Transcription tips and tricks

Rachael Butler As researchers, we know that transcribing can be an arduous and challenging task! While some of you may be contracting this work out to professional transcribers, many researchers and students will undertake their own transcription. This may be due to a lack of budget, or because of the benefits it can provide in terms of increased familiarity with your data. Indeed, listening and re-listening to audio recordings can mean that you discern additional insights from what your participants say, and how they say it. If you’re in a position where you’re transcribing your own data, don’t view it as a negative – it can be incredibly valuable. To help you out, here’s some lessons we’ve learned over the years – we hope you find them useful.

Make sure you have clear recordings to work with

As part of planning for transcription, it is vital to gain a clear audio recording. There is nothing worse than that sinking feeling when you realise that you have an unclear (or even worse, unusable) audio file – this will impact on both the length of time required for your transcription, as well as the quality of the final document. Ensure that your recording device is of a high standard, and try to minimise background noise where possible.

Get the right equipment

There are a number of tools available to assist transcription – these can save time and reduce pain and frustration along the way!

As a starting point, we strongly recommend you purchase a foot pedal. This will allow you to play back your recordings, and control the speed, volume, and rewind/forward functions with your foot – keeping your hands free for typing. Depending on the digital dictaphone you have purchased, you may have been provided with a 'transcription kit' that contains software for playing back your recordings. Alternatively, we recommend the use of Express Scribe which is transcription software, and can be operated by using keyboard shortcuts or a foot pedal. Amongst other useful features, such software contains an automatic backstep, which means that whenever you stop it playing, the recording rewinds slightly. This is an invaluable function, and can save significant amounts of time.

Allow sufficient time

Transcribing is likely to take longer than what you think. Depending on the quality of your recording and your typing speed, you could be looking at between 4–6 hours for one 60-minute interview. Note also that focus groups, or interviews with more than 2–3 speakers are likely to take longer.

The other thing to factor in is break times. You’re most likely already aware of the value in taking regular breaks and its positive impact on productivity. This is particularly important during transcription, as it also prevents possible injury from extended computer use.

Think about your transcribing conventions

It’s important to think about the conventions you employ in your transcripts. This includes the level of verbatim required. For example, do you need to transcribe the ‘ums’ and ‘ers’, and indicate all pauses? The conventions you utilise will be determined by your qualitative methodology, and we recommend that you review relevant literature in your area to see what is appropriate. If you cannot find anything specific to your discipline, Powers, W. R. (2005). Transcription techniques for the spoken word. Lanham, MA: Altamira Press may be a useful text. A key thing to keep in mind with conventions is that they should be consistent across all your transcripts.

Other considerations include formatting conventions. For example, if you’re using software such as NVivo, investigate how your transcripts can be prepared to facilitate certain data analysis tasks. You might want to also develop a template for your transcripts rather than setting up a new document each time. Getting these aspects organised at the beginning will save potential re-formatting further down the track.

Once you’ve completed your transcription and are looking towards the analysis stage of the research process, we have some courses that could help. Our Analysing Qualitative Data online course gives practical advice on identifying themes and conducting coding on your transcripts. If you’d like to learn how software can assist with this process, check out our NVivo Core Skills training courses, offered both face-to-face and online.