Transcription Tips for Freelance Writers

Most freelancers have a love/hate relationship with interviews. They love doing them, but hate the tedious transcription process that follows.

Personally, I enjoy transcribing. It’s just the type of mindless task I can do when I don’t feel like writing but want to be productive. And since I type close to 100 wpm, transcription makes me feel very productive!

Fellow writer Mary asked me in an earlier post if I had any tips for transcribing. I’ve used all of these techniques at some point in my career, so hopefully Mary and other freelancers will find them helpful.

1. Get the right tools.
When I used an analog tape recorder, it featured a dial for variable playback speeds, a conveniently-placed pause button and a “forward/reverse scan” option. I confess, I haven’t figured out how to properly rewind and fast forward on my new digital model, so I download the files onto my PC and use Windows Media Player. Not quite as convenient, but it works. I drool over the start/stop foot pedal professional transcriptionists use, proving that the “right tool for the job” makes life so much easier.

2. Don’t transcribe it all.
Because of my typing speed, I find it easier to just transcribe everything. “Re-living” the conversation in this way helps me form my articles. But if you’re looking to save time, or only need a handful of supporting quotes for your story, keep an eye on your tape counter, on an analog recorder, or the timer on a digital model, and jot down the number when your subject says something quotable. Then you can easily fast forward to get the material you need in a snap.

3. Edit as you go.
This not only makes transcription faster, it makes it less tedious because you are actually thinking about your article as you type. As you listen to the interview, type only the parts you’ll need. Fast forwarding through large chunks of text saves time and energy. Warning: Whenever I try this, I inevitably skip a section that, in retrospect, I decide would be perfect for the article and have to go through the entire interview again to find the quote I need. But I’m throwing it out there because it might work for someone.

4. Take a touch typing course.
It amazes me that many professionals still write by means of “hunt and peck.” This may work for articles, as you can probably type about as fast as you can compose the words, and it allows you to re-write as you go.
But there’s no advantage to slow transcription. If interviews and transcription is a large part of your job as a freelancer, take a touch-typing course or invest in Mavis Beacon software. I still cite my typing class as THE most valuable course I ever took in high school. By that time, I already knew how to write. Although good English teachers helped me hone my skills, they didn’t get me anywhere I couldn’t have gotten on my own. But hours of typing on those big heavy—not even electric!—typewriters, paper over my hands so I couldn’t see the keys, gave me what is perhaps my biggest money-making skill.

5. Don’t transcribe.
Hate transcription with a passion? Not every interview needs to be recorded. Learn shorthand, either the real kind or your own version, and take handwritten notes with only the information you need. This is also a great skill to have in a pinch, in the event of equipment failure or if you find yourself in the midst of a great story without your trusty recorder. I learned it the hard way, on the street as a cub reporter for a local weekly, because I couldn’t afford a tape recorder. I still take notes by hand at paintball games, rather than risking my pricey, high-tech Olympus WM-800.
Oh, your other choice if you don’t want to transcribe is simply to hire someone to do it for you. And yes, I’m available.