Nothing illuminates the contents and nuances of a document or record more than the act of transcription.  The intimacy of the prolonged study required to decipher each and every letter of a census record, parish register marriage entry or a probate record will inevitably result in a clearer understanding of its content and its relevance to the family history puzzle.

Once the content is transcribed, you will be able to refer back to it without struggling again and again through the handwriting on the original document.  And referring back to a record you previously found can often lead to new insights and interpretations either because you are looking at the information with fresh eyes or because you’ve made further progress on your research since you originally transcribed it.

Rather than working with a printed copy, it is usually easier to work with a digitized or scanned version of the record.  This allows you to zoom in to view difficult words and to concentrate on just a small portion of the document at a time.

A very handy tool to use for transcription of documents is a program called Transcript available for free download from  This software allows you to view the document image at the top of the screen while typing the transcription into a window at the bottom of the screen.

On the first run through the document, concentrate on transcribing as much as you can.  Leave question marks in place of any unknown words and move quickly on until you reach the end of the document.

Read through the transcription.  The missing words may suggest themselves due to context.  Once you become familiar with the handwriting, it may be easier to determine what the missing word could be.  If you are still stuck on a word, try printing out that portion of the document and leave it lying where you will see it.  Sometimes the word will almost seem to jump out at you as you walk past the paper and your eyes glance at it.  If you’re still stuck, try showing it to others.  Sometimes in seconds, new eyes see the word that you’ve been mulling and pondering over for hours.

To check your transcription, try reading the document from the end backwards, looking at each word.  Sometimes the mind adds words that aren’t there and sometimes it skips over words that are there.  Reading backwards tricks the mind into seeing exactly what is and isn’t there.

Transcription is part science and part art.  Doing it well can sometimes take considerable time but the benefit to your research will always make it worthwhile.

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