The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Transcriptionists
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The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Transcriptionists

Transcriptionists don’t have the luxury that interviewers and stenographers have, being able to pipe in now and again with a “Sorry—what was that?” “Could you spell that?” “Would you mind slowing down a little?” By the time we get the file, the speaker is long gone. There are a few habits that transcriptionists can develop, however, to consistently put out a good product.

1. Be a Good Listener

Well, obviously. You can’t transcribe properly if you’re not listening, right? But listen in the sense that you would to a friend. Someone who might want to expound about a new job or new love interest or recent vacation. You may be completely disinterested in the subject, but you give it your full attention because it’s the polite thing to do, and because true enjoyment comes out of sharing time with that friend. As a transcriptionist, you may be given audio files with subject matter that bores you to tears, or speakers with political, social, or religious views that you may find objectionable. But imagining those people as if they were sitting in the room with you brings you into the conversation, and changes transcribing from being a job to an enjoyable experience where you’re learning about different people from different walks of life.

2. Know Your Software

Each of us has a certain words per minute we can type. But even the fastest among us face a daunting challenge in keeping up with some speakers. Yes, there are those speakers who are used to conversing in a slow, measured pace, but there are those who ramble with the speed of an Oscar winner who has heard the get-off-the-stage music begin and realized he hasn’t thanked a third of the people he intended to. Most transcription software allows you to calibrate your settings: what percentage of normal speed the recording will play at during a “slow speed” setting, and how far back a jump you can take by pressing your foot pedal. Take some time during the first few minutes of a recording to dial in the settings for a particular speaker or set of speakers, allowing you to use your foot pedal to generate a good rhythm for yourself.

3. Move On… But Come Back

Sometimes you’ve got to transcribe a blank. Sometimes the word or phrase you’re listening to just isn’t registering and you don’t even have a best guess for it. So move on. But quite often, our ears get acclimated to a speaker as we listen longer, particularly one with an unfamiliar accent or patter of speech. Revisiting an earlier part of the transcript once the whole audio has been transcribed allows us to listen to it with more calibrated ears, and those blanked-out words may suddenly reveal themselves. It may also be a case where that particular word or phrase was spoken again later in the transcript, but much more clearly by the speaker. Or the speaker may have given more context for the word later on, and you were able to make a more educated guess at that time. A blank that sounded like “pacta” suddenly crystallizes into “FACTA” once you hear the economist in question speaking about the Fair and Accurate Credit Transactions Act!

4. Stop—and Rewind

As with most professions that involve typing, it’s important to take frequent breaks to rest your eyes, your fingers, your back, and so on. Once you’ve returned from your cup of coffee or brief bit of exercise, back the recording up about 15 to 30 seconds and read along with what you previously typed. You’ll allow your ears to get back in the rhythm of the speakers’ voices, allowing your brain to coast a little and pick up speed before it gets kicked back in gear. And the little extra proofing doesn’t hurt, either.

5. Become a Good Guesser

Every transcription job has its own particular jargon, and even a “Jack of all trades” might not be familiar with every term. Medical terminology, economic acronyms, engineering lingo…. all of these will have you heading over to Google hunting for the correct spelling. Sometimes you can get lucky with Google search just by guessing. Looking for an antiplatelet agent that kind of sounds like “pirasugel?” Go ahead and type it in; Google will ask if maybe you meant “prasugrel.” But in instances where the spelling is even more challenging —say, abciximab—a little more creativity may be required. Search for a list of antiplatelet agents instead and browse the list for what sounds right. Do the same with people’s names that are referenced by your speakers. If the audio file mentions the company they work for, or a publication they might have authored, type that in along with your best guess for the name.

6. Keep in Style

Go through your style guide every once in a while for a brush-up. It’s good practice to have the style guide open in a separate window just for quick reference during transcription, since it may be months between occurrences of certain nuances that you originally learned but have since forgotten. But in general—particularly if you do other writing that follows other style guides—it’s a good exercise to refresh yourself on everything that you should be doing.

7. Expand Your Horizons

The more well-read a transcriptionist is, the more effective that transcriptionist is. Browse magazines you might not ordinarily read, or sections of the newspaper that you might skip on the way to the movie section or puzzle page. You don’t need to memorize every stock in the Russell 2000 Index, but by reading the Business section, you can learn how information about those stocks is presented in writing. You don’t have to study for a contractor’s license, but perhaps a look through Better Homes & Gardens the next time you’re in a waiting room at the doctor’s office will familiarize you with home improvement terms. And spend some time reading different types of novels to get a feel of how different characters speak, because a transcriptionist will encounter all sorts of “characters” in his or her work, and being able to accurately convey their voices—their essence as well as their message— in print is the most critical element of transcription work.