coffee break

way with words transcriber stories Sue Shackles
Tips and Advice
Way With Words Transcription



Long story short, not only did the first company that I tested for not hire me, they actually requested that I please never try testing for them again.  Ever.

Transcribing is by no means an easy job, though it does get easier with time.   It takes dedication, a desire to learn, and a great deal practise and time.  Sue Shackles is one of Way With Words’ top transcribers, highly regarded for her top quality transcribing, her ability to turn over high volumes, and her ability to maintain a pleasant disposition while she does that!   Sue agreed to an interview with us during which she shared what she has learned and implemented to help in her transcription ‘battles’.

How long have you been transcribing?

I’ve been transcribing for around 10 years.

How did you start to transcribe?

I actually fell into the world of transcription completely by accident.  At the time, I was working as a freelance journalist, and happened to be running low on inspiration.  It was becoming more and more difficult to come up with new and interesting stories to write about.

In the “Help Wanted” section of the newspaper I saw an ad requesting help with transcribing audio tapes (yes…it was that long ago) of Social Security Disability hearings.  I thought, “How hard can that be?” and applied.  I didn’t even know that there was a job called “transcription” back then.  But I did know that I had typed out my own recorded interviews for my journalism, so I applied, and was hired.

Please share with us your experience when you first started as a transcriber.

By the time my Social Security work had dried up, I had discovered that there was something on the internet called “digital transcription”.  Flush with my success from the tape transcription job, I started applying to online transcription companies.  My first foray was not the success I’d hoped for.  I was directed to a piece of software called Express Scribe, and given very confusing directions as to how to transcribe this 10 minute test audio.

Long story short, not only did the first company that I tested for not hire me, they actually requested that I please never try testing for them again.  Ever.

Luckily, I was so green back then that I didn’t know what I didn’t know, and kept applying.  I was hired by one of the larger transcription companies who taught me the things I had no clue about, and I’ve been working in the transcription field ever since.

What advice and encouragement do you have for new transcribers?

I suppose the advice I’d give to new transcribers is to join as many transcription forums as you can.  Two excellent ones are Transcription Essentials and Transcription Haven.  When you start out in transcription you know very little.  The professional transcribers on forums know a lot.  And you’ll find that most, if not all, of the questions that you come up with have already been asked and answered.

And as transcription by its very nature is a pretty solitary endeavour, it can sometimes feel as though you’re the only person in the world who’s sitting there banging keys and struggling through difficult accents.  Forums help you to become part of a wider transcription community and realise that we all have days where we’d rather watch paint dry than transcribe one…more…focus…group!  Sometimes just venting your frustration to people who really get it – unlike our families – can be enough to help you get over the tough parts.

Also remember that when you are starting out in transcription, the most important thing is accuracy over speed.  The speed will happen by itself, especially if you start using text expanders (more on that later).  Don’t ever sacrifice quality in favour of quantity.  It never works.

What helped you to become one of our best transcribers?

I have learned to be very single-minded about my job.  I am lucky enough to be able to have a room in my home which has been converted into an office.  When I’m there, I’m working.  I take breaks for lunch, and, of course, coffee, and during those times I allow myself the opportunity to visit forums, check out Facebook, and read email.  But when those breaks are over, I work.  To me, there’s no difference between going out of the house to work, and going to work in the office.  I wouldn’t be doing laundry, or cleaning house, or watching TV if I were working outside of the home, so for me, the same rules apply.  My family knows that if they call me during the day, their calls will go straight to voicemail, and I’ll call them back when I have the time.  This is my job.  It’s not my hobby.

What lessons have you learned throughout your years of transcribing?

Over the years I have learned that there’s always going to be something that surprises me or something new that I discover about transcribing.  Whether it’s a new piece of transcription software, or a tip for improving the audio, or a resource website, I find I’m constantly updating and improving my knowledge about the job.

I’ve also learned that it’s important to have a work/life balance.  That’s why it’s important for me to have my office.  I can close the door and my work is over.  It would be much more difficult to escape the job if I worked at my kitchen table.

Finally, I’ve learned to take the bad along with the good.  There are always going to be clients who think the optimal way to record a one-on-one interview is to stick the recorder under their own nose and have the interviewee sitting across the other side of the room, causing the transcriber to have to turn up the volume so that the interviewee is audible.  And then, of course, the transcriber will get their ears blasted every few minutes by the interviewer’s unnecessary “mm-hmm”s and “uh-huh”s.  These are usually going to be the clients who want full verbatim transcription.  Bonus points if the office where they’re conducting the interview is being remodelled at the time, as the sawing and hammering just adds a certain je ne sais quoi to the whole thing.   Those of us who power our way through those kind of audio files and manage to come up with a coherent transcript are not just typists.  We’re miracle workers!

How do you plan, execute and deliver high quality transcripts?

a)  I am a very big believer in writing things down.  Yes, I know we all have the pdf. guidelines that the company sends out to us.  But when I started working for Way With Words, and when I have worked for any other company, I have always made myself a cheat sheet and taped it down to the desk.  This sheet includes what the company wants; what’s included and not included in the various formats; all the way down to the font size and the margins.  Usually by the time these sheets start to peel off, I have committed them to memory.  But I still have a hard copy in a file folder on my desk in case I need to refresh myself.

b)  I have a weekly/monthly planner in which I mark down the jobs I have, the format, the length of the audio and when they’re due.  That helps me to organise my time more efficiently.

c)  I spend a lot of time at my desk.  A LOT of time.  Sometimes as long as 16 hours a day, depending on how much work I need to get done.  The most important thing to help achieve that is ensuring that I have a comfortable working environment.  A kitchen chair may be comfortable for the first hour.  After four or five hours you’ll be concentrating more on the pain in your legs than you are on the audio you’re listening to.  A really comfortable chair is not just a luxury.  It’s a necessity.  We’re at risk of all manner of health problems from spending so many hours sitting down, so we really owe it to ourselves to minimise those risks as much as possible.

d)  You can’t deliver high quality transcripts if you are missing half of the audio.  That’s just common sense.  The only problem is that until you hear the audio through really good headphones, you have no idea how much you’re actually missing.  You may think that those earbuds that came with your iPod are good enough for the job.  Trust me.  They’re not.  I’ve gone through so many different pairs of headphones in my time, it’s not even funny.  I’ve done earbuds, I’ve done “transcription headsets”, I’ve done “computer headphones”.  I finally bit the bullet and bought a pair of Bose headphones.  They were pricy.  I felt ridiculous spending that amount of money.  But, oh, the difference in audio quality!  I have even gone back over old transcripts and been able to hear most of the “unclears” in them. *blush*.

Any tips for other transcribers?

(a)    Discover the world of the text expander.  I went through my first five or six years of transcription blissfully unaware of the existence of Auto Correct.  You have no conception of how much it will improve your speed until you actually start to use it.  Try starting with four things that you type all the time.  For me, it was “you know”, “all right”, “kind of” and “sort of”.  Make an AC for those four things.  Then make sure that you actually use the shortcuts that you make.  If you slip up and type “you know” instead of “yk”, go back and delete it and use the shortcut.  It will take much less time to memorise than you think.  And it will save you a bazillion keystrokes in the long run.  Once you have those memorised, add some more.  You can save whole phrases that occur often in your transcripts.  One of my favourites is when I type “csp” and watch my computer type out the phrase: “Have you worked for any company, store, business, self-employment business or organisation”, for instance.

b) Learn how to use Google.  When I’m transcribing, I always have a Google search window open in my browser.  Even if I’m not confident that I’m hearing something correctly, I can plug it into the Google search bar and nine times out of ten Google will come up with the correct name or word I’m looking for.

c) Many companies and private individuals have Wikipedia pages.  Sometimes, if you’re absolutely stumped as to what the interviewee is talking about, you can figure it out from taking a look at their Wiki page.

d) Don’t get hung up on words you can’t hear.  My rule of thumb is three passes.  I’ll listen to the unclear word three times and if I still can’t hear it, I’ll mark it and move on.  It’s easy, especially when you’re new to this, to get too carried away with trying to find that one word.  Quite often you’ll find that the word will become clear to you later in the transcript when either someone else says the word more clearly or you are able to figure it out because of the context.

e) Don’t forget to give yourself time away from the job.  There’s always one more job you could be doing.  But you have to remember to get away from it from time to time too, for the sake of your own mental health.  It’s a good way of ensuring that you keep enjoying what you’re doing.

Way With Words Transcription only employs the ‘best of the best’.  In fact, only 3% to 5% of our applicants pass through our application process and move on to the development stage:  we develop transcribers into elite transcribers.  It’s a gruelling process but it is necessary.  We transcribe for big players in the global market on a daily basis.  Our clients demand the highest quality and we make certain we deliver.  Transcribing for Way With Words may not be easy, but it is well worth it.  A Way With Words’ transcriber is an elite transcriber and everybody knows it!


14 thoughts on “A Career in Transcribing?”

    1. I love this article! I found it very inspiring to me as a 6 month old transcriber. I tried to join the Transcription Essentials forum, but it wouldn’t accept my registration and I received a message saying my user name and email is spam, and I should contact the forum administrator. However, there appears to be no way to contact the administrator other than through the registration process. Would it be possible for Sue Shackles to inquire what a transcriber should do if the registration process rejects someone as spam when it is in fact a genuine enquiry? I’m definitely looking forward to trying out the text expander / auto correct tip. Thanks!

  1. Hi, Catherine,

    You could try emailing the administrator at Transcription Essentials at: and seeing if you can get through to her directly at that email address. If you still have problems, let me know, and I’ll drop her a line myself and ask her for more specific directions.

    Good luck with the text expander. Once you get used to it, you’ll wonder how you ever managed without it!

  2. Hi, Mark,

    My advice would be to brush up your transcription resume, write a boilerplate cover letter which you can save and use each time you apply to a different company by tailoring aspects of the basic letter to suit the company you’re applying for, and then apply, apply, apply.

    A great list of transcription companies with varying specialties and experience requirements can be found at Freelance Transcriptionist Road: My friend, Emery, a fellow Transcription Haven forum member, has compiled this wonderful resource for transcribers who are looking for more opportunities.

    Hope you find what you’re looking for!

  3. Not so sure. Being in this business for not very long I find it very difficult to earn. It seems to take so much longer to get transcribing done than what most companies pay for or suggest. Thinking of something more secretarial now.

  4. You definitely need to be able to type accurately as well as speedily in order to make a success of transcription as a career choice. People starting out who are just developing an “ear” (which DOES take training and practice to achieve…not to mention the best set of headphones that you can afford) and who have yet to build up a set of shortcuts often underestimate how long an hour of audio is going to take them to type. Depending on the quality of the audio, it can take a beginner between 5 and 8 hours to type an hour of audio. That obviously makes what sounded like a decent rate per hour turn out to be a lot less than you were anticipating.

    The good news is that as you become more proficient at the job, you hear things better, you develop shortcuts and time-savers, and your general typing speed increases, you will also cut that time down drastically. This enables you to earn more money as you can transcribe more audio minutes in a day. Depending on the audio quality it generally takes me between 2 and 4 hours to transcribe an audio hour these days.

    So it is possible to make quite a decent living at this job, but like most things, it takes a lot of practice and dedication. I generally earn around $2,000 per month from transcription, which is more than adequate for my needs. So it IS doable. But it’s definitely not something that you can expect to do in your first few months of working.

  5. I like articles that can make men and women think. Also, many thanks for allowing me to comment. I will certainly look at transcribing as an option that actually works to work from home!

  6. Hi Sue, I am a transcriber from South Africa and has been doing this for approximately 25 years. I read about the Bose mentioned in your blog. Just need to know: does it only block-out noise ‘around’ you? It will obviously not help when you had a pathetic audio recording which is these days the ‘norm’; placing a little recorder [eg Phillips digital recorder] in the middle of a table and having about 8 speakers and they just about all talk simultaneously. I do not mind paying a lot of money if I could really hear better and produce something more decent for the client. Thank you and enjoy your day.

  7. Definitely agree that it is a great idea to join transcribing forums. You can learn a lot of new there and share your own experience and ask questions as well! Also, wanted to share list of [to be confirmed] best transcription jobs. Hope you will try it helpful!
    Best of luck! Be passionate and keep up positive attitude!

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.