Many journalists, academics, writers and ghost writers use professional transcribers like me to type up their tapes of interviews into Word documents. A professional transcriber can usually type faster than average, and by outsourcing to someone like me the writer can save their own time (typically it takes me 3 hours to transcribe 1 hour of tape; it often takes non-professional typists a lot longer).
If you are working with a transcriber, here are some top tips to make that transcriber happy. Because you want to keep your transcriber happy, right?
1. Book in advance
If your transcriber is good, they probably get booked up in advance. You’re likely not to be their only customer and they have to juggle their workload. For example, in the autumn of 2018 I was working on one academic project with 50 x 1 hour interviews, two book projects with ghost writers, and various other one-off journalist pieces. If you came to me with an hour’s worth of tape you needed turning around in no time at all, I might well have said no. And I hate disappointing people, so I try not to say no.
If you’re dealing with me and you have interviews booked in but not confirmed, it’s fine to say to me, “I’ve got an interview in two weeks’ time, can I reserve your time to type it up?” Far better to do that and then move or cancel it (I can cope) than to come to me in two weeks’ time with an urgent job.
2. Set expectations and realistic deadlines
Remembering that it takes your transcriber 3 ish hours to transcribe an hour of tape, even they can’t work miracles and deliver a three-hour tape overnight (commercial transcription agencies might be able to do that: if they outsource to people in different time zones, fair enough, but I’d watch the quality). It’s fine to send three tapes and ask your transcriber to deliver them as they do them, though. And if it is urgent, let us know up front as far in advance as possible. In addition, if things changes, as they often do, let your transcriber know so they can tweak their schedule.
3. Be clear on your requirements
Some of my clients like time-stamping by each of their questions, some none. Some like their words to be in CAPITALS, some in italics. Let your transcriber know your preferences – I send a little questionnaire to new clients for them to fill in. You’d be surprised how many options there are!
4. Tell your transcriber who the interviewee is
This helps with research and gives your transcriber a clue as to what the topic will be.
5. Be sensitive to your transcriber’s sensitivities
I have some set text I send to my prospective clients asking them to let me know if there are any vivid descriptions of violence or animal cruelty on their tapes. However, I really don’t mind drink and drug references or swearing (apparently a lot of the commercial transcription agencies don’t tolerate bad language which is bad news for music journalists!). So my clients very kindly let me know if there’s stuff I’m going to find hard to work with, and allow me to skip parts of tapes with extreme content (this has only happened once in my whole career so far).
It’s worth checking in with your transcriber if there is some iffy content and working out how to handle it with them, and they will appreciate it.
6. Be precise on the length of the tape you have
Again, bearing in mind that 3 x tape length time for transcribing, if you tell your transcriber you’ve got an hour’s tape and it’s actually an hour and ten minutes, that’s an extra half-hour to find in my schedule. Which is sometimes very tricky to find! You know how long your tape is, so it’s best to be precise, then it’s easier to set appropriate deadlines.
7. Make the best recording you can
It’s always going to be harder to hear someone else rather than yourself. You might be able to make out your questions and the fascinating answers through the shrieking of fellow diners and banging of cutlery; your transcriber won’t find it so easy.
Try to set your recorder to “conversation” or “interview” rather than “meeting” or “general” if you can, put it close to the subject and try to choose a quiet place to do it in the first place.
Do listen to the recording before sending it off; we all appreciate a warning if the tape quality isn’t that great or the background noise is high, and your transcriber might need to allot more time to the project.
8. If you have more than one interviewee, differentiate them
If you’re expecting your transcriber to label different people’s speech with their name, there are a few tricks you can use:
- if you have a couple of people round a table, have one to the left and one to the right
- always have all interviewees identify themselves for the tape
- try to mention their names now and then as you ask them a question; that way the transcriber knows they’ve got them the right way around
- with a round table discussion or focus group, try to have the attendees say their name before talking
- another idea with round tables and focus groups is to film them, then it’s clearer who is speaking
9. If there’s specific vocabulary or jargon, give your transcriber a source
I pride myself on getting terms right but sometimes it’s hard to tell. If your book is about a particular art form or you know your interviewees are going to be using for example hospital jargon, send your transcriber a list of commonly used but odd terms or point them to a glossary or resource.
10. Give your transcriber feedback
I always like to check I’m doing it right, as what I want to do is produce the best and most useful possible transcription for my client. And if there’s a word or name I’ve had to mark as unclear several times, I find it really useful to know what that word was, especially for an on-going project.
Also do confirm you’ve received the transcription: some of them are very long and can get lost in the ether, and it’s always good to know it has actually arrived.
I hope these tips will help people using a transcriber to understand what their transcriber needs and how they can help the relationship and the project run smoothly.