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What does it take to be a transcriber? by Catherine Bennett


The Art of Transcription

Some years ago, I had a colleague who dictated all of his letters and documents onto tape for me to type up. When mini cassettes were introduced, he saw this as a wonderful opportunity to carry a recorder with him at all times so’s to be ready to dictate whenever and wherever he could. Unfortunately, his wherever included while walking his dog on the downs, the end result of that usually being a great deal of wind or rain noise but not much easily decipherable speech. Mind you, that was preferable to his bath-time dictating which always had an accompaniment of his son chatting and splashing water in the background, as well as an overriding hollow echo!

Somehow, this colleague of mine never seemed to fully appreciate that I had to try and filter out all the background distractions in order to make sense of what he said. So he continued to dictate at any time he could, and I continued to use all my skills and experience to make sense of the recordings. I can only think I must have done pretty well or he’d have stopped presenting me with such extremely challenging tapes!

So what does make for a good transcriptionist, what are the skills we need?


Hearing and listening

It’s obviously very important when transcribing audio dictation to have good hearing, but we also have to have excellent listening skills as well. Being able to hear the words is not enough, we have to be able to resist interpreting or second-guessing what’s coming next – that can be surprisingly difficult at times but if we don’t listen carefully to the exact order of the words, the final transcription could be quite different from the audio!


Typing – speed and accuracy

Again, typing quality and ability are crucial to being a first rate transcriptionist. But which is more important, speed or accuracy?

Well, speed is obviously a huge advantage to us; after all, the more slowly we type, the longer each transcription will take us! But being confident and fast is also important because audio will never all be at a consistent rate. When you consider that normal speech fluctuates between something like 40 or 50 words per minute to well over 120 words, a good transcriber obviously needs to have the ability to vary their typing speed as necessary.

But accuracy will always be top priority when transcribing. After all, the reason for transcribing an audio file is simply to transfer the spoken word to the written one. If the transcript doesn’t replicate the interview, forum or presentation, there’s very little use for it.


Literacy, punctuation and grammar

Basic grammar is an aid to a transcriber’s speed – after all, if we don’t know the difference between there, they’re and their, we’re going to be doing a lot of stopping and checking which spelling to use!

More than that, though, the reason for transcribing audio is to have an accurate and meaningful written record of what’s said and that does require that the typist has the knowledge to translate the spoken word to its written equivalent quickly and efficiently. A misspelled word or misused punctuation can completely alter the meaning of a sentence (as in the case of the panda which “Eats, shoots and leaves” – an old joke, but still one of my favourites!).


Specialist knowledge and research

An above-average vocabulary and knowledge of grammar won’t be enough for all transcription; both the medical and legal professions rely heavily on dictation and there are some truly exceptional transcribers in each of those fields. But there will always be words we can’t hear, don’t know, or are unsure how to spell, so knowing when to do some research is essential – as is the ability to research effectively and select the correct result or spelling for the context.



As well as all of the above skills, truly good transcribers have the aptitude to lose themselves in the audio they’re typing up.

The best way I can describe this is to give an anecdote about another erstwhile colleague who used to dictate letters at home in the evening ready for me to type up the following day. His dictation was always beautifully clear and he’d make sure there was little or no background noise – really, I could just play the tape and lose myself in the typing.

One day, I was furiously typing up his latest tape when I came across something completely untypable. With a sigh, I re-wound and re-listened, only to find I’d been so absorbed in transcribing that I’d included the part of the recording where he’d said “I feel very lucky to be dictating this while sitting at home with a glass of wine next to me and a purring cat on my lap. You’ll listen to this in the office, but I know you like cats and wanted to share some of the relaxation, hope you enjoy”. He’d then held the recording machine by his cat … the strange noise was purring!! And, I have to admit, hearing it brightened my day considerably!

All in all, the best transcriptions result from the typist having a complex mix of skills, experience, talent, training, and knowledge.

But it takes a couple of additional traits – patience and a sense of humour – to make a truly excellent transcriber!


Catherine is a specialist transcription service provider with over 20 years experience.  You can find out more about transcription and how Catherine and her team can help you at www.fingertipstyping.co.uk.

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