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Ten Tips and Reasons to Transcribe Documents

One skill every serious family history researcher needs is to be able to completely and accurately transcribe handwritten documents. Yes, it can be a royal pain when the ink is faded or the handwriting is nearly impossible to read. Here are ten tips and reasons for gutting it out and developing this essential skill. Pssst! There’s a bonus tip at the end. So hang in there!


Why Transcribe:

  • To be able to read the document at a later time. Who wants to struggle through hard to read handwriting over and over?
  • The act of transcribing causes you to notice the details.
  • When you notice those details, it’s easier to come up with a good research plan.
  • It helps in analyzing the document.
  • Some repositories don’t allow photocopies, photographs or scans. The only way to leave with a “copy” of the document is to transcribe it.



  • Make an exact copy
  • The lines in your transcription should break in the exact same place as on the original.
  • Spelling (or misspelling), punctuation, capitalizations (or lack thereof) should appear exactly as in the original document.
  • Notations of your own should be in square brackets [] or footnotes. If a word or words are undecipherable, note it with comments like [unreadable] or [?].
  • Number the lines. It will help you locate a specific line if you need to refer back.
  • Write a full citation including the repository. Consider including this information, as well as #5 below in the metadata of your file.
  • Include your name and date of the transcription. It could be helpful when reviewing later on. Especially if your skills have vastly improved.


Bonus Tip:

I use a free program called Transcript when transcribing digital documents. The document can be opened in the top half of the screen while you make your transcription in the bottom half. You can zoom in on those difficult to read words which helps make an accurate transcription. Transcript has made my life immensely easier.


What tips and tricks for transcribing do you have? Is there a particular software program you like to use? Let us know in the comments.


© Michelle Goodrum 2012

Michelle Goodrum is the author of Timeless Territories, IDG's monthly column about using land records in your research. You can find her blogging at The Turning of Generations.

About Michelle Goodrum

Michelle Goodrum
Writer, family historian, and researcher Michelle Roos Goodrum has been researching her family for nearly 20 years. Being the caretaker of over 130 years of her family’s papers and photographs, Michelle enjoys piecing her ancestors’ stories together. Follow Michelle on her blog The Turning of Generations (http://turning-of-generations.blogspot.com/ ) Michelle is the author of IDG’s monthly column, Timeless Territories.


  1. Thank you Michelle for such an informative article and the tip about Transcript. I’m going to check it out!

  2. Great tips michelle! I also use transcript and love the tips on numbering lines and adding the citation at the bottom and in meta data.

  3. Michelle Goodrum

    You are welcome Cindy. I hope you like Transcript.

    Jen, I’m glad you found the tips helpful.

  4. I couldn’t find the link the Transcript. I did love this article. I have an old religious missionary journal from my great-grandfather that ought to be transcribed. Wonderful post!

  5. It’s great to have this bonus webpage as an assist to transcribing! Thank you, Michelle. I’ve copied it to my webpage page. Transcribing does take a lot of practice! In my opinion, transcribing is a kind of learned skill. As I teacher for 40 years, reading college students’ handwriting, I feel sometimes that I can make out almost anything in cursive. It’s really vexing! But checking out nearby words can help you figure out the strange ways that some people form their letters. I’ve known people who can’t even read their own handwriting after it’s “cold.” And that includes me!

  6. Really a informational post for transcriber.Agree with Mariann SRegan that Transcribing need a lot of practice. It will help transcribers to transcribe the document accurately and easily.


  7. I’m currently transcribing my Grandmother’s journals and I can’t figure out how to format things when words are written above the line or in the margin. I include a bracketed note saying where it is but then how do I show how much is written there and when it goes back to the main text?

  8. Tapria, Transcripts has two toggle buttons up on the toolbar. One for superscript and another for subscript. That’s what I use.

  9. I use GenScriber ( http://genscriber.com )
    It has a spreadsheet style input, plus a richtext input similar to transcript.

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