Proofreading verbatim texts: How it works

The blog writer sitting at a tall table on a rooftop garden, surrounded by green plants. The town of Oaxaca, Mexico, is in the far background.

Proofreading verbatim texts is its own art form. With any text that reports verbatim on something, you cannot edit for bad grammar or words that are used incorrectly or out of context. The text must show exactly what was said. So when I moved to the USA and began a more unusual type of proofreading work – court and deposition transcripts – I had to put aside a lot of what I wanted to do to ‘improve’ the text. Instead, I had to find ways to make it readable despite any language problems.

Court reporting in the USA

Unlike in the UK, the US legal system still relies on human court reporters – also known as stenographers – to accurately record what is discussed. (The UK system has moved to digital recording.) Think of any US-based TV courtroom drama and there is usually someone quietly typing away on a funny-looking typewriter – the stenotype or stenograph machine – and you’ve got the idea.

Like shorthand, the machine has a series of keys that a court reporter programs to reflect the phrases they come across most often. These typically relate to the types of cases that they report on – trials, depositions, hearings (arguing legal motions) before a judge or even company board and town planning meetings. This makes it easier to quickly record the proceedings.

Once a hearing or deposition is over, the court reporter will translate the text, transforming the shorthand form into English. From here, they will do a first edit. Then it’s ready for proofreading. There are specific software programs that court reporters use and corrections can be done either

  • directly into the software program
  • in PDF format using annotations on the full file
  • in PDF but returning only an errata sheet.

Is there such a thing as a typical transcript?

Not really! While there may be similarities across the types of cases, each is unique because it involves different individuals. After four years, I am more familiar with the lawyers that engage my court reporters most often. So I’m more accustomed to how they speak: short, pointed sentences or long rambling trains of thought.

But the plaintiffs, defendants and witnesses in every case are different. They have their own way of expressing themselves, and more often than not this is their first deposition so they’re nervous. Often, an interpreter is involved. Some people mumble, making it harder for the court reporter to pick up the correct words, while others nod and shake their heads or say ‘it hurts here’ not realising this won’t make any sense to whoever is reading the transcript. Then there are those who don’t have English as a first language but don’t need an interpreter and have an unusual way of getting across what they want to say.

Switching between proofreading and copyediting texts

Copyediting and proofreading are so different that I find I can switch between them throughout the day and week and reset my brain. This keeps my mind fresher and I can get more done than if I only worked on long projects. I tend to start my day with a strong coffee and a transcript – the double whammy fires up my mind! – and come back to it as and when I need to switch things up.

The most common issues I find in transcripts are typos (which could be a mistranslation or reporter error) and misplaced or missing punctuation. Readability is key, so punctuation matters. Without changing the meaning of what a deponent is saying, I try to ensure a sentence is clear and understandable. If a proposed comma could alter the meaning, I add a note in the margin so the reporter knows to check against the audio. After all, they were there so will know better than me what a deponent was trying to say, and they must certify this is an accurate transcript. Otherwise, inverted words crop up, homophones creep in, and double words make an appearance in most transcripts.

Scheduling transcripts into my workload

After four years, I’m comfortable with how many pages I can proofread in an hour, so it’s easier to schedule the transcripts I need to turn around into my week. The tricky part is that I rarely know what’s in the pipeline. Regular turnaround is three days, so unless I’m inundated from my three regular court reporters, it’s manageable. A few times a month a rush job will require 24-hour turnaround. Then there is the odd occasion when I need to drop everything to proofread a transcript. But my reporters will always check my availability first.

The best part about this type of work is that I have learnt so much about life in the USA. About the geography of different states, the linguistic nuances between regions, new expressions I’d never heard of, and about different people’s lives. I can’t live without my online Merriam-Webster dictionary link, and Google is my best friend for checking new place names and proper nouns and sleuthing for clues of what something could possibly mean or how to spell it. This often happens when people use industry jargon.


I trained in this type of proofreading by a former proofreader who specialised in this field. They taught me the characteristics of verbatim legal transcripts, what can and can’t be changed, and what should be queried. But there are a few courses out there, typically run by former court reporters who know the ins and outs of the process. What you need to have is a good grasp of grammar and punctuation rules. And first-hand experience of US culture and language are an absolute must for this sort of work.

After a while, I became comfortable with quickly figuring out a deponent’s way of speaking and knowing if marking a change or comment was right or would create unnecessary work for the court reporters. There are rare times when the details of a case are difficult to read about, but I love the work. How could I not when I’ve got the odd malapropism to keep me amused – like the deponent who kept saying that people did things ‘of their own fruition’? Not to mention that I can, and do, literally work from anywhere on my iPad!

I've got a question


A version of this blog post first appeared on the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading (CIEP) website. It has been updated and revised for the Last Glance website.

Christina Petrides is a proofeader and editor who works with small businesses, academics and court reporters, copyediting and proofreading documents. She works across most industries and has a particular love for the environmental and travel sectors. She is a Professional Member of the CIEP and Affiliate Member of the Institution of Environmental Sciences (IES). Connect with her on LinkedIn.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *