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How to become an on-site scribe

Sally-Anne Watson Kane . Monday, May 29, 2017 . Comments
How to become an on-site scribe

If you're a good writer and fast typist you can potentially learn how to be an on-site scribe. 

Do you have good listening and writing skills?

An on-site scribe is a person who scribes what the people in front of them are saying while they are saying it. Most scribes type what people say straight into a computer or laptop then edit that draft to produce whatever document is needed. 

To be an on-site scribe you need:

  • Good listening, comprehension and recall skills
  • The ability to paraphrase and summarise
  • Good knowledge of spelling, grammar and punctuation
  • Good proofreading skills including eye for detail.

You need to be able to look at a template or sample of a report or minutes and edit what you've scribed so it's in the same style. The better your writing and editing skills, the better your end product will be. 

Are you fast enough?

To scribe as fast as people speak, you need a touch-typing speed of 90 to 100 words per minute. You don't need to be completely accurate; just fast. 

If your typing speed is slower than that, don't worry. As long as you're a touch-typist, all it takes to improve your speed is practice. Put pressure on yourself to type faster. Keep practicing until you are typing at last 90 words per minute.

How to learn on-site scribing 

Audio transcription program method

To scribe as fast as people speak, you need to be able to type at 90 to 100 words per minute. You don't need to get down every single word in full; you can leave a lot of the 'little' words out (and, but, then) and you'll have to use abbreviations or you won't keep up. But you do need to be able to get down all the important words.

If you'd like to learn the craft of on-site scribing and you have an audio transcription program, try this method:

  1. Import an audio recording of between two and four people speaking, into your audio transcription program.
  2. Note the rules: no stopping or pausing the recording; even if you can't keep up, you just have to keep typing, and you have to continue to type until the alarm goes off. No cheating!
  3. Unplug your footpedal.
  4. Set the speed on 80%  (i.e. slower than the speed at which the people are really speaking).
  5. Set your alarm or stopwatch for 10 minutes.
  6. Put on your headset and click 'play' and start scribing the discussion. 
  7. Stick to the rules. Don't worry if your transcript is not accurate. Just keep typing until the alarm goes off.

There. Have a look at your transcript. Can you understand it enough to edit it into a readable transcript? Are you pretty sure you got down all the important words? 

Yes? If you are game, crank the speed up to 100% (i.e. the actual speed at which the people are speaking) and try scribing at that speed. If you can't keep up, then slow the speed down  to 80% again. 

Keep practising until you are able to scribe most of what they're saying while they are talking at normal speed.

The TV or radio method

If your typing speed is up to 90 words per minute, you can learn the craft of on-site scribing by setting up your laptop in front of the TV, or the radio, and start scribing:

  • The evening news, or the weather broadcast.
  • A documentary where they're interviewing people.
  • A comedy show.

The real-live people method

  • Ask your friends to have a discussion about an interesting topic while you scribe everything they say.
  • Offer to scribe voluntarily at a meeting (but adding that you may not be able to keep up as you're still learning).
  • Ask a professional on-site scribe if you can 'shadow' them; i.e. while they are actually scribing the meeting, you are also present and attempting to scribe the meeting. Afterwards you can compare notes with them to see how much you missed.

If you can keep up with what they're saying on the evening news or a TV show or an animated discussion, and then edit what you have scribed into a readable transcript, you have the skills required to be a scribe. If you can almost keep up but there are gaps, or if you made so many typos that you couldn't read what you had scribed, keep practising. You'll get there.

Can you stand the pressure?

When people are talking at, say, 130 or 140 words per minute, this puts enormous pressure on a scribe. And by pressure, I don't only mean mental pressure. Your fingers and hands and the rest of your body are also put under great pressure when they're told it's imperative they get all the important information down, no matter what. 

So even if you're a fast typist, you have to be good at working under pressure to be an on-site scribe. 

You have to be good at continuing to type what they're saying now even though you know you just made heaps of little mistakes and missed some words in the last sentence. You also have to know which the important words are so that you make very sure you don't miss any important words; and your scribing has to be accurate enough so that you're afterwards able to translate your messy draft into good copy. You have to think really fast while your fingers are flying.

Whether you suffer or thrive under that sort of pressure depends on what sort of person you are. 

Links to relevant articles about on-site scribing

For tips about on-site scribing check out this article: Why pianists make good scribes

You may also find these articles helpful: The skills you need to start up a scribing business and How I became a scribe

Sally-Anne Watson Kane has over 20 years' experience scribing interviews, meetings, discussions, seminars and oral histories. She scribes selection reports, referees' reports and submissions via telephone, and scribes meetings on-site in Gippsland (Vic). On Time Typing also has on-site scribes in Darwin (Northern Territory) and Bendigo (Victoria).


Copyright Sally-Anne Watson Kane, On Time Typing. Please seek my permission prior to reproducing this article in any way but feel free to link directly to this page if you wish to use this content - thanks!

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