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Transcription Guide

Section of item 2125 letter from Philip Coombe 1917


These are the conventions which must be used to ensure that a transcription is as useful as possible in digital form while remaining true and accurate to the original manuscript. You can also use the conventions and tips in this guide when cataloguing archive material in the Item Catalogue form. However, the rules which need not apply in Item Catalogue fields will be indicated thus: [not for catalogue]; further explanation is indicated by an asterisk: [not for catalogue*].

Remember, no one guide should be used in isolation, the best way to take archive material on its processing journey is to use each guide  for the right job alongside an understanding of our Policies.


Transcribing hand-written or ‘manuscript’ documents is an extremely useful way to make them more accessible to more people. By creating an accurate digital version of a hard-to-read document, we can make our archival collection more discoverable, searchable and useful for research. A transcription can be used in many ways, either on its own or attached to an image of the original manuscript. However, conventions must be used to ensure that a transcription is as useful as possible in digital form while remaining true and accurate to the original manuscript.


Abbreviation – general term used to define the use of marks or lines to denote the omission of letters.

Ascender – the stem of a letter which rises above the level of the line a word is written on – eg the upwards stroke of a ‘d’

Attacking stroke – a diagonal line leading from bottom left to top right over a letter which is very common in secretary hand – often found on the letter “a”.

Book hand – handwriting used for very formal purposes (eg copying books for use in a monastery)

Bowl – the curved base of letters such as ‘b’ and ‘d’

Contraction – the omission of one or more letters in the middle of a word

Cursive handwriting – handwriting in which letters are joined together for speed and ease of writing, rather than written separately; literally ‘running’ handwriting

Descender – the stem of a letter which goes below the level of the line a word is written on – e.g. the downwards stroke of a ‘p’

Flourish- extension on a letter or mark placed above letters purely for decorative purposes.

Hand – individual style of handwriting

Italic hand – handwriting used in England from mid-16th century to 17th century, initially primarily for emphasis, or for personal correspondence, but later more widely

Ligature – usually two letters which are joined together for speed of writing, but where the form of each letter is preserved – e.g. ‘sh’, ‘st’

Line Fillers – marks added at the end of a line to prevent someone adding another word which might change the sense of what is written. These are very common in title deeds and wills

Minim – a single, short stroke of a pen/pencil, which is used either on its own in ‘i’ or repeatedly in letters such as ‘m’, ‘n’, ‘u’ and ‘v’

Script – style of handwriting

Stroke – a single mark made by a pen/pencil

Suspension – the omission of one or more letters at the end of a word

Superscript – denoting letters written above the normal level of the line


  • [not for catalogue] Replicate the line pattern used in the original document as this is part of its character and format. Use line numbers to make order and structure clearer. If the manuscript uses a margin and margin notes, do your best to replicate this in your transcription. Alternatively, simply keep margin notes on different lines and either use a note [in square brackets] before the line or a footnote to say: ‘this line is in the margin’.
  • Capital letters should be retained in the transcript even if they seem unnecessary to the modern reader; they are part of the character of the document!
  • Punctuation is often lacking in documents written in the past which can make it difficult to follow the sense of what is being written. However, as this is the way that a document has been written, modern punctuation should not be added.
  • Contractions should be extended as far as possible. [not for catalogue*] Letters which do not appear in the document should be written in square brackets. The exception to this is the monetary abbreviation ‘li’, ‘s’ and ‘d’ or ‘£ s d’ which should be left in their original format.
  • Ampersand (&) and its variants (e.g., ‘&c’) should not be expanded.
    If you cannot read or decipher a whole or part of a word, transcribe what letters you can and replace illegible letters with a question mark in square brackets: [?].
  • [not for catalogue**] Footnotes can be used to explain something which may not be obvious to the modern reader or to denote that a word has been deleted in the original text. You can also use footnotes to make suggestions as to the possible solution to an illegible word.
  • [not for catalogue] Give your transcription a sensible title and save-name so that it can be found easily later-on.


  • Do not have any preconceptions of what a word might be. To start with, each letter should be read individually to help you recognise the letter forms.
  • Remember that just as today, everyone had their own individual style of handwriting – no two people write the same way. This means that, although alphabets have been published for different styles of handwriting (e.g. secretary hand), they can only act as a guide because every writer develops their own flourishes and variations on letter forms. For this reason, use the document you are transcribing as the definitive tool to establish letter forms. This can be done by finding an unrecognised letter form in a word which has already been transcribed. Comparison is the key!
  • Spelling in the past was phonetical and not standardised. Therefore, the same word can be spelt in many different ways, even within the one document, even as late as the 19th century. This can lead to confusion and false assumptions, particularly in relation to family history and the spelling of surnames. If in doubt, try and say the word, preferably with the accent of the writer.
  • Beware the minims which can all look the same; they can be used to make up the letters “i”; “m”; “n”; “u” and “v”. Use common sense to work out which letters are being formed depending on the rest of the word (e.g. there is no word ‘receine’ but there is a word ‘receive’).
  • [not for catalogue***]Resist the temptation to correct! Copy down the spelling as it appears in the original document and if the writer uses capital letters, these should also be retained. These features are all part of the makeup of the original documents and the aim of palaeography is to produce a transcript and not a translation of the original.
  • If you are having difficulty reading and transcribing a particular word, there are two ways of tackling it. Firstly, try and divide down the word into its individual letter forms and transcribe them individually; it sometimes helps if you block out all the other letters so that you can only see one letter at a time. Alternatively, leave a space for the word and continue the transcription. Come back to it at the end to see if you can then decipher it having read the rest of the document. Finally, if these tips do not work, leave the document for a couple of hours or until the next day and return to it with a clear mind and no preconceptions: this often works!
  • [not for catalogue]When producing a transcription of a document, use double spacing when typing it up on a computer. If you are writing it out by hand first, use a pencil and write on alternative lines – this means you have room to make any alterations, can easily rub things out and still make sense of what you have written. The double spacing makes it easier to read the transcript.
  • Once you have finished, check over your work to ensure that you have kept the original spelling and adhered to the conventions. This is particularly important if you have typed it up on a computer – make sure you have automatic spell-check switched off!

* Using square brackets for expanding contractions in the Catalogue will lead to your catalogue entries being less ‘searchable’.

**You can still provide this kind of explanation in the catalogue but since there is no ‘footnote’ facility there, use the Description or Notes fields.

***Use this rule when inserting a transcription into a Catalogue form field (usually Description). When giving the item its Title, Description and any further Notes, update spellings so that your entries are more searchable and items are ‘discoverable’!