Tools and Tips for Rapid Transcription, Part 3

Headphones and a laptop computer on a desktopIn the first post in this series, I discussed how I prepared for an on-site reporting and same-day summary-preparation job at a day-long conference in downtown DC. In the second post, I covered the my activities on the day of the conference itself. In this final post, I’ll discuss the tools and techniques that I use to turn my notes and recordings into a polished final product for the client.

Now the meeting is over, you’ve saved and backed up your files, and you’re back at the office ready to write up the summary, transcription, or minutes. Where do you start?

We’ll begin by looking at ways to clean up your notes. They are the core around which you create the final product. Then we’ll move on to tips for working with your text and audio files.

After completing those steps, you will have a product that looks and reads great! So let’s get started…

Cleaning Up Your Notes

As I mentioned above, the rough transcript and notes that you took at the meeting will serve as the core around which you will create the final product. Whether you are preparing minutes, a summary, or a transcription, the resulting document will follow a chronological order, and that order is one of the key pieces of information that you captured in your notes. It is the framework around which the final product will be constructed.

First, create a master copy of your notes in addition to your backups. As you perform cleanup and edits on your notes, you may inadvertently delete text or move things around and lose important context. With a raw master, you can go back to the source.

If you were able to use Smile Software’s TextExpander text expansion software while taking notes at the meeting, then you will require less time to go back through your notes to clean up abbreviations and shorthand. If you, like me, have populated your text expansion software’s libraries with abbreviations for common words and phrases (“abt” for “about,” “wo” for “without,” “iow” for “in other words,” etc.), then you will find that you are able to keep up with what speakers are saying much more effectively and accurately — and that your notes will need a lot less cleanup later.

If you weren’t able to use text expansion software, then you’ll need another way to clean up the copy. If you use MS Word, I highly recommend two tools. The first is Archive Publication’s free FRedit macro. One of a series of powerful editing macros developed by editor Paul Beverley, FRedit allows you to turn a simple word list into a find-and-replace tool. If you use consistent abbreviations for common words and phrases, all you have to do is make a list of those abbreviations followed by the correct full spellings, and run the macro. In just a few minutes depending on the size of the document, FRedit will compare the list against your notes and automatically replace your abbreviations. Simply save the list and add to it as you create new abbreviations, and you’ll have a master list that you can use for all your projects in the future.

The second Word tool that I rely on is The Editorium’s FileCleaner plugin. A set of of powerful macros presented in handy customizable menu form, FileCleaner allows you to clean up common typos including superfluous formatting; extraneous spaces, tabs, and returns; and stray punctuation. It’s also worth running FileCleaner again as a last step before handing over the document to the client, but I find that it’s also handy to use at the outset too.

Working with Text Files

More and more, it’s a requirement for editors to have multiple monitors, or at the very least a large single monitor, in order to refer to multiple files or applications simultaneously. For a project like this, you will be referring to at least five windows regularly:

  • the draft you’re writing;
  • your source notes;
  • the meeting agenda or outline;
  • audio files and playback software; and
  • reference materials such as style guides, dictionaries, and websites

If you’re like me and you only have room for one monitor, you’ll need to configure and manage the screen real estate in a way that works for you. Everyone has a different optimal configuration for the way they work. On my Mac, I use a combination of OS X’s Spaces feature and Irradiated Software’s SizeUp window manager. SizeUp allows me to instantly reposition and resize windows with simple keystroke combinations or a menu icon interface (I prefer the keystroke option for the most frequently used actions).

SizeUp also allows you to set margins; I use this feature to maintain a “gutter” on the right-hand side of my screen that provides quick access to files stored on the desktop. I store my project files in designated folders and use the desktop for transitory and intermediary files such as downloads, screen captures, and graphics exports.

The text editor you use will depend largely on the format of the final product. If it will be immediately posted on the web, a lightweight code editor such as Taco Software’s Taco HTML Edit (for Mac) or ActiveState’s Komodo Edit (for Windows) will serve your needs.

If the document will be printed or converted to PDF, use a word processor that has print-formatting capabilities. For most transcription projects, MS Word is overkill, unless you’re also performing basic desktop publishing on the results. My word processor of choice is Nisus Software’s Nisus Writer Pro, which packs a tremendous amount of power into a light, intuitive package. For anything other than basic note-taking, NWP is my go-to desktop writing app.

Whatever tools you use, make sure you are familiar with all their quirks and take the time to set up your visual work space optimally for your workflow. You’ll get the work done faster and with less fatigue.

Working with Audio Files

If you are providing a verbatim or edited transcription, your audio recording is your primary resource, with your written notes serving as a reference for things like the spellings of speaker names, natural topical breaks and shifts, time stamps, and other placeholder information. If you are writing a summary or minutes, then the situation is reversed: the audio recording serves as the backup in support of your written notes, allowing you to fact-check quotes.

Either way, high-quality playback is essential. While some writers skimp on audio playback hardware and software — especially if they’re not in the business of providing transcriptions — real professionals select their audio tools with the same care that they give their writing tools.

The industry standard for audio playback is NCH Software’s Express Scribe, a free app for Mac and Windows that offers variable-speed audio and video playback while maintaining constant pitch, which eliminates distortions caused by the slower speed. Playback can be controlled by hotkeys or by a foot pedal (more on this in a moment), and can be used in conjunction with speech recognition software to convert the recording to text.

A foot pedal controller is an essential tool for audiovisual transcription, and I believe it is a smart investment for any other type of writing project that involves audio playback. By allowing you to keep your fingers on the keys while using a foot to pause, rewind, and fast-forward the recording, you can write and listen simultaneously, saving yourself a lot of time. The foot pedal can be configured as a “dead-man switch” — the audio plays as long as you leave your foot on the pedal, and pauses when you lift it. This is much less fatiguing than the other way around. The pedal switches have a noticeable “click” engagement that is easy to feel through your foot (I find it easier to use wearing a sock or a thin slipper).

Express Scribe allows you to configure the three pedal switches; I prefer a very arrangement whereby the middle pedal plays the recording, the left pedal rewinds, and the right pedal fast forwards. I use AltoEdge’s USB Foot Pedal. Express Scribe is designed to work with all AltoEdge pedals.

In Conclusion

Whether you are preparing transcriptions, minutes, or summaries of an event, and regardless of how long the event is or what your deadline is, if you follow these tips before, during, and after the event, you will be well-prepared for the task ahead. And remember, practice makes better (I don’t think we ever get to perfect in our line of work). Over time, you’ll be able to add your own tweaks to this basic list, making it your own. Remember — the more advance work you do, the more prepared you will be when the unexpected happens. And your clients will appreciate your preparedness — and a happy client is more likely to be a repeat client.

Good luck, and happy writing!

Photo: © Spectral-design | Dreamstime.comHeadphones And A Laptop Computer On A Desktop Photo

Author: Paul Lagasse

Paul Lagasse provides expert-to-expert communications services to nonprofit, business, and government clients in the metro Baltimore-DC area. Specialties include science and medical writing, technical report editing, and content marketing.