Best Practices for Working with a Transcriptionist

We are grateful for the expertise of veteran Oral History Association members who are willing to share their wisdom with our readers. In this week’s post, Teresa Bergen shares tips for producing high quality interview transcripts when working with a transcriptionist, drawn from her forthcoming book, Transcribing Oral History.

By Teresa Bergen

You’ve conducted your interviews and backed up all your audio. Now comes the next step on your project’s journey to the archive: transcription. It’s simple, right? You pay somebody (or if you’re really lucky you have a reliable volunteer) and they type all your brilliant interviews into legible, searchable documents for grateful scholars. What could go wrong?

Well, a lot of things. But a little bit of work upfront can pay off in less editing later, and perhaps develop a wonderful relationship with a transcriptionist who will also help you on future projects.

Quality recording

The best thing you can give your transcriptionist is a high-quality recording. It amazes me how many times I’ve heard interviewers in a noisy environment laughingly make remarks to the narrator about how they feel sorry for whoever is going to transcribe this. Talk about shooting yourself in the foot! Sure, the transcriber will suffer in the short run, but ultimately, it’s the project and future researchers who will miss out. Transcriptionists don’t have supersonic hearing. The project will wind up paying extra for a transcript that looks like Swiss cheese with all the parts marked [unclear] or [inaudible]. But don’t think the transcriptionist is happy because she’s charging 50 percent more—it’s probably taking her three times as long to do it.

In short, find a quiet place to record and test your equipment. And remember, it is all about the narrator. Test the recorder with the narrator sitting an appropriate distance from the microphone and talking at their ordinary volume. While interviewing, try to keep your gratuitous “mm hmms” and “yeahs” to a minimum, as too often they obscure the narrator’s words.

Useful documents

Along with the audio, certain documents will make the transcription process much more efficient. These are a:

  • Contract – Whether you work for a big institution that requires a 10-page contract or you’re a tiny community oral history project, have an agreement in writing. Even if it’s just in emails, be sure you cover the expected number of audio hours, the transcriptionist’s rates (including things like difficult audio, more than two speakers, or rush transcription, if applicable), the estimated turnaround time (based on when the transcriptionist receives the files, not when the agreement is made) and how soon the transcriptionist will be paid.
  • Sample transcript – If you’ve already begun your project, send a sample transcript to your transcriptionist so she can match the format.
  • Style guide – Some larger institutions produce their own transcribing style guides. These may include how to deal with nonstandard grammar, use of ellipses, transcribing nonverbal vocalizations, and other decisions a transcriptionist makes on a minute to minute basis. If your institution does not have a style guide, put together your own or use somebody else’s style guide, such as the excellent one written by Baylor. This assures consistency in your transcripts and will cut editing time.
  • Proper noun list – Almost every project has specialized vocabulary, ranging from family and geographical names to occupational lingo. Project managers should require the interviewer to submit a proper noun list along with the recording. The interviewer should make notes during the session, being sure to verify spelling with the narrator either during or after the interview. The narrator may not know how to spell all the terminology or proper nouns. In this case, the interviewer and/or project manager may need to do internet or other research to verify spellings. It’s unlikely they’ll catch everything; the transcriptionist will probably add to the list as she transcribes.
  • Any other paperwork mandated by your institution, such as confidentiality statement, purchase order, or invoice format

Paying mechanism

Project managers should know exactly how the contractor will be paid before they send out audio for transcription. If the person who commissions the work doesn’t plan ahead for payment, they might face bureaucratic obstacles that take months to clear up. Meanwhile, the transcriptionist’s bills are due, and she may have to jump ship in favor of prompter payers.


Contract transcriptionists are probably working on multiple projects simultaneously. Let the transcriptionist know which files are a priority. Perhaps your whole project is a priority because you are writing an interview-based book with your submission deadline fast approaching. Transcription turnaround time may also be accelerated if a narrator is old, ill, and/or has quickly deteriorating abilities.


Project managers sometimes treat transcription as an afterthought, a clerical duty to be dealt with after the more exciting collection stage. And sometimes transcriptionists themselves are treated this way. Not only is this demeaning for the transcriptionist, but it overlooks a big opportunity for the project. Transcriptionists are often well-educated and well-read, and some are also editors and authors. They’re word people—that’s how they got into this business. If project managers treat transcriptionists as part of the team, they may benefit from the transcriptionists’ insights. For example, if you’re making a documentary film or podcast from an interview, the transcriptionist could save you time by marking especially coherent sound bites or other special moments.

Also, remember that the transcriptionist is not a machine, but a human conduit who thinks and feels. If the interview material is emotionally difficult –think war, rape, child abuse – brief the transcriptionist and make sure she’s willing to deal with these subjects before sending out the audio. Your transcriptionist is going to spend many hours alone in a room listening and re-listening to this material. This affects a person.

Share the credit. It may take many people to produce a single hour of interview. So many tasks go into it: identifying narrators, scheduling interviews, doing the interviews, transcribing, auditing, editing, archiving, using the interviews to create exhibits, books, films, podcasts, and other end products. Acknowledge everybody who had a hand in the process, including the transcriptionist.

Teresa Bergen is a freelance writer and transcriptionist. Her latest book, Transcribing Oral History, is due out in August.