My boring day job improved my writing. Here’s how.
After I left university, I worked for several years in broadcast transcription.
I was in charge of a small team of people, located remotely and all over the country, which produced broadcast transcriptions to spec. Some clients were more exacting than others, but the main gist was they had to be fast and they had to be accurate.
In four years of typing the words that people said aloud and probably didn’t think would be copied out so meticulously, what I learned was this: people don’t speak in full sentences with perfect grammar. They don’t even think in full sentences while they’re saying them.
The skill of a good transcriber is to take these sentence fragments — the repetitions, hesitations, lost and resumed trains of thought — and to make them scan.
I know journalists, researchers and captioners alike who dread transcribing audio. It’s time-consuming, and often tedious — for every few seconds of gossipy juiciness, there are sure to be hours of small talk, going over ground that’s already been covered, boring voices, and drone.
However, transcribing audio has taught me several valuable lessons about making my writing scan well, making it flow naturally.
- Vary the lengths of your sentences: Speakers use long run-on sentences, then short ones. Some are just a few words. They rarely overcomplicate. The sentence structure takes on a rhythm, like music.
- Don’t over-use punctuation: In speech, the only punctuation you need are commas, full stops, and the occasional colon or semicolon. No exclamation points, and no dashes, unless to signify an interruption. By not overthinking punctuation, and because every mark had its meaning, I was never tempted to over-use them.
- Use your tools correctly: Spelling, syntax, and grammar are all essential to the work of a transcriber. If you can’t tell when the speaker is making an error, you can’t correct it for them. Knowing the rules of grammar and some linguistics helped me figure it out when someone particularly difficult (or with an unfamiliar regional accent) started speaking.
- Read: I’m a bookworm. This is how I came to understand these grammar rules, know how to spell thousands of words, and have heard of foreign organisations, obscure historical events, and even roads and areas in towns I’ve never been to.
- Check your facts: However, even if I’m pretty sure a speaker is talking about Crumlin Road in Belfast, I’d still fact-check them on the first read-through of my transcript. If a day’s events were in the news, as they usually were, it was quite simple to search for the same story in other news outlets and find the context for a street name. If I could see that something was taking place in a certain area of Belfast on Google Maps, and there was a Crumlin Road nearby, I’d know I’d found my mark.
- Understand who, what and where you’re writing for: Having a good ear is essential, but hard to define. It’s part intuition, part familiarity. I still maintain that you can’t transcribe ‘blind’ — if you don’t understand what the speaker is talking about, you’re more likely to make a mistake. Knowing your audience means you know what they will want to get out of the story, and what markers you must hit. It also means you know what they’ll notice if you leave it out.
- Have someone read your work: After every file transcribed for a particular client, I had my colleague read through it and give feedback or make changes as he saw fit. Getting someone else’s eyes (or ears, in this case) on your writing is important. Other people will bring a different frame of reference, a fresh point of view, and will pick up on things you don’t.
- Practice: Practicing every day at writing, as you know, is essential. I worked evenings, weekends and every day at this audio transcription job until I was leading my team. I checked all their work, I had them check mine. We shared knowledge and resources until everyone on the team was working at the same level. It’s all very well to get feedback on your work (as above), but once you have it, you need to act on it and improve.
- Transfer your skills: I was seconded to a team in India to train them in our style of audio transcription. The things I’d learned made me a good trainer. They also later led me to transfer my skills into broadcast subtitling and, even later, technical authorship. See what else your new writing skills can bring you. If you can enjoy the benefit of your practice in your everyday life, you’ll value it as a skill and feel, like me, like you earned the fruit of all your hard work.
Ever had a job that gave your time to work on your skills? Does your day job improve your writing? Let me know in the Responses below!