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So you want to get started as a transcriptionist

posted Apr 15, 2017, 11:32 AM by Amy LaBranch
Are you a super-fast typist, at least 80 wpm?
Are you a careful listener?
Do you have perfect grammar and spelling?
Can you meet strict deadlines?
Do you have a decent set of headphones?

Perhaps transcription would be right for you.

Equipment

First things first, you will need the right software and hardware for the job. I use Microsoft Word and Express Scribe (free). (Make sure you choose the "free version". There are two links, and the other one will ask you to upgrade to the pro version after a trial period). Using a foot pedal revolutionizes the job because you never have to take your fingers off the keyboard. Using F-keys starting out will suffice, but investing in a foot pedal will tremendously speed you up, i.e. you will earn more.

Also, a pair of good quality headphones is required. They are industry standard for transcription because headphones keep out the background noise and focus you more clearly on the audio. There's no way you can hear the subtleties if you're just listening to loud-speakers. Sometimes, I get jobs for film projects where the sound guys are using super sensitive equipment to detect even the faintest background noise. So they will see your mistakes if you are not listening carefully. You don't have to spend a lot of money for good quality headphones. I used a pair of $20 Sennheisers for years before I moved to Bose. And they're great, lightweight enough that you can't even tell you're wearing them. I prefer the ones that go over my whole ear, but many transcriptionists use earbuds (I hate them). You can even buy open-backed ones to give your ears a break and help with listening fatigue.

There is a bit of a learning curve with new software, so I suggest testing out a random audio file, maybe 10 minutes, to see how long it takes and to see if you can stomach the work. Keep in mind that industry standard is a turnaround time of 6:1. That means one hour of audio should not take longer than six hours to type. The faster you type, the more you will earn. On average, most jobs are about an hour long and due back in 24 hours. Every once in a while, I get a file format that doesn't work. It's important that you check if the file works right away so that it can be converted into another format if necessary or the client can be notified that there is a problem.

Educate Yourself

For more information about the transcription industry, I recommend joining a forum of professionals, like the Transcription Essentials Forum. They firmly oppose jobs that pay less than $1 per audio minute and educate prospective transcriptionists about exploitative low-paying and crowd-sourcing companies that pay unacceptable wages. To put this in perspective, if it takes you one hour to type 10 minutes of audio, at a rate of $1 per audio minute, then you are making $10/hour. Anything less is not worth your time. Accepting slave wages just brings the whole industry down. Don't do it! They have a great list of companies that hire and fulfill their requirements. Here is also a good place to start: Over 100 Work From Home Transcription Companies (although beware of the low-paying ones, as mentioned above).

As far as I can tell, even though the world seems focused on AI and machine learning right now, there is still no good long-form (i.e. more than a few minutes) speech recognition software: Why Our Crazy-Smart AI Still Sucks at Transcribing Speech. Nuance's Dragon is the best dictation software, and Google and Siri are great for one person, short snippets, voicemails. But so far, I've seen nothing that can ID multiple speakers, do correct grammar and punctuation, and be as accurate (and fast) as a human transcriptionist, especially for speakers with accents.

Being Self-Employed

The feast-or-famine nature of being a freelancer means you don't always have consistent work, and you have to plan for the downtimes. My schedule, for instance, revolves around the quarterly financial earnings seasons. So I have four major busy times every year:
  • Last week January to end February
  • Last week April to end May
  • Last week July to end August
  • Last week October to end November
These jobs are ASAP, meaning I get the assignment, I often have to dial into the live conference call or find the Webcast and record it, and then I have four hours from the end of the call to finish the transcript. Otherwise, I have a variety of other clients, generally with 24-hour deadlines, from legal to corporate to interviews to film editing projects to focus groups, and I specialize in international transcription, where English might not be the speakers' native language.

Finally, freelancers do not get benefits like health insurance or paid vacations, and taxes are not automatically deducted from your paychecks. I highly recommend retaining a CPA to save you money and take the headache out of dealing with all the forms. If you start to rely on transcription as a main source of income, you will need to pay quarterly estimated taxes so you don't get stuck with a giant tax bill on April 15th.

Conclusions

To sum up, if you think you fulfill all the requirements above, I would suggest:
  1. Downloading Express Scribe,
  2. Loading a 10-minute audio file and familiarizing yourself with the software,
  3. Talking to other people who have experience with transcription, and
  4. Applying to some of the above firms to get started.
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