LibroEditing proofreading, editing, transcription, localisation

Ten top tips for transcribers

I’ve been advising a colleague on how to develop the transcription side of her business recently, and these tips and hints came out as being the most useful for her – so I’m sharing them with you, too. Do comment if you find these helpful or have more to share!

1. Make sure that you can do it!
Before you launch into your first transcription project, check that you can do it first! This includes:
  • Being able to touch type
  • Being able to type quickly
  • Having the requisite technology

You can have a look at this post to check you’re suited for the work, and this one about the technology to use. Transcription jobs often come in at short notice and have tight turnarounds, so it really pays to be prepared.

2. Make sure that your ergonomics are tip-top

Transcription is the most demanding of my tasks. Typically, you’re pounding a keyboard for several hours at a time, typing as fast as you can while straining to hear the tape. Here are some of the things I and my colleagues have learned:

  • Use a proper keyboard with little legs, not a laptop keyboard, even if it’s propped up
  • Make sure that your chair is adjusted so that you can sit straight, looking slightly down at the screen, with your forearms sloping slightly down to your hands and your hands arched over the keys
  • Make sure that your feet are flat on the floor with comfortable bends to the knees; if not, put a box or footrest in front of your chair
  • Make sure that the cable on your headphones is long enough to reach your computer without you having to bend at all sideways or twist your head
  • Make sure that your headphones or earphones are comfortable
  • Take regular breaks to stand up, stretch, give your ears a rest and refocus your eyes – once an hour at very least (I do some squats and calf raises every hour as I seem to store tension in my legs when I am transcribing)

3. Get software to manage your transcriptions

Professional transcription software allows you to control the tape using function keys or even a pedal (like in the old days of audio typing) and will make you much quicker at doing the work. More information on software here – make sure you get used to it first!

4. Make sure that you understand what the client wants

You wouldn’t believe how many choices are involved when it comes to providing transcriptions for clients. Here are just some of them:

  • Do they want  you to type out exactly what the speakers say, take out the ums and ers but retain the rest, polish up the sentences so they make grammatical sense, or make non-native English speakers sound like native English speakers?
  • If you are transcribing an interview, do they want you to include the full questions or just notes?
  • If the person who they are interviewing says that something is off the record, do they want you to stop typing, or take it down and mark it up as off the record?
  • Do they want you to include and mark pauses, and how?
  • How do they want you to mark unclear sections or words that you can’t understand but can type a phonetic version?
  • Do they want you to timestamp the document (i.e insert 05:00, 10:00 etc. at the relevant points in the document), and how often, if at all?
  • How do they want you to differentiate between the speakers? (this could range from first initial, surname, in bold, with a colon to putting the questions in italics with no names)
  • Do they want US or UK spelling? Oxford -z- spellings or “British English” -s- spellings?
  • Do they have a special font or line spacing they wish you to use?
  • Do they have a template that they wish you to use?

I have experienced all of these variations in my own transcription work. You may be working in a team where it’s vital to have all transcriptions looking the same, or the client might just work with the transcriptions in a particular way.

I have a standard list of questions I send out to clients if they don’t specify, so that I can make sure that I’m doing what they want.

5. If it is anything but a general text, ask for a list of terminology

When I work with music journalists, I always ask for the band name so I can check the album and song titles and band members’ names – I feel more professional if I get that right for them.

If I’m working with a particular kind of client and there seem to be a lot of specific terms, I ask for a list of terms, or send my own list and ask them to check if they’re correct, especially if it’s a long-term project. Again, this makes you look professional and avoids the client having to do any extra work to correct your interpretation of terms.

Of course, it helps if you know a bit about the topic to start with. I always turn down medical and legal transcription jobs because they’re very specialised, and I like to think that I know about music, but I did have to ask a client if I’d heard “Bowel Bass” correctly (I had!).

6. Get to grips with Word’s auto complete function

Auto complete can save you keystrokes and time by allowing you to type a few letters or a word fragment and have it expand into a word or phrase. I’ve written an introduction to this topic with more detail on personalising it, if you want to read up on this. Being able to type “tyv” and have “thank you very much” appear in your document, or having your “beh” turn into “behaviourally” is key to cutting down the time taken to type out that tape.

7. Monitor how long it takes you to do an hour or whatever, on average

Once you’ve got into transcribing, monitor how long it takes you to transcribe an hour of tape, on average. This will help you to predict workflows and give your client an estimate of how long you will take to complete their work.

However, do note two things here:

  • Time taken can vary considerably (see Point 8 below) so always under-promise and over-deliver. My average rates vary from 2 hours typing to 4 hours typing for one hour of tape, although my absolute average is around 3 hours typing for every hour of tape
  • Don’t forget to build in breaks – if I’m sent 3 hours of tape at midday, it will not take me until 9pm!

8. Be aware of the variables

I’ve known people who are new to transcribing to get upset when a tape takes them a long time. It might be just that the job is difficult or has some factors that would make it take longer for ANYONE to complete.. It can really vary – here are some reasons why a tape could take longer to type than average:

  • It’s a new client or project – I always speed up as I get used to the client’s voices and terminology and the way the conversations go
  • The sound quality is poor, leaving you to have to rewind and go over much more than usual
  • The job involves taking down every single word the speakers say and they have a lot of repeated words and / or talk very quickly
  • The speakers have heavy accents
  • There are more than two speakers and they are difficult to differentiate (that’s why I charge more for more than two speakers)

As I said in Point 7 – try to have a listen to the tape before you make any promises on timing, and always under-promise and over-deliver!

9. Be a perfectionist but not too much of a perfectionist

It’s brilliant if you take great care over your transcription and try to make it all as good as you can. It’s not brilliant if you spend hours labouring over every tiny section of tape, trying to make everything out or frantically Googling for obscure titles of album tracks:

  • Sometimes the tape will be unclear and no one could hear it – mark it as unclear, pop the tape timing down and move on
  • Sometimes people talk over each other and you can’t hear what one or both of them is saying – mark that and pop the tape timing down and move on
  • Sometimes people use words or talk about people whose names you cannot make out – have a go at sticking down what you can hear, mark with a question mark and the tape timing and move on

I know that when I’ve read some of the stories that my journalist clients have written, I’ve thought – “Oh, THAT’s what they said!” and I’m very experienced at this work. The clients don’t mind, as long as you get most of it and tell them about what you can’t make out. Often they will be quality checked by someone else, or the journalist will know much more about the band than you do, or they might have a little giggle at a mis-hearing and move on from it. The world will not end, and I don’t believe that anyone can transcribe a whole long tape completely perfectly.

10. Ask for feedback

Each time that I complete the first job for a new client, I ask them if there is anything that I could do differently that would help them to work with the text I produce. And if I don’t get any feedback at all from a corporate client (some of them only feed back when there is an error, which I find a bit challenging!), I will ask them for it. If you really didn’t grasp a section of tape or fear you mis-heard an important term and it’s going to come up again, ask for feedback.

And if the feedback is good AND the client says it’s OK to use it, pop it on your references page!

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Thanks to Laura Ripper for helping me to put together this list. Was it helpful? Is there anything else that I haven’t mentioned that would have helped you when you were 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.

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