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The Perfect Scopist

/A Key to Efficiency and Timeliness

The Perfect Scopist

The Perfect Scopist
“The one thing that I do that really helps me is to make sure that I’m getting the best scopist for the least effort. Can you really afford NOT to?

Needless to say, with so many things to learn and keep up with as a reporter, you could sprout a handful (or more) of gray hairs learning how to find your match in a scopist. As in any area of life, small bits of first-hand wisdom scattered amongst reporters and scopists could fill a bank vault. We hope that in bringing together this wisdom you have the “breadcrumbs” to lead you from confusion and overwork to your perfect scopist.

There are those who would shout from mountaintops about reduced stress, increased earnings, time now spent with family rather than their computer and even those who’ve avoided Carpal Tunnel Syndrome as a result of using a scopist.

One reporter commented, “I don’t know if I would want to burden somebody with some of my jobs that are less than perfect and feel uneasy about what could happen to it. So I just weather the storm.” Sorry to say, but perfectionism could drive more reporters insane than imaginable. Often, buying the time to improve one’s skills and working WITH someone is just the needed cure.

Other reporters shared nightmares and oddball stories and continue doing their own work; many maintain a glimmer of hope. Fewer reporters employ a proofreader to lighten their load and essentially everyone agrees on one thing – HELP would be a good thing!

We asked a few hundred scopists and several hundred reporters for feedback. What do you look for in a scopist (or from the scopists, of a reporter)? What details about equipment, pricing, training, references, locations, schedules and personality are you looking for? There had to be some method of success – and we were going to find it!

It’s as Close as Your E-mail

As for systems and equipment, many reporters insisted the scopist should be “on their system.” However, scopists who often work with several reporters commonly receive files in one of the two ASCII styles or Rich Text Format (also known as RTF). This allows the scopists to work with various systems.

Rich Text Format was commonly mentioned by scopists during the survey. When we questioned possible format changes that could occur, Judy Rakocinski (of BestScopingTechniques.com and one of the founders of Mazco.org where a Scopists Support Group exists) answered, “This is true. There is a certain amount of tweaking involved with RTF and not all systems ‘get along’ with every system via RTF. A professional scopist will know how to walk the reporter through the RTF conversion process or be able to let the reporter know that the two systems will not work well together. The reporter must be willing to work with the scopist to iron out little margin and formatting errors if they do occur. RTF is a possibility, but working on the same system is always the best way to go.”

If a scopist receives an ASCII file and there is no steno with it, it is difficult to see a mis-trans or check the steno. The best system is for the reporter to translate their notes against the dictionary in their own CAT system, then export the file into an ASCII or RTF file where they then “zip” and email the file to the scopist. The scopist will then import the file into his or her system, make changes, export it back into an ASCII or RTF format, zip, and send it off to the reporter for proofreading.

“Zipping” the file can be vital as some ASCII files are negatively affected during transference. For more information on exporting, zipping and emailing files as well as do’s and don’ts with various file types, go to Mazco.org, under “Scoping FAQs – ‘What the heck is RTF?’” and other related sections.

Sound files and tapes are also an issue that comes up regularly. Many scopists work with tapes but there is usually a price difference due to increased referencing time spent. Audio-synced sound files while cumbersome via email are invaluable. You’ll find suggested types of transfer methods for large files covered at the Mazco site, under the topic, “Transferring WAV files.” We have included only some basic information on this technology and its use here.

AudioSync (known as .wav files) and other audio files are normally much too large to send as an email attachment. Instead, you will need to upload them to a storage place where your scopist can access and download them. This storage space is essentially a website space with sufficient memory.

Faye Ratcliff of Quality Transcription in North Carolina, a scopist and author of JCR’s article entitled “Instant Scopist,” recommended one method. “As far as the online storage, I’ve used Streamload previously; it works well. I currently send/receive .dss files (a type of sound file) from a reporter via MSN Instant Messenger. We both have cable modems. I then play the sound directly from my computer, using a foot pedal and specialized software from Martel.”

You’re Surrounded

If you are so inclined to seek out a scopist who specifically has your equipment, then visit our web page at http://www.depo.com/findingscopist.html for a detailed list of links to manufacturers, associations, and independent sites that host lists of scopists by system, skills, or area. Some of these sites list 25-50 scopists, while others list hundreds.

An existing scopist training program and referral program can be found at BestScopingTechniques.com. This service features a questionnaire reporters may fill out to find their ideal scopist. As yet, this appears to be a breakthrough from the scopist community that may help tie the knot for many reporters and scopists.

By utilizing email, you can seek out a scopist almost anywhere in the U.S. It was more common to find East Coast scopists preferring West Coast reporters because of the additional time available in their mornings, despite added costs and time to any required shipping. Once a system was grooved in between the two, shipping was not commonly necessary. One of our reporters simply checks for the closest Fedex drop box to her last depo of the day and ships off her tapes before going home.

PART II of Finding Your Perfect Match

Talking Money

Pricing as always is a delicate subject. Some reporters say, “I ask but don’t negotiate.” Many scopists say the same. The rates vary from the reporter’s location (and area rates) to the scopist’s cost of living (Mid-Western, etc.). The common rates mentioned range from 75 cents to $1.25 a page for regular turnaround. Rates may vary due to audiotape, dailies, expedites, quality of reporter’s writing, technical or medical writings, etc.

There were no easy answers to discussing prices. Many scopists refer to being paid the same rates for years. Others have increased their rates as their skills increase but ever so slightly. Some scopists expect to be paid immediately while others within a couple weeks.

Scoping skills can be weighed in a variety of ways. Special skills can come in many forms: legal professional, medical background, computer experience, college degrees, English education, prior reporter or student experience, past transcriber (or someone with a good ear), etc. Ideally, these special skills can match the type of specialty work a reporter does.

Reporters have found scopists in a variety of ways. Some expect to find them only by referral from another reporter. There were mixed ideas that a scopist promoting their services might not have done justice to prior reporters. However, when reporters change systems, retire or cut back their work or even take a vacation, a scopist would require more work. In the long run, it is hard to imagine either scopist or reporter with “all their eggs in a single basket.” Even the scopists had a backup plan agreed upon with the reporters, when workloads mount, so no deadlines are lost or when that long over due vacation is knocking at their door.

The Nitty-Gritty

Mazco.org, a website about and for scopists, suggests these sample questions to ask of a scopist:

What do you charge?

Do you charge extra for (audio? video? expert witness, etc.)?

Will you do dailies? Expedites?

How long have you been scoping?

Do you read steno?

Where did you learn how to scope?

Can you explain to me how to send files via email?
What the heck does “zipping” mean and why do I need this?

Can you tell me how to look stuff up on the Internet?
and many others.

Some things the scopist might ask the reporter could include:

How long have you been reporting?

What CAT system are you on?

How long have you been using that system?

How would you describe your writing? Good? So-so? (The answer to that sometimes helps set the initial rate.)

Have you worked with a scopist before? If so, why are you looking for a new scopist now?

Are you good about putting job dictionary entries into your main dictionary?

Do you use audio; and, if so, what size/what speed? (And, no, a scopist shouldn’t be expected to actually watch videotapes of depositions.)

Will you send me a job that’s already in final form so I can see your preferences?
and many others.

Additional suggestions from both scopists and reporters included not starting off with a technical witness. If you are a real-time writer or captioner, your writing may bring more agreeable rates, discuss this with the scopist. The size and frequency of jobs and turnaround will be very important. Check each other’s on-line access speeds if you are planning on sending large files (even when zipped). Audio sync files will often exceed the browser and/or internet service provider’s limits so ensure you both have the means to handle these as needed. As a safeguard, it never hurts to ensure confidentiality of work and that a reporter’s notes will not be discussed with other reporters.

Checking references from a prior reporter may help confirm or refute the scopist’s ability to handle work reliably. Common questions include the scopist’s ability to follow the transcript and edit for content rather than just editing untranslates without regard to context. How well does the scopist work under pressure (such as an expedite)? How well does she work with tapes or video? Always be sure to check more than one reference as consistency is as important as the content of each reference to evaluate performance or simple personality conflicts.

Show and Tell

When it comes to the task of checking skills, there are two methods. Using them together ensures the best results.

Some scopists may offer to accept a 20-page unedited sample to be worked over and sent back to the reporter for approval and additional preferences. Or consider sending a sample writing from a prior job so the scopist can create a checklist of preferences to present to you.

Checklists should cover everything from punctuation to grammar (for example, do you prefer slashes or dashes on a date?) and other detailed formatting issues. This detailed instruction sheet, whether created by the scopist from scratch or filled out by the reporter, will save a tremendous amount of guesswork, heartache, and time. Make a point of answering questions regarding format and style rather than leaving the question unanswered. Updating preference checklists can be used as a quality check by the scopist before shipping off work. Time invested in developing and updating this kind of tool can be invaluable to the reporter, as well.

It’s Easier Than you Think

In the end, you are looking for the ideal scopist who has a compatible work ethic to your own, who can follow directions, show initiative by asking for and following constructive criticism, and who can execute changes. Remember, however, that none of these qualities includes being a mind-reader, so communicating your instructions will be vital for both of you.

Need some idea of how broad your search might require? One reporter called 50 scopists. Ten people returned her calls. She sent each twenty pages of material to scope. She wanted to see if their style was compatible with hers as she wasn’t interested in training a scopist, just finding one. Out of ten scopists, she found one dynamite scopist and one that was good. It took her two weeks to get a great system set up with the dynamite scopist. Her advice was simple, “When looking for a scopist, you have to be persistent until you find someone that works with you. It is worth the effort.”

As to the length of time one would allow before pursuing or abandoning a long-term relationship, the consensus of scopists and reporters stated within four or five jobs.

Turnaround schedules should be addressed, if possible, in the initial preferences checklist. Establish as closely as possible a workable timetable by day (and where necessary hour due to time zones) for different types of jobs. Giving prediction to both parties becomes essential and avoids ulcers. Keeping the scopist in the loop on when you expect work to ship out is also important. The scopist who is expecting work which comes late and has other work scheduled will, needless to say, be hard-pressed. Reporters have the same concern about their own scheduling. A clarification of whether the scopist works weekends would be strongly recommended. Some do at no extra charge, some don’t.

Keeping a Good Thing Going

How you communicate and care for your scopist can, as with any relationship, be the make-break point. The majority of reporters expressed the need to respect the person. Relationships that had built over years were quite close. The minority response was bent on “It’s business. We don’t have to be close but get along.”

Scopists expressed concerns about reporters who were uncaring (exclusively business but verging on disrespect), disorganized (causing backlogs), and in attentiveness to paying for jobs in a timely fashion. These are all concerns not so foreign to reporters themselves.

Communication is key. There is a dire need for feedback if further corrections are needed to match preferences. “I’m not a mind reader” was mentioned quite a few times.

In a few instances, where the reporter specified they want it done a particular way and the scopist believes this is incorrect, the scopist’s only option was to prove without a doubt that it is factually incorrect. However, in the end it is done as the reporter wants it done. A rare comment came from one reporter, “Some scopists I have come across in the past are way TOO easy on my work and I prefer to have someone challenge me and ASK questions, why did I do this or that, or is this conforming to normal practice, etc.” With talented and intelligent people on both sides of this fence, this process should be expected if the relationship is going to really pay off.

There are stories on both sides about unstable reporters or scopists, work never sent or received late, jobs with impossible deadlines or late return, sloppy writing or editing (on both sides), excessive calls disrespectful of one’s time, etc. In a perfect world, none of this would happen, but we likely wouldn’t get overloaded either. Establish some expectations but communicate them clearly.

Going the Extra Mile

Cathy Vickio, a Houston scopist, describes various helpful things that she does for her reporters. “I keep the reporter posted as to my target completion date, and send long jobs in ‘chunks’ so they can keep up on the reading (if they want); help build the reporter’s main dictionary by globaling job dictionary entries; do research to find spellings, etc.; make suggestions for ways of resolving conflicts, writing numbers, and spelling out words (if the reporter is receptive); add a humorous (flagged) note now and then to the reporter in the transcript to break the monotony (for them and myself!); maintain a spelling list for related jobs and give the reporter periodic updated lists; create fill-in-the-blank templates for cover pages, indexes, signature pages, etc., and share them with the reporter; as well as share any tricks or tips you learn about the CAT system with the reporter.”

Experienced scopists will utilize various tools many of which are now online such as The Gregg Reference manual, various on-line dictionaries, pharmacy lists, medical dictionaries, legal dictionaries and Morson’s. These enable the scopist to make the reporter really shine.

An excellent Scoping and Systems FAQ site which also hosts Yahoo-based discussion site is open to both reporters and scopists at www.scopistssupportgroup.com.

One reporter schedules her reporting so she can raise her children while her husband scopes for her. Now, that’s a perfect match!

Whine and Cheese…or Goals and Glory

One Atkinson-Baker reporter suggested, “If they are always whining and backing out of things and complaining, it’s just bringing down my day. I want someone who will admit they killed themselves for me (if they did), accept my humble thanks, and then ask for the next job. Pay your scopist well, on time, and give them perks and praise. Let them know what is happening right and what can improve. Set goals. Give them an avenue for feedback to you. Listen. Pay attention if there is workload stress going on. Don’t overload him or her and ruin their family and be surprised if he or she quits. Treat a scopist like you want to be treated as a reporter, but don’t expect quite as much from a scopist. They aren’t making as much as the reporter. They aren’t in the limelight. You have to give them their glory. We do get used to our right-hand wonders.”

Happy hunting. We at Atkinson-Baker hope that you’ll find YOUR right-hand wonder as well!