Business owners are turning to outsourcing of typing and dictation work and reaping the benefits of having virtual secretaries operating in all time zones.  They benefit from not paying overheads, are not responsible for any leave pay, sick pay, medical and pension fund contributions.  They do not have to provide equipment, electricity, tea or coffee or pay for private telephone calls and e-mails.  Outsourcing makes a lot of financial and business sense.

What a lot of outsourcers fail to understand, however, that there is a vast difference between copy typing and transcription.  Copy typing is basically what it says – handwritten work is transformed into a neatly and accurately typed document within a specified time frame.  Copy typing is not necessarily plain sailing – often the client’s handwriting is virtually undecipherable and, in the case of non-English-speaking clients, the grammar and syntax is often confusing and needs a little time and care to render into a well-written document.  Once a sample of the work is obtained it is easy to quote on the job based on the complexity of the above factors.

Transcription is an entirely different kettle of fish and costs considerably more and this is where the interests  of the client and transcriptionist collide.  Clients often fail to understand the reasons for what appears to be an exorbitant rate but do not take into consideration the factors that underlie the need for a much higher quotation.

Even the most experienced transcriptionist works on the rule of thumb that one hour of dictation takes approximately four hours to transcribe, and quotes accordingly.   This is true of best-case scenarios where, for instance, an interview or dialogue between two people is clear and audible and there is no background noise or distraction.

In reality, large and noisy meetings are conducted in what sometimes seems like a war zone with sirens wailing and traffic roaring in the background.  Building work may be taking place in the adjacent office and the confused mass of voices is punctuated by regular blasts of drilling and hammering.  Speakers are not introduced and the client may or may not provide a list of speakers.  The microphone seems to be perched on the tea trolley, which is a fantastic idea when you really want your transcriptionist to work hard for his or her money.  Throw in various accents and a few foreign speakers and now we’re all having fun.  For a bit of added interest, use lots of technical and insider terms. 

In this case the transcriptionist may very well have to stretch the golden rule of four to one to five or six hours as she frantically tries to Google phonetically-spelled words and technical terms or distinguish the Hungarian speaker from the Romanian speaker, the French speaker from the Moroccan-French speaker, or all four speaking simultaneously, not to mention the guy with the bad cold sitting really close to the microphone, coughing and blowing his nose, clearing his throat, etc.

So rest assured, transcriptionists are not ripping the client off; they are doing their best to produce a clear and readable transcript under very trying circumstances and should be rewarded accordingly.

Clients from hell

One of the drawbacks of working from home is the difficulty of getting serious clients who are willing to pay what you are worth.

I enjoy working from home as a transcriptionist and I have good and loyal clients who make it possible but how does one deal with the demands of people like this?  This was posted on Get a Freelancer today:

“I need only serious transcribers who can finish up the project by today. There is totally 3 hours of audio. You can be a team or person. But you must follow the below points strictly and there wont be any excuses:-

You must finish the project with in 5-6 hours It should be with 100% accuracy
Pay will be $7 or $8 per audio hour depending on quality (If you are not accepting for this bid, then please dont apply).  The completed file should be proofread, spellchecked, formatted, grammar checked etc

There will be a continuous flow of work if you finish this successfully. Note that turnaround time is very important.  Once you place your bid be online. I will hire within 2-3 hours and you should have me the files back within 5-6 hours.”

Downloading 3 hours of audio could take several hours alone.  A professional transcriptionist allows approximately four hours to complete one hour’s worth of audio, and that’s just the typing.  Spell-checking and proofreading is a given and is included in the rate but could somebody please tell me how to check the grammar on audio? Surely the whole point of transcription is to produce a verbatim report?  I do tweak here and there, particularly if I’m transcribing a foreigner, but limit it to replacing words like ‘choosen’ with ‘chosen’.   If a client specifically asks me to fix the English I have more leeway, but even then I make an effort to stick to the original.

The above-quoted job provider is particularly arrogant and unrealistic but unfortunately there are many people that think that because we run our businesses from home we are not doing a “real job” and want to pay accordingly, or not at all.  The following quote was taken from “ … and by the way, I can’t afford to pay you for this job, but you will be paid in karma — which is so much better and more permanent anyway.”  Better for whom?  Can you eat karma?

We do real jobs and provide real quality.  We pay our own overheads and work long hours and stick to our deadlines. 

Sadly, there will be takers for this position but they are unlikely to have English as their first language and the job provider will get what she is paying her two dollars (or less) an hour for.   I would love to see what she ends up with.

I suggest that you join a forum aimed at VAs and transcriptionists.  For South Africans I would recommend TAVASA.  Working from home can be a lonely experience and trying to sort out technical problems can be very daunting.  By joining a forum you will be in contact with people who understand exactly what is required and can assist with questions. 

Best of all, this is where the more established people post their requests for assistance with overflow work.  Having secured a shot at subcontracting this overflow work bear the following in mind:

  • ·         Obtain a template from the contractor and STICK to it – every comma, every underlining, every space.  Do not get creative and do not try to improve on the template.

    ·         Often the contractor will send a sheet through with his or her typing preferences and requirements.  Read it carefully before you start typing and again before you proof your work and ensure you abide by the instructions.

    ·         Communicate – if you are having problems with the recording it may be a bad recording.  On the other hand, if you are the only typist experiencing problems then it is probably an incorrect setting or your equipment may be faulty.  The only way to find out is by asking the contractor about the recording quality.   Do not go merrily ahead and turn in a transcript littered with [unclear], [inaudible], etcetera.

    ·         Make notes as you go, especially for names and words that you are not sure of.  Should these become clear as the transcript progresses, it makes it easy and quick to do a global replacement.

    ·         Proof your work thoroughly.   Put those earphones on and go through the whole transcript – this is time-consuming and quite often expensive – it takes a long time to type your very first transcription and it can be quite discouraging in terms of your hourly rate, but you would be amazed at what you pick up on the second run-through.  Words previously indecipherable will be clear once you are familiar with the context of the transcript.

    ·         Spell and grammar check – spell checking is an absolute requirement but adding the grammar check function is very useful in picking up mistakes other than typos.  Bear in mind that transcription is usually rendered verbatim and the most common grammar mistakes are made in speech.  Do not be tempted to tidy up the speaker’s grammar unless specifically requested to do so.

    ·         Google is your friend.  If, for instance, you pick up a name and a designation but not the company name, chances are you will find it on Google.  Many terms are industry-related or, in the case of medical transcription, the names of patent drugs, etcetera, are unfamiliar to most people.  It is not enough to spell a word phonetically, add a question mark and move on.  In the long run your efforts will be rewarded.

    ·         Ask questions.  We were all new at this once and I believe we would rather answer a dozen seemingly insignificant questions rather than receive a badly-typed transcript.

  • The above steps are very, very important.  It is as well to remember that not only do contractors offer the jobs that will get you started as a transcriptionist but that they often recommend – or not – typists to other contractors.   Shoddy work will put a halt to your career before you start.  Commit to producing high quality transcription from day one.

I have been typing from home for a year now and know this: I have never worked so hard for so little in my life and I never want an office job again. 

The reasons for working from home are diverse.  I was retrenched as a result of the recent down-turn in the economy and decided to try typing transcriptions from home.  After many ups and downs – and in the beginning there are many more downs than ups – I have a small base of clients and am making a living wage.

The advantages of working at home are:  First and foremost, being your own boss.  You may depend on your clients for your daily bread, but you still call the shots.  You are offering a valuable service to your clients and you are on equal terms.  Should a client become too demanding or difficult, he can be dropped by means of a polite white lie. 

You can work in your pyjamas.    Enough said!

Setting your own working hours. This may mean working late at night, or very early in the morning but it’s a lot easier to schedule your time based on your needs, rather than those of an employer. It may be stretching a point to say your time is your own, but you can run out and do your errands, prepare your meals at your leisure, and be at home when the repairman arrives 3 hours or 3 days later than promised.

No commuting, no traffic jams.  Getting to and from work is often the most stressful part of the day and, if you travel by public transport, you are also at the mercy of every cough and sneeze your fellow-travellers may wish to bestow upon you.  Public transport can be unsafe, especially if have worked late.

The biggest winners are people with young children.  Kids run sudden fevers, come down with chicken pox, cut their fingers and break their arms.  Murphy’s Law being what it is, they are more likely to one or all of the above when you have a tight deadline, but you can always catch up later.   Whereas it’s a myth that home workers get to spend large amounts of time with their families, it is easier to organise quality time with your family.

Making new friends – there’s a virtual world out there.  Join a group, get connected on Skype or Messenger and when you are typing at 1 a.m. realise that you are not alone.

The hardest thing about typing from home is (a) to get new clients, and (b) to get those clients to take you seriously.  Home workers are by and large working for a living, not pin money and it’s up to us the band together and make prospective clients realise that we are a force to be reckoned with.

You may not make the same amount of money as you did when you were formally employed, but you don’t spend nearly as much either and will be healthier and happier for it.  It’s not easy but the rewards are great.


    A single parent whose children have left home, I am gently enjoying middle age in beautiful Cape Town, South Africa in a cottage which is slowly being transformed by roses and herbs with the autocratic Sweet Baby Jane (spoilt and rather tubby cat).

    I run a transcription business from home,and, when not pounding the keyboard for my daily bread, write articles on the more domestic arts, cooking and gardening in particular.

    My thoughts are largely occupied with living well without spending a fortune, going greener by the day and taking pleasure in the small things.



    September 2011
    January 2010



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