Online only, so far

Transcription! Aaaaaaaargh...

Solving the freelance writer’s nightmare?

"What I enjoy is writing not transcribing! Transcription I've always hated," says feature writer Sheryl Garratt - and a multitude of journos sigh and moan, "Ooooh, me too!" It's every writer's worst part of the job. But growing awareness of recent developments which just might ease the pain got a bunch of us exchanging recommendations in e-networks and at an LFB branch meeting.

Sheryl is one of several fans of hiring a (good!) transcription service, in her case provided by individuals not an agency. "When I was really busy I found the most amazing transcriber and it changed everything. I was so much more productive, literally doubled the number of commissions I could take.

"Left to myself, I'd do an interview, come home and next day start putting off the transcription: clean the house, do chores, over-research… This could go on for at least two days on a long deadline and then I'd end up doing it at 10 at night.

"So the transcriber saves me procrastination time. And when I'm working abroad I could send the recording to her before I left my hotel in New York or LA and it would be in my in-box before I got home, which is a godsend when you're on a tight deadline. I could even prepare for the next interview while the transcriber worked on the previous one. Before I found her, I'd be transcribing - or procrastinating! - and a new client would call me to offer a job and I'd have to turn it down because I didn't have time!"

Meanwhile, defence and music freelance Angus Batey reported from just discovering an international transcription agency which had him singing a happy song: "I'm in the middle of doing some work that's paid on a per-day basis rather than per-word. This morning I was at a conference which I'm going to have to write about tomorrow, and my editor suggested I try an online transcription service called Rev.com to save time - and save him quite a bit of cash. Although he'd pay Rev, it would free me up to be more productive while I'm on his dime.

"Initial response: it is amazing. The tasks I set were pretty demanding - including one panel session involving eight people, two of whom didn't have English as a first language and one of whom spoke in very heavily accented English; the recording was very echoey; and it was on an arcane, very technical topic (biofuel for business jets) with lots of acronyms that are often pronounced in ways that make the spellings less than obvious. I've just seen the transcript, and while I've not been through it with a fine-tooth comb yet, it looks pretty well immaculate."

Later that same week, Angus stressed that it was a one-off experience, but "I'm still pretty much wowed by the quality of what they've been able to do; that said, I'm beginning to see there's differences in the quality of the individual transcribers that they use - they're human!"

Two other freelances responded re Rev.com, freelance X saying they'd had a bad time with them a few years ago, and Anthony Gladman that as a current customer he found them "good - accuracy decent but not foolproof. You have an opportunity when placing your order to specify which accents are in your recording, and any difficult or technical vocab used."

However, the foregoing was no all-round thumbs-up for individual transcribers or big online agencies - only for the writerly bliss on finding the right one. From the wrong ones, these freelances had had rotten transcriptions that demanded checking top to tail, so saving little time while costing money. That is, it's down to trial and error steered by recommendations. But Anthony issued a general warning re agencies providing (much cheaper) AI transcriptions – he'd found the results "completely unusable", which even put him off trying Rev's brand new AI service.

Angus did recall one occasion, fondly remembered in his field, when AI had rendered "new Pentagon requirements" as "nude tentacle vaginas". On the other hand, he said that, when reporting from a big outdoor event, some colleagues had talked up another AI service as useful when working news-style with constant updates required - they deemed the speed/accuracy balance a fair trade-off at 10 cents per minute: "If you get to a bit you want to use and know it's not accurate, you click on the words in question and it'll allow you to play back that part of the recording so you can correct it yourself".

(A background thought is that, unsurprisingly, transcribers for some agencies can find themselves in an Uber driver/Deliveroo cyclist hole re pay and employment rights and it's hard to know what you're dealing with in that regard.)

Of course, all these pros had assessed cost-effectiveness. Rev charge US$1 (79p at time of writing) per minute of audio, with a faster turnaround if you pay US$2: "For example, a conference session recording was 80 minutes, and after I'd uploaded the file it gave an estimate of 35 hours for delivery - but for $2 per minute they'd turn it round inside four hours". He agreed he'll be more circumspect when he's paying the bill, but reckoned it would still often be worthwhile, depending on the fee, length of recording, and fringe benefits arising like an evening or a day off work. And he planned to explore splitting the cost with the commissioner...

Sheryl Garratt's star transcriber (no longer available it seems) charged her £1 per recorded minute: "If I'd done an interview that lasted two hours, that was £120 and it worked if a national paper or magazine was paying me, say, £1000-1200 for a 2500-word to 3000-word feature… when the transcript arrived before I got home so I didn't waste two days putting it off."

Trust/confidentiality is another crucial element of the journo-transcriber relationship. But it's sealed contractually by Rev - Angus: "The sound files and transcripts are all encrypted and the human transcriber have all signed confidentiality agreements with the company" - and by individuals who know their stuff - Sheryl: "She gladly signed an NDA (Non-Disclosure Agreement), which I wanted because a Hollywood star might give me their home phone number for queries and follow-ups or an interviewee might well ask for something to be off the record that could make someone a fortune in the tabloids."

A professional transcriber speaks

In another corner of the precarious economy, Juliette Jones has been transcribing for 10 years and comes recommended by another LFB pro. I asked her about the difficulties from her end as a freelance in her field: "I charge a minimum of £40 per audio hour (i.e 66p a minute). You need to be able to quote a price upfront according to the length of audio files the potential client has. There is obviously an abstract element in setting prices and I can't compete with the cheapest, but this seems to me fair for the effort and time it takes.

"Moans? Transcribers often have to deal with poor quality audio. I know that not everyone's tech-savvy and groups of speakers can be tricky, but I think there is a bit of the old 'Let's just throw this at the transcriber and they'll sort it out'. And then the occasional client expects you to be available to answer questions and do work at all hours, including late at nights on weekends..."

Transcription apps and such

Just in case everyone isn't on to this now... if you can't find/afford an ace transcription service, DIY is so much easier than it used to be in the days of stop/rewind/play because of a range of techie programs that speed it up no end - Sheryl has calculated that when she does it herself because she's on a lowish fee she can tap it out at three minutes per minute of recording using the standard Mac programme.

Others recommended in this tremendously unscientific survey?

Angus: "Transcriva was stupidly cheap - about $25? - and in terms of the time it's saved me it's probably not just the best piece of software I've ever bought, but quite possibly the best thing I've ever bought. I wouldn't dream of transcribing anything without it."

Anthony: " otranscribe.com - free browser-based software. You can insert interactive timestamps, and export your transcription to plain text, Google docs, or Markdown (from which you can easily get it into Word or HTML)."

And LFB branch chair Pennie Quinton chips in with a wheeze for the multilingual transcriber: "I'm having to transcribe 47 interviews in Arabic and English into word docs. So I'm experimenting with the dictation tool on my Macbook Pro.I listen to the interview on Audacity or Quicktime and read back the sentence into my Mac. This does take quite a long time and may not be perfect for working to an urgent print deadline, but is actually better than typing."

  • The theme of the LFB meeting on Monday 9 September is - provisionally - shorthand and transcription. Watch the meetings page for updates.