A Guide to Transcribing

Transcribing is a difficult task to start and learn. Old writing is often poorly spelt, written, uses odd grammar/outdated terms and sometimes words are different in the same paragraph. If you’re looking to transcribe a larger piece of work, such as a recipe book, it has been written in by many different people – that have very different writing styles that reflect their own personalities and their situation at the time.

For most people, what puts them off of reading old texts is the handwriting. In old texts it is very rare that the authors attempted to ‘standardise’ their writing to make it easier for others to read – it often seems that it was written with the mindset that if they could read it that it was good enough. But what can be very frustrating is that in larger texts as mentioned before the writing style can vary wildly.

Two sections from the same book, showing how much the writing can change in one book alone

From the above images, for the right example, it’s a simple matter to transcribe – anybody could do it and its as easy as reading a modern printed book due to the regular and neat handwriting. What may trip people up is the occasional spelling oddity which will be addressed later.

As for the left it’s clearly more difficult. The handwriting has far more flourishes that connect some of the words, making it hard to make out where some words end. Many letters are also inconsistent in their writing and in the continuing theme are personal to the different authors. This clearly makes transcribing this type of work a significant challenge, but it is not impossible to get good at it fairly quickly.

Firstly, the best thing to do is read through the text and identify words that you can recognise to get a feel for the writing. In recipes, this often becomes words like ‘ounce’ or ‘quart’ as they are commonly used in recipes and are distinct words – ounce has no letters that require large flourishes such as d or h and the letters are normally written clearly. After that look for common letters in different words. If you’re struggling to read one word, try to look for a similar letter in a word that you can understand and apply that to the first word.

As an example of this, these two words are from a different section of the book. The first is meant to be read as ‘sliced’ and the second as ‘consumed’.

A strange quirk of this persons writing is that they wrote their c’s as an r, and their e’s look like a’s or o’s depending on how you look at it. Combined, this made it very difficult to figure out what the left was meant. If you read it without the understanding of these letters it comes across as more like ‘slirod’, which is not very helpful. The second reads ‘ronsumod’. With the second however, as the context of the word is in a recipe its not hard to realise that it is meant to be consumed. Now knowing that this person wrote their c’s and e’s in strange way it is easier to figure out the left means ‘sliced’. This can then be applied to other words that are causing trouble and can help to fill out sentences that were completely unknown. The context provided by these new words may help to figure out the rest of a sentence.

When it comes to spelling, there are some common words that are spelt differently no matter the author. They tend to spell the same word the same in their own writing, which is not always the case, but its rare that this carries over to other authors in the same book. These words are similar to modern spellings but can trip people up if they are unused to them. Common changes are e’s added onto the ends of words.

This excerpt is meant to say ‘boil it half’, but is spelt as ‘boyle it halfe’. Whilst this is quite clear when pointed out, the first word may poteninaly be read as ‘boylc’ if someone was not common with the way specfic letters are written as mentioned earlier. A way to work with unfamiliar spellings is to try to read the word and say it out loud as you do using what you think is the correct letters. If you read ‘boylc’ out loud you’ll probably recognise it sounding similar to boil, and put into the context will be able to figure out the correct word. As a general rule of thumb, most mispelt words are similar to the modern spelling with e’s added into them or doubled letters. As below, ‘pott’, ‘lett’, ‘dayes’, ‘straine’

Many of the words used in older texts are old fashioned terms as well; so even if you’re certain you’ve got the correct letters but the word is still not making sense it can be helpful to put it into a dictionary, prefereably one that has older meanings such as the Oxford English Dictionary.

Something that comes up a lot is the use of older shorthand words and symbols that can be confusing. One of the favourites is ‘ye’ which translates to ‘the’, but there is also ‘yr/yor’, ‘yt’, and ‘ym’ – your, that and them. These tend to be elevated slightly as well, placed above other words which can help to point them out while reading as shown below; ‘the fire while your’.

A common letter/symbol that can cause confusion is a long s that appears some words. Whilst it may seem like an f it is actually just a different way of writing the short case s that crops up occasionally; it is more common in handwritten formats and whilst the rules are fairly uncertain the general format is that the long s usually goes before a short case s in the middle of end of a word.[1]

[1]  West, Andrew (June 2006), “The Rules for Long S”, <https://www.babelstone.co.uk/Blog/2006/06/rules-for-long-s.html>

An example from the US Bill of Rights in ‘Congress’

In conclusion, transcribing can be a difficult and time-consuming process if you attempt to tackle a piece of writing that is particularly difficult to make out, although not all old texts are like this. However, if you approach the writing with an open mind and go through it word by word, attempting to become very familiar with the authors style of writing, and referring to other parts of their writing and outside works you will be rewarded with access to first-hand accounts that can provide many opportunities to learn about the past.

(All images, aside from the last, were taken from various pages of EMROC Va429 ‘Cookery and medicinal recipes [manuscript], ca. 1675-ca. 1750)’[1]

[1]Anna Maria Wentworth, (1725) “Cookery and medicinal recipes [manuscript], ca. 1675-ca. 1750” <https://transcribe.folger.edu/index.php?dir=Transcribathons/EMROC/Va429>, (Retrieved 10th March 2020)



West, Andrew (June 2006), “The Rules for Long S”, <https://www.babelstone.co.uk/Blog/2006/06/rules-for-long-s.html>


Wentworth, Anna Maria, (1725) “Cookery and medicinal recipes [manuscript], ca. 1675-ca. 1750” <https://transcribe.folger.edu/index.php?dir=Transcribathons/EMROC/Va429>, (Retrieved 10th March 2020)

6 thoughts on “A Guide to Transcribing

  1. I really like this blog,
    As we have discussed in class, i am not very good at transcribing and I find it a long and arduous process. Did you find any words that you had to do further research? From personal experience, there are some words in these recipes that are different from the words we use today.
    Its a really interesting blog and it has inspired me to give transcribing another go!

  2. I really like the trick of reading things aloud, it’s the most useful one! Do you have any other tricks that first time transcribers should use?

  3. This was a very useful blog! To me the most useful of your tips was the one looking for similar letters across the document when not recognising it. Did you enjoy the transcribing process itself more or the challenges the more confusing words gave you? What was your favourite ‘transcription hack’, which made the process quicker for you?

    1. Yes I enjoyed it when I was making progress, but getting stuck on the really difficult words would for sure drain the enjoyment out quickly! Favourite ‘hack’ is probably after getting stuck looking at another recipe to see if there’s the same word there and trying to read it there. Hopefully it would make more sense then.

  4. This was a very interesting read! What do you think was the hardest part about transcribing is? And did parts of it become easier the more you transcribed?

    1. The hardest part was definitely figuring out what effect the handwriting had on the letters, the e’s that I mentioned in the post for example. Doing it more often does make it easier because you get used to these kinds of things and you learn the processes to figure it out but at the start it’s really frustrating.

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