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Some Thoughts on Proofreading
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Some Thoughts on Proofreading
by Penina Wolicki, CET (eScribers, LLC)

A wise bird once said, "Everyone makes mistakes, oh, yes, they do," but as one of my friends once pointed out, Sesame Street has been shoveling garbage to millions of children for decades. This was said in the context of a discussion about how Sesame Street preaches to children that learning should be both fun and simple, when that's not necessarily so.

But educational philosophy arguments aside, when Big Bird says that everyone makes mistakes, that is in fact true; the implication that you can just move on without correcting the mistake or without consequences, however, is simply not a good educational message. If you make a mistake, every effort should be made to correct it. This is in particular true if you can correct it before anyone sees it. In that case, it's like the proverbial tree falling in the forest.

According to Merriam Webster, a transcript is a written, printed, or typed copy of words that have been spoken. As such, a transcript should actually reflect the words that have been spoken.

When an attorney or a judge requests a transcript, the expectation is that the written, printed, or typed copy be as precise as possible. As transcribers, our job is to make sure that happens.

It is clear that during transcription, typographical errors occur. We all make mistakes. Thanks to the fact that we work on computers nowadays, mistakes are much easier to correct than, let's say, thirty years ago, when most people were working on electric typewriters, and word processing was still in its infancy.

The question is, how do we make sure that the final product is as error-free as possible? I'm sure everyone would agree that a quick spell-check of a document is not enough. Although the spellchecker will fix "htere" to "there" every time, it still doesn't fix "there" to "their" even when asked nicely. To be sure, the contextual spell-checker will occasionally pick up errors, but it's certainly not foolproof.

Clearly, it's necessary to at least read through a draft transcript. There are little errors that occur all the time. Some people are constantly writing "of" instead of "or." My personal weakness is mistakenly typing "and" instead of "an." A spell-checker will never catch that type of error, and there's no way to set an autocorrect, as in the case of "htere" or any other letter switch that you commonly make.

But is reading through the transcript sufficient to catch enough errors to make a transcript into a written, printed, or typed copy of words that have been spoken? I don't think so.

In my opinion, the only way to really get a nearly perfect transcript, one that is a written, printed, or typed copy of words that have been spoken, is to run through the audio a second time. There are many types of errors that just cannot be caught by a spell-check followed by a read-through, no matter how thorough you are.

Let's take a look at a couple errors I caught in my transcribing work today when I was proofreading a transcript:

Your Honor ruled two days later, and month went by before you ruled.

Clearly there's an error in this sentence. The question is, what's the correct sentence? Should this be corrected to a month or to months? Does it make a difference? Of course it does. Can you figure out what words were spoken here without re-listening? No.

We asked Mr. Smith to give us an estimate, and he came up with 400,00.

What's the correct number? Is it 40,000, 400,000, 400,500, or 400.00? Does it make a difference? Of course it does. Can you figure out what words were spoken here without re-listening? Maybe. It depends on the context surrounding the sentence. Perhaps the correct number had been used in the previous sentence.

Sometimes numbers are more complicated, or there's a long list of numbers with dollars and cents. A transposition of two digits could make a big difference; and going back and listening is the only way to be sure you've gotten it right.

The above examples are pure typographical errors, the kind we all make. Other types of errors include skipped words or phrases, incorrect punctuation, and just plain mishearing. Any one of these errors can change the entire meaning of a sentence.

For example: if you typed, "But, Judge, I think that's right," and what the attorney really said was, "But, Judge, I don't think that's right," and the attorney who ordered the transcript calls you on your error, the chance of you getting a return order from that law firm is probably close to zero.

A second run through the audio, with the full context of the proceedings in mind, can go a long way to correct these errors.

There are many reasons to work hard to create a good, precise, verbatim transcript, the first one being pride in your work; another close second is job security. Personally, I just hate looking like an idiot. So if it takes me an extra hour to finish the transcript, so be it. I'd rather be the one to catch the mistakes, than have them caught by the attorney or the judge and pointed out to me in retrospect.

Penina Wolicki is an AAERT Certified Electronic Court Transcriber. She has been working for eScribers since 2007 as a full-time transcriber, and more recently as a part-time editor, as well.

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