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How to transcribe hours of interviews without going crazy

Quite a satisfying word count.

Quite a satisfying word count.

The day I wrote 9,452 words was a transcribing day. I studiously listened to a slowed-down recording of the interview in question. I typed, paused, skipped back and repeated. I did this for hours. I allowed stretching, water, food and the occasional tweet about how terribly busy I was (because how else are you supposed to get anything done?).

By the end of it all, I was aching. My palms burned, my fingers were curled into permanent Home Row readiness and it just continued up my wrist and into my shoulder.

I vowed to book myself a massage when I hit 100,000 words transcribed. But then I didn’t because my health care plan (read: no health care plan) doesn’t cover it. But weeks later when I finished transcribing the last interview (and word 261,501) I did get smarter about how to transcribe. And now you can too!

Warm up your fingers

If my first assignment of the workday is transcribing, that means it might be the first thing I do with my hands other than make coffee. I’m bound to make a few (or a lot of) typos as I shake off the sleepies from my phalanges. Spend 5 or 10 minutes drafting a blog post or returning emails to get things moving quickly. Just avoid being sidetracked by social media for an hour.

10-minute sprints

It used to be when I sat down to face an hour and 45 minute tape, all I could think about was how long I would have to sit at my computer to put it into a Word document. Then I started breaking it up into 10 minute chunks of tape. I would transcribe from 0:00:00 until 0:10:00. How long that actually takes to transcribe depends on the content, but every 10 minutes of tape, I got up, shook it out, maybe topped up my tea or water, then got back to it.


Transcribing is a physical undertaking. Yeah, you just appear to be sitting at a desk typing, but your whole body is being impacted by the ergonomics of your set up. Don’t sit for too long. The sitting disease experts say get up every 20 minutes at least. Stretch your hands, arms, neck and back before it all starts to ache. If you meet someone who can teach us both how to avoid the onset of carpal tunnel, let me know.

How my hands feel when I don't stretch enough during transcribing marathon

How my hands feel when I don’t stretch enough during transcribing marathon

Practice may not make perfect, but it will make better

If you haven’t done much transcribing, but you’ll need to soon, practice transcribing by typing along with talk radio or television. Try to find something that has a similar form to what you’ll be transcribing (i.e. one person vs two or more; subject matter).

Use the slow-down feature on your media player

I use the VLC Media Player to playback my tapes for transcription. I used to use iTunes, but it’s very unfriendly to the transcriber. VLC jumps back just a few seconds when you hit the Reverse button and picks up exactly where you left off when you hit pause/play. It can also slow down your recording. For me, this means I can keep up typing even when I’m listening to a fast-talker, and I’m not wasting time pausing and jumping back several times in a single sentence. This is especially useful if you need to type verbatim.

Speed up, slow down, the world is your audio oyster!

Speed up, slow down, the world is your audio oyster!

Don’t use the slow-down feature on your media player

But if you don’t need every single word as spoken, you may not benefit from the slow-down feature. In fact, it may just be slowing you down. In fact, maybe you should use the speed-up feature instead to get through a part of the tape that you’re pretty sure is irrelevant to your notes.

Choose your word processor wisely

My computer has been buggy lately, the simple task of switching between Microsoft Word and VLC being enough to render it beachballed. If this happens to you, your time might be better spent typing into a simpler program, like WordPad, TextEdit or OSX’s Notes. Just be aware that some programs (I’m talking to you, TextEdit) may autocorrect your typing in a way that does more harm than good.

Leave the research for later

Sure, you could Google to learn in exactly which year Sapporo hosted the Winter Olympics while you’re midway through transcribing a sentence about it, because you’ll need the date later. Or, you could leave it for now so you can keep transcribing.

Set fractional goals so you can feel accomplished

Don’t decide you’re going to transcribe 3 hours of tape today if you know you set that goal yesterday and were too pooped to carry on halfway through. Set goals so you can meet them and feel like you’re making headway in a big project, but be reasonable so you can actually meet them. An unmet goal isn’t of much use to you.

Highlight the highlights

Whether it’s a memorable turn of phrase or a whole paragraph of goodness, use your word processor to highlight anything you want to be sure to focus on later. There’s no point in highlighting everything, though, so be discerning.

Filed under: Blog, Writing Tips

About the Author

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I am a writer living under a pile of scrap paper and unopened fan mail from the cable company. I believe a messy desk is simply a sign of inspiration waiting to be uncovered. But I’m biased. More from me on Twitter: @zoeywrites

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