that into:

Very important to give environmental responsibility to people in the group to save the environment.

I’ve saved almost 50% of the keystrokes needed to type that sentence there, which does build up over the course of 20 pages of transcription!

How can people send me big audio files to transcribe?

Your clients have four options for sending you their audio files. You’ll just be sending nice, neat Word documents back, but their files might be enormous!

  1. An ftp server – this looks scary but is used by some of the larger corporates I work with. They will place the audio files on their own server. You will log in and download the file onto your own computer, then either upload the transcription or email it to your contact.
  2. Zipping – this will work for small files but a huge .wav file will still be too large for this method. Your client should be able to right click on the file in their own Windows Explorer (or Mac equivalent) and choose “Send to zip file”. This will make the file small enough to send. You will need to unzip it at your end – download the file, right click in Windows Explorer and choose “Extract”.
  3. File sharing – a file and folder sharing service like Dropbox will allow your client to save their file in a special folder that can be shared with your email address. Dropbox acts like another folder on your system, and means that you can access the file and save it into your transcription software from the shared folder. You need to have Dropbox installed yourself before you do this but you can get a free version.
  4. Download services – there are millions of these around, but I usually recommend as I’ve found that easy to use and reliable. Here, the client uploads their file to the service, enters your email address and the service emails you a link from which to download the document. Watch out, as many of these have a time limit, so get it downloaded as soon as you know it’s there! I have an account with YouSendIt for sending large files, but most of these do not require you to have an account, and the client should be able to send up to a certain file size for free.

All of these options have advantages and disadvantages. Many of my clients know what to use, but some need advising, so it’s worth being aware of the options. For options 1 and 4, it’s worth waiting a little while from when the client tells you they’re uploading the file, as it can take a while to get up onto the server and back to you, so if you’re too eager to download, you might end up with half a file!

Producing a professional transcription

I have many regular transcription clients and they recommend me on to their friends and colleagues at a remarkable rate, too. I’ve asked them what differentiates me from other transcribers, and it comes down to this:

  • I check the client’s requirements up front
  • I produce an extremely accurate transcription
  • I produce a transcription with time stamps and other features to make it easy for the client to work with the text

of course, I’m super-reliable and always set appropriate expectations, but that’s part of being a good freelancer, not specific to transcription.

Establishing client requirements

It’s important to establish what the client wants out of their transcription right from the start. I will always send my clients a list of questions. These include:

  • Do  you want time stamping every 5 or 10 minutes, or at all?
  • Do you want me to record every single word, pause, um and er / smooth out the worst bits / rewrite the text in clear English?
  • Do you want American or English spellings?
  • Do you need your questions written out in full or just in note form (for journalists and researchers)
  • Do you have any other requirements – questions in Italics, speakers’ names in a particular format (for conferences) etc.
  • Do you have a list of conference attendees and session / paper titles (for conferences)

Once I’ve established these, I will make a note of them and obey them!

Being accurate

Your client is paying you to take down what’s on the audio file for them. Often they won’t be able to check the whole thing. I believe it’s important to:

  • Listen carefully and take down the words as accurately as you can
  • Look up band names, place names, company names and other things they mention
  • If you can’t hear something, don’t guess – make a note (see below)
  • Read through the transcription when you’ve completed it
  • Run a spell check over the document when you’ve finished

I do also warn my clients that any company names, brands, album titles etc. may not be accurate and should be checked. You can’t check everything. But you can make sure you spell that village in Somerset or Kazakhstan correctly (if you can’t type Kazakhstan quickly, create a shortcut!).

Making your transcription as professional as possible

It’s relatively easy to provide a professional transcription that will please and impress your client.

  • Give the transcription a sensible title and file name
  • Type it out clearly using a clear font and a fairly large size
  • If people are talking in great slabs of text, divide it up into paragraphs at natural breaks
  • Mark time stamps at 5 or 10 minute intervals – new line, 05:00, new line, carry on the text (with no capital if it’s half way through a sentence)
  • Mark places you can’t hear like this: insert a note in square brackets with the time of the unclear section: [unclear 32:44] (unless the client requests a different format – I have one who prefers <unclear 32:44>
  • If the audio file is 50 minutes long and there’s a 5 minute gap while the interviewee goes off to answer the phone, or it finishes at 45:30 and then all you can hear is your journalist putting the phone down, sighing and typing, only charge for the audio you transcribed. It’s a nice and ethical touch.

In this post I’ve talked about the technology and details that will help  you to be a popular and professional transcriber. I hope this has been helpful – do let me know if it has, or if you have any other advice for a new transcriber!

If you want to learn more about Transcription as a career, buy my book: A Quick Guide to Transcription as a Career – buy from Amazon UK or visit the book’s web page for worldwide links and news.

Related posts on this blog:

Why transcribers need to be humans and not machines

So you want a career in transcription?

Ten top tips for transcribers

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Posted by on March 27, 2013 in Business, Jobs, New skills, Transcription, Word


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53 responses to “Working as a professional transcriber

  1. Shelmith

    September 16, 2014 at 2:48 pm

    Hi this is a good blog and I have learnt a lot. I am in transcription for three months now and you are such an inspiration. Thank you


    • Liz at Libro

      September 16, 2014 at 3:15 pm

      Thank you for commenting; I’m glad you have found it useful.


  2. Rosa

    May 21, 2015 at 8:11 am

    I have just been made redundant as a legal secretary and am looking at starting my own audio transcription business. Your articles are very helpful thank you. I am now looking at how to register a company or do I need to research the demand first. Having worked in Legal I know there has been need for urgent transcription.

    Many thanks.


    • Liz Dexter

      May 22, 2015 at 6:25 am

      Hi Rosa, sorry to hear about your redundancy but legal experience is great and useful experience to have. I would do some research on agencies that use legal transcribers (look at the rates they offer carefully) and then register – there is a need and not everyone can offer the specific skill-set, so you’re in a good position. Good luck! More info on registering as self-employed in the resources part of the website, drop me a line if you need help finding it.


      • Clare

        May 29, 2015 at 4:34 pm

        Hi Liz, thanks for your posts – fantastic advice! I’d love to work from home (legal secretary like Rosa, but don’t know if it will really pay enough and also whether I’ll get enough work coming in…


        • Liz Dexter

          May 29, 2015 at 4:38 pm

          I’m glad they’ve helped. You could always start off doing it part-time around the day job and see how that goes – see my general business posts and my book “How I Survived my First Year of Full-Time Self-Employment” for loads of info on that path. That’s what I did, much less risk. Legal transcribers will be in demand and there are agencies which deal with this aspect, so worth having a look around. Good luck!


  3. Lisa

    July 24, 2015 at 12:27 pm

    I am in the process of starting my own transcription business and I wanted to thank you for being so descriptive!! I was having a heck of a time finding out about the software for the customers to use to get the transcription to me. Now, I’m very excited to look into the options you suggested. Thank you for spelling it out for me!!!!


    • Liz Dexter

      July 24, 2015 at 4:10 pm

      You’re welcome – thanks for your comment and best of luck with your business! Let me know if there are other particular topics you’d be interested in reading about, if I haven’t covered them.


  4. Brooke

    July 29, 2015 at 4:07 pm

    Thanks for a brilliantly descriptive resource on how to go about setting yourself up Liz. I’ve been unable to work due to a disability for the last 5 years and though I’m a freelance writer, I need some more work to make ends meet. A contact recently said, ‘hey, is this something you could do?’ I’ve transcribed as part of my role at jobs in the past but I hadn’t considered it as a freelance option. The 3 articles of yours I’ve just read have given me about 80% of the information I needed.
    Thanks again.


    • Liz Dexter

      July 29, 2015 at 4:09 pm

      I’m so glad I was able to help – can I help with the other 20% of the information you needed, too? It might be on here already – if I haven’t covered it and it’s something I can write about, I’ll be glad to do so.


  5. Cristina

    September 13, 2015 at 2:53 pm

    While doing a recent transcription using Express Scribe, I noticed that when the playback was at 100% speed the recording was actually faster than normal conversation. Is it possible that the recording was made at a faster speed and thus a 2 hour recording is actually a longer and more work than it appears to be?


    • Liz Dexter

      September 13, 2015 at 6:44 pm

      That sounds a bit odd. I sometimes get funny playback speeds on MP4 tapes – if it was one of those, try using an online conversion service to change that to an MP3 and see if that helps. I’ve not come across a tape that plays faster before now, but I have had ones that played slower. However, the tape length was the same in all of those cases. I hope that helps in some way!


      • Cristina Mansfield

        September 13, 2015 at 8:09 pm

        Thanks for writing back. Will let you know if I learn anything.

        Sent from my iPhone



  6. simon

    October 13, 2015 at 10:29 am

    Thank you for your article it has helped so much


  7. aninevorster

    January 14, 2016 at 1:03 pm

    Thank you so much for the helpful tips! Where did you start / advertise your services at the beginning? I’m more active on Facebook than I am on Twitter for example. Anine – South Africa


    • Liz Dexter

      January 16, 2016 at 11:34 am

      If you have a look at some of the other post in the series, there are a variety of options. I was lucky, in that my first client recommended me to other people and it’s spread from there. But I make sure I mention transcription on any sites I join such as freeindex and other listings sites and on Proz, and I’ve also suggested in the past that people contact their local university to see if there are students or other researchers looking for someone to transcribe their research interviews.


  8. Judi

    October 15, 2016 at 4:55 am

    Thank you for a very clear description of all things required for transcription. I knew nothing about the subject matter previously and after reading your article I have a clear view of what it entails. I’m glad I found your pages. Thanks very much.


  9. Rhoda Ndeke

    January 19, 2017 at 6:36 am

    Thank you for the detailed teaching.I have great interest in transcription.Now i look forward to starting this work boldly.


    • Liz Dexter

      January 19, 2017 at 8:09 am

      I’m glad you’ve found this useful! Good luck developing your career.


  10. pauline

    January 20, 2017 at 7:37 pm

    i have read about transcription and it is interesting but i wanted to ask how can one start ?


  11. madnblog

    August 25, 2017 at 1:28 am

    I’m glad I found this post. Thank you


    • Liz Dexter

      August 25, 2017 at 5:19 am

      Glad to help. I hope to update my book soon into a larger version, too.


  12. barbielynnne

    September 18, 2017 at 3:14 am

    Thank you for your posts. I’ve been looking for something to make a little extra money in my spare time, and possibly replace my very physical day job. I’ve always been a decent typist and started searching for what I could do with that. I found the information you provided very useful. Thanks again!


    • Liz Dexter

      September 19, 2017 at 7:18 am

      Glad I could help. There are loads of linked articles but if I haven’t yet covered something you need to know about, do let me know.


  13. adewils

    January 7, 2018 at 10:21 am

    Hi, this is really useful info. Do you know of any apps for the iPad that provide similar functionality to the NCH transcription software? I looked on the App Store but sometimes you don’t see some that are still relevant… thanks.


    • Liz Dexter

      January 7, 2018 at 5:42 pm

      Good question, and I’m afraid I don’t. I would look at what NCH offer as they have a huge range of software for different purposes, or get in touch with them to ask. Good luck!


      • adewils

        January 7, 2018 at 7:05 pm

        I looked at their software before asking you but they don’t have such an app. There doesn’t seem anything comparable for the iPad at the moment.


  14. Rachael

    June 19, 2018 at 8:00 pm

    Hi Liz,
    I am looking at a total change of career and have always toyed with the idea of being an audio typist or something similar so I started looking into this tonight and have came across audio transcription which has lead me to your articles.
    Within 5 minutes of reading I have bought your book on Amazon!
    The article is so interesting and you’ve really explained everything thoroughly while somehow keeping it really simple and easy to follow.
    I feel really optimistic about looking into this as a career so just want to say thanks,
    I’m really looking forward to receiving your book 🙂


    • Liz Dexter

      June 20, 2018 at 7:17 am

      This was lovely to read, thank you! I hope you enjoy the book and find it’s the career for you. Let me know how you get on!


  15. Helen Halsall

    May 16, 2019 at 10:11 am

    I’m like Rachael in that last review, looking for location independent career change and have been reading quite a bit about audio transcription. I have downloaded and begun reading your book. I’m struggling to decide whether I need a training course, some formal accreditation. I touch type and I’m quick, getting quicker as I’m now working on practising everyday and have transcribed some songs for a band in the past but little else. Would you advise or recommend a course?


    • Liz Dexter

      May 16, 2019 at 10:19 am

      Thank you for your comment, Helen. There are two routes, really – take online tests for companies providing transcription then go solo when you feel ready or want, to, or take a course such as an audio transcription one run by Pitman – look for professional office training companies like them rather than companies that promise the world for a costly course. There are medical and legal training courses which are essential for those areas unless you have direct secretarial or admin experience in those areas, but I can’t recommend any from personal experience. I hope you enjoy the book, there are a few more resources on this blog since I wrote it, too (one day I’ll get an expanded version written!).


  16. H Ab

    August 29, 2019 at 9:32 pm

    Very generous with comprehensive and thorough advice
    Where do I look to start finding transcribing work
    I am very familiar with medical field.
    How does it work in terms of fees per minute etc


    • Liz Dexter

      August 30, 2019 at 7:36 am

      Thank you for your comment. Please have a look at the other posts in the series which talk about finding work, etc. If you are experienced in the medical field, you will be able to get higher fees than for general transcription. I would suggest looking for a transcription agency that deals with medical transcription in the first place. Good luck!



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