Working with you transcription service to keep costs down and get the best results

If you’ve conducted some research including one-to-one interviews, and then realised how much work is involved in transcribing them, you’ll probably be looking for an affordable transcription service. There are many transcription services available but sometimes an affordable transcription service can seem hard to find. Transcription is not cheap, because it is a lot more involved than copy typing, but by providing good quality recordings you can make the transcription more affordable, as it will take less time to complete.

You could do the transcription yourself, but if you are not a fast touch-typist and do not have specialist transcription equipment then it will take you a very long time. I have had clients come to me saying they started the work themselves and it was taking them 20 hours to produce a transcript of a 1-hour recording. That’s why they ended up working with us!

The most important thing to remember is that it’s just not possible to type as fast as you speak. Even an experienced transcriptionist will able average three to four times as long for a good, clear one-to-one interview – so an hour of recording will take an average of four hours to transcribe including checking. (Industry standards obtained from the Industry Production Standards Guide (1998), published by OBC, Columbus, OH, USA) Transcriptionists also have to make sense of what’s being said, punctuate the speech correctly and use the right homophones (words like there/their/they’re that sound the same but are spelt differently.)

So how can you make sure that your transcript is clear?

First of all, use the best transcription equipment you can afford, and make sure it’s fit for purpose. This means that for interviews you should have recorded with a good quality digital recorder. For focus groups you should have several microphones so that all participants are close to a mike, and for conferences the speakers should have good microphones and there should also be people in the audience with ‘roving’ microphones to take around to any audience members wanting to ask a question.

Next, you should prepare well before each interview. Make sure that, if at all possible, you have arranged a quiet meeting room, as background noise will dramatically increase the time taken to transcribe the recording, as the transcriptionist may have to listen to sections several times in order to capture the interview speech over the background noise. It is helpful to spell out your interviewee’s name at the beginning of the tape, before starting the interview, and speak out any information you would like on the transcript header e.g. the date, the job title of your interviewee etc. Alternatively make sure you keep careful note of this information and send it to your transcriptionist with the sound file.

During the interview, unless you need to interrupt in order to take back control of the interview, try not to speak over your interviewee. Often in a normal conversation we say ‘yeah, yeah, yeah’ or ‘right’ or ‘OK’ more to indicate we’re listening than for any other reason. Every time you say that you are likely to be obscuring a much more important word or group of words spoken by your interviewee.

After the interview, it is enormously helpful if you can include a list of key words for the transcriptionist. Although we’re happy to go on a ‘Google hunt’, searching the internet to find out how to spell technical terms, names of drugs, names of organisations etc., if you can provide this info in advance it certainly saves time, and saving time saves you money. Technical work will always be more expensive than non-technical, but providing a ‘crib sheet’ of key words should reduce the cost.

Most transcriptionists work in a standard format, whether that be tabular, tabbed, interviews shown as initials or full names etc. Again most are happy to work to your specifications, but the standard format might be cheaper, so think carefully about whether you need something different or not. Find out what the standard format is in advance if it concerns you, and you may be able to adapt it to your needs. At Penguin Transcription we will use any format you wish, and as a rule this does not increase the price. Just let us know in advance. If, however, it’s essential that you have speakers in different fonts or different colours, this might add to the price.

Finally, give some serious thought to whether or not you need a verbatim transcription. Verbatim transcription includes every repeated word, every ‘um’ and ‘erm’, all those ‘filler’ phrases like ‘you know’ and ‘know what I mean’ that may be repeated a hundred times in one interview, and can also include pauses, coughs, throat clearing etc. if required. Needless to say, this takes longer. If the transcriptionist can filter out all this stuff the transcript is quicker. In Penguin Transcription the cheapest level is what we call ‘intelligent verbatim’ which cuts out all these fillers but leaves the rest exactly as it’s spoken. Different transcriptionists work this differently though, so always check when you’re phoning for your quote. Here are some brief examples. Somewhat more expensive is edited, which corrects the grammar and any mispronounced words as well as knocking out all the fillers. This is sometimes used for conferences, video conferences etc.


Erm, well, I dunno really, know what I mean? I mean, you know, when I asked them what Mary’s, er, um, condish, condit, condition was, they said like erm ‘I’m afraid we can’t, erm, tell you that, Mrs. Smith, ’cause you ain’t a relative.’

Intelligent Verbatim

Well, I dunno really. I mean when I asked them what Mary’s condition was they said ‘I’m afraid we can’t tell you that, Mrs Smith, ’cause you ain’t a relative.’


Well I don’t know really. I mean when I asked them what Mary’s condition was they said ‘I’m afraid we can’t tell you that, Mrs Smith, because you are not a relative.’

You can see that a whole extra line of typing is required for the verbatim work in just those few short sentences, and it also requires more concentration not to filter out those fillers!

There are occasions when verbatim is required – depending on your topic it might be required for legal reasons, or you might be studying the language or need it for counselling or psychology transcripts, but if you really don’t need it, don’t end up paying for it!


There are many excellent reasons for interviewing groups of people, but don’t do this in order to try to reduce the transcription cost! It takes much longer to transcribe a group of more than two or three people (including the moderator/interviewer) because of the time taken to distinguish the different voices and the fact that people will inevitably talk over each other, especially when they get excited, enthusiastic, impassioned or angry.

And finally, remember that the cheapest transcription quote might not be the most affordable one in the end. There is an oft-quoted phrase: if you pay peanuts you get monkeys. Will it really be cost-effective to send your hard-won interviews to the cheapest service if what comes back is gobbledygook and you have to go through the whole thing correcting every other word, or if everything is run into one giant paragraph with no formatting, as happened to a client of mine before he came to us? How much time will you then waste that could have been spent more productively on your analysis?


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