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.
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!
- 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.
- 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”.
- 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.
- Download services – there are millions of these around, but I usually recommend http://www.yousendit.com 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!
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!
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