One of the most common workplace “culture shocks” that we see from applicants looking to work with us at ATC is over our transcription formatting. Our Style Guidelines document that we send to every new transcriptionist we bring on the team is a whopping 45 pages long, full of obscure punctuation rules, hyper-specific grammar guidelines, and nitty-gritty details on anything that our transcriptionists might come across in any audio that we send them. But the one question we don’t often have the opportunity to address is a simple one: why?
Well, the short answer is: it’s complicated. We put together each and every rule in our Style Guidelines document for a reason––none of them are there randomly, or just to purposefully cause confusion and create extra work (although they do often serve that purpose too). Transcription formatting has to be specific for a number of reasons, but chief among them is that a transcript needs to be above all readable and easy to follow. When you think about the purpose of transcripts, you’ll see why that’s the case: whether to set down in words a vital oral history, make scannable a lecture given by an important historical or cultural figure, or to simply create readable, captioned audio for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing communities, there are countless reasons that transcriptions play a fundamental role in various parts of society––and countless more reasons that they must be cleanly formatted for readability and coherence.
Consider this example: if you’ve read our recent Client Spotlight blogs, you know that we had the immense honor of working to transcribe 180 lectures from Nobel laureate and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel for the digitization of the Elie Wiesel Living Archive at 92NY. You can imagine the kind of care and sensitivity that goes into transcribing such a vast amount of knowledge from a person that has a critical significance to communities around the world both historical and religious. If we were to have transcribed those lectures without the formatting rules in our Style Guidelines in place, what might that have looked like? One lecture formatted this way, another one formatted that way, perhaps another formatted not at all––just words on a page with no speaker attributions, no timestamps, no method of determining who said what, when, and where. Thousands of students, not to mention academic professionals, across the globe might cite this transcription work in their research papers or theses, and they might attribute a quote to Elie Wiesel that was actually spoken by an interviewer, or a friend, or even a member of an oppressive power structure. They may think that a lecture they read was transcribed verbatim when it was not; they may even form opinions based on transcripts that are a little off at best, or dangerously misleading at worst.
This is just one example of many that show the importance of a strict formatting structure in transcription. We’ve also transcribed multiple Presidential oral histories, as well as oral histories from the House of Representatives, the Federal Reserve System, and many of the leading academic and archival centers in the country. To misstep on our transcription work for any of these organizations––or any of our clients in general––could have a ripple effect that we take extremely seriously. To transcribe is to present a history, to help create a history, and that’s an act that we can never take lightly.
There’s so much more we could say about our in-house formatting guidelines; after all, there’s a novella’s worth of them, and we recognize (and sympathize!) with applicants hoping to work with us or any newly minted transcriptionists anywhere trying to learn the ropes. It isn’t easy––but then again, things that are important rarely are. At the end of the day, we trust our incredibly talented transcription team to care about all the little details––down to every em dash––because they know that they’re making history along the way.