If you’re running interviews or focus groups as part of your research, you’re going to end up with plenty of audio, or perhaps video, which needs transcribing. If you’ve ever tried transcription, you’ve probably found it can take a surprisingly long time, and there are inevitably bit of audio which you find yourself puzzling over – what exactly was that word? Who was speaking then?
I’ve done a lot of transcription, from audio, video, and live conversation, and the good news is that there are plenty of tricks which will help you speed up, while retaining the level of accuracy you need.
How do I make high quality recordings?
Transcribing becomes a lot easier when you’ve got a clear recording. There are a wide range of high quality portable recorders available, and your department may well have some available to hire if you can’t justify purchasing one. Find a suitable venue – somewhere with no background noise – and if you can, conduct a quick test to make sure that everything is working and you’re getting decent audio. If you have to use a noisy location, you can improve the sound quality by using decent microphones, just make sure that people are speaking directly into them.
If you can use video, so much the better. Most people are used to using videoconferencing software, so if you are recording online, this is a great choice. All the most popular software has noise reduction features and is capable of recording. Even if you’re only interested in the audio, being able to lip read during playback can help you pick out words.
If you’re conducting an interview, you’ll need to focus on it, but you can always note down important phrases or things to remember. You can ask participants to repeat any unclear words or phrases, or even spell them out if necessary, and this will help a lot when you’re transcribing the recording.
After you’ve finished the recording, check the audio as soon as possible. It may not be practical to transcribe it straight away, but if there are any bits which haven’t recorded, or that are difficult to make out or to distinguish who is speaking, you might be able to fill in the gaps from memory or by checking with the other participants.
What software and equipment can help with transcription?
You can find automated transcription software, but its accuracy is not great, and it is unlikely to be suitable for your research. You don’t need anything fancy to write your transcription, software like Microsoft Word is perfectly sufficient for typing, formatting, and checking your work.
For playing back audio, Audacity is a great choice, and it’s free. It has features which can help remove background noise from your recording, and you can slow down the playback if that helps you to keep up.
One piece of hardware which is often recommended is a foot pedal. Many models are available, lots of which will simply plug into a USB port. They needn’t be expensive, but your department may have some available to borrow, particularly if you want to test them out.
Finally, you’ll want some decent headphones. You might already have some, but if not, ones with noise cancellation can be useful if you share a working space.
How detailed should my transcription be?
This is a massively important decision. The more detailed it is, the longer it will take, and the more accurate you will need to be. If you just need the sense of something and won’t be analysing the text, you can abbreviate and paraphrase at will, and you’ll get through the transcription a lot quicker. You can always mark or spend more time accurately transcribing specific quotes of interest.
If you need to analyse the text, you will – at least – need to transcribe every word. But there are still ways you can save time. Firstly, use abbreviations. So long as you will remember what they stand for, abbreviate extensively, and then use the find and replace function to alter them to the full word. If it’s an abbreviation you use regularly, you can set the word processor to autocorrect it every time.
If you need a fully verbatim transcript, including even the “ums” and “ers”, it’s going to take longer again, and even if you’re a fast typist, you’re going to need to spend plenty of time pausing and restarting the audio.
It’s also important to decide what you need to transcribe – do you need to fully transcribe introductions, irrelevant chat, or note down things like people entering and leaving the room? If these aren’t important to your research, you can save lots of time by omitting them from the transcript.
Don’t worry about formatting. You can quickly sort out the formatting after transcribing, and similarly, there’s no need to fix spelling mistakes or errors in capitalisation as you go. It’s quicker to keep going and catch these with a quick proofread afterwards.
Should I use a transcription service?
There are a variety of audio transcription services out there, and if you’ve got the spare budget, they might be worthwhile. However, the person transcribing the audio almost certainly won’t be a specialist in your field, so it increases the risk of inaccuracies creeping in, and you’ll want to proofread the transcription.
Another option is to find someone in your department who would like the extra money, perhaps a student, although if they haven’t got previous experience of transcription, they will probably start off working slowly. If you’ve got a lot of transcription to get through, you’ll get quicker with practice, and you won’t get that practice if you ask someone else to do it!
How can I get faster?
Like any piece of writing, find a comfortable place to work where you won’t be disturbed, make sure you’ve got everything to hand before you start, and save your work regularly. And plan when you’re going to take breaks, as you’ll lose focus if you get tired, and also slow down and make more mistakes.
Try to type accurately. While you can fix spelling mistakes later, going too fast and making mistakes in almost every word will slow you down in the long run.
It can be helpful to add timecodes to your transcription, particularly if it’s a long recording. Aside from being helpful in referring to it in your research, it can help when you’re proofreading, to go back and correct any mistakes. If there’s a word or phrase you’re struggling to hear, note down the time on the recording, move on, and come back to it at the end. Coming back to it once you’ve become more familiar with the speakers’ voices, and potentially have more context for a particular term, might make it easier to work out.
Finally, while abbreviations can always help you speed up, they are particularly useful when you need to distinguish speakers in your transcript.
Everyone starts slowly when they first transcribe work, but the more you practice, the quicker you’ll get. You’ll find the approach which works best for you, and your typing speed will increase, too.
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