Realtime FAQs
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In growing with the captioning industry for more than 25 years, the VITAC team has trained and recruited hundreds of skilled, talented captioning professionals. Here, our Realtime Captioner Training Manager Amy Bowlen has assembled answers to the questions that she’s heard most often from aspiring captioners.

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Required Skills and Training for Students and Working Reporters

I want to work for VITAC. What can I do to improve my chances?

Just as you must be a qualified writer and well-versed in court procedures when applying for an official court reporting position, and just as you must know the art of freelance deposition reporting before applying to a firm, so too must you know the business of captioning.

What does that mean? Above all, you must be able to write television. The initial round of the application process for a remote position is submitting first-run files from TV programs. In reviewing these files, we look for near-perfect translation, because that’s your job as a captioner: to provide near-perfect translation of TV programming.

How can I reach near-perfect TV programming translation?

Solid realtime theory is a baseline qualification before you can even begin to train for captioning. Mastering it takes hundreds of hours of diligent practice and dictionary-building. And you can’t begin to build a dictionary of television terms until you’ve solidified your realtime writing skills. In other words, if you still have word-boundary issues or conflicts in your writing, you can't build a dictionary of television terms without presenting mistranslations. So, to begin, the realtime theory you use must be rock solid — no conflicts, no word-boundary errors. Any captioner will tell you that you have far too much to think about while you're on the air — trying to write verbatim, encountering words and names for the first time ever (and fingerspelling them), worrying about caption transmission, anticipating commercial outs, etc. — the last thing you have time to think about is theory!

Once you're sure that you're writing with good theory, it's time to get moving on practice. If you've spent your career as a judicial reporter, the move to captioning will be overwhelming. Some of the most highly skilled reporters I know were left feeling like failures when they began training for captioning — myself included. In broadcast captioning, the cadence is different, the terminology is different, the syllabic density seems to be at least ten times that of the judicial writing in which you've developed your expertise.

The news, particularly, is very difficult to learn, but no captioner hits the air without broad-based newswriting knowledge and skill. Think about it. In a half-hour deposition or hearing, the topic remains the same. In a half-hour newscast, there could be as many as 20 different stories, from local news to world politics to the latest in entertainment, sports, and human-interest stories. There’s simply no way to allow yourself to trail off and get comfortable.

However, just as you perfected your judicial writing, so, too, with diligence will you perfect your TV writing. I'm often asked how anyone can possibly learn to write TV material at such high rates of speed and accuracy. The answer is simple. It's all about words. Just words. Just going back to the basics of steno theory with a strong emphasis on learning everything there is to know about your chosen specialty. Captioning is news, sports, entertainment, finance, home shopping, human interest – you name it, it's on television.

Therefore, to become an expert captioner, you must become aware of, and stay aware of, all areas of the news at all times. Any reporter or captioner will tell you that you can’t write what you don't know. So how do you become an expert captioner? (Or an expert reporter, for that matter?) By broadening your knowledge as much as you possibly can. By reading all you can. By making words the most important thing in your career. It’s our job to know the words and translate them for our end users, be they the courts, attorneys, students, or television viewers.

A colleague of mine says, "To be a good captioner, you must have respect for the field of captioning." What she means is that you must respect the difficulty of the job, as well as the perfection that is demanded of a profession with so much public exposure. A poor captioning job reflects poorly on all captioners and reporters. That's what "respect for the field" means.

Is it true that broadcast captioners don't need to be verbatim?

False. Broadcast captioners must be as nearly verbatim as possible. The best truly are. However, we are unable to stop the speaker and, therefore, must have the ability to edit the text as required. For instance, if the speed gets away from us for even a moment, we must find the best way to get readable text to the screen as well as we can, and that may require editing — condensing the content so that the meaning is conveyed. If we encounter a word or a name that we are unsure of, or we are unsure of the spelling, we are then called upon to fingerspell that word or name to the best of our ability.

In 2010, it is absolutely unacceptable to substitute words in place of words that we are unsure are in our dictionary. Word substitution was common in the early days of captioning, but captioners are much better trained today and can fingerspell unfamiliar words or words for which we are unsure of a dictionary match. Reporters who approach captioning with the intent of substituting words do not become the best captioners. This is understandable when you realize that replacing a word with another word causes hesitation, which leads to loss of content or inaccurate translation. Simply, if you need to substitute a word, it's probably because you're unfamiliar with the word that was spoken. Now, how can you substitute if you don't know the original? If it's just a matter of uncertainty that the word is in your dictionary, fingerspell it.

How large should my dictionary be?

There’s no magic number for the size of your dictionary. There are great captioners with dictionaries of 200,000-plus entries, and there are others who are just as good who have no more than 60,000 entries. The key is how well you’ve built that dictionary and how well you can write against it.

What practice material would you recommend for students and working reporters who hope to caption?

This one's easy: anything and everything that you can get your hands on. Keep in mind that, even if you're working at 225 wpm speeds, you can't just turn the television on and expect to be able to write the news. It's very difficult and takes a great deal of time and practice to master. What will help you reach that level is to practice any type of literary material available, including speed tapes, books on tape, and lectures.

I can't stress enough the importance of reading. You must understand that reporters can’t write what they don't understand. In a simple accident case, they can write with near perfection, without even thinking about what they're hearing. As the material reaches outside their knowledge base, the writing becomes increasingly more difficult.

The more you know, or the more you broaden your knowledge base, the better you become. Theory is theory. You know how to write words. But do you know the meaning of and the spelling of the word? If you do, the writing is the easy part.

With that said, once you're ready to tackle the news, you want to be sure that you understand the content. How do you do that? By reading about it. I recommend a subscription to "USA Today." It's a good topical source of daily information. At first, read only the first page of each section (news, sports, entertainment, and finance). Highlight the proper names and any words you don't think are in your dictionary. Read for content, to be sure you understand each story. Remember, you can't write what you don't understand! Then put those names and words in your dictionary. That way, when you sit down to write the news, it may seem very fast, but the terminology won't sound as foreign.

Practice in 15-minute segments. If possible, record your practice material. When you have completed the 15-minute practice, go back and review your file, word for word, to catch every error. Notice why the errors occurred: an untranslate that requires a dictionary entry, a misstroke, an improperly written word (theory problem), a misheard word. Learn from your 15-minute take, make your entries, and then write the same segment again. Write it many times, if necessary, with an eye toward perfecting your writing and learning from your errors.

Remember, you're training to become a captioner. It’s imperative to learn from your mistakes. Your goal is always 100-percent-accurate verbatim. When you apply for a captioning position, your writing will be evaluated from top to bottom, read for content, and read for accuracy. You will be hired only if you can produce accurate translation as near to verbatim as possible. No easy task, but you are providing the text of television to millions of viewers. It must be accurate.

How do I know when I'm ready?

When you have no more than three errors per file page — and that includes correct punctuation. To reach this level, you must stay focused, write with extreme accuracy, build a sophisticated, useful dictionary, and challenge your speed.

I still have writing issues and/or theory problems that bring down the quality of my writing. What can I do to correct them?

Realtime is a necessary foundation for captioning. Many things will require your full attention when you’re on the air. Writing issues can’t be among of them! You must master your realtime theory before you attempt to caption. Start by attending realtime seminars and workshops given by your state association or by the NCRA, some of which are now online. There are several books that will correct your realtime translation problems. One of them is Realtime Captioning... the VITAC Way, which can be purchased through the National Court Reporters Association.

What are the most common weaknesses for caption trainees?

Number translation, fingerspelling, weak dictionaries, and lack of proper names. These four areas are most definitely the ones where transitioning reporters and students face the greatest challenges. All four must be mastered before a trainee is ready for the air.

Numbers must translate in realtime as they would appear in final form. A captioner must be able to fingerspell any word at any given time in a broadcast. Dictionaries must be equipped for captioning, which allows the captioner to write any type of story with no degradation of quality translation. Television is all about names. They must translate!

Fingerspelling — what is it?

When new or oddly spelled words come up in the middle of a broadcast, captioners can use a steno keyboard’s keys to spell them out one letter at a time. Fingerspelling consists of pressing key combinations that represent the individual letters of a problem word.

Captioners must be able to fingerspell when they’re unsure of a translation. It is very rarely acceptable to replace the word with a word of like meaning. Chances are, if you didn't understand the word, you’re not likely to know of an accurate replacement.

VITAC expects captioners to fingerspell all words that they are not absolutely certain are in their dictionaries. This may seem extreme, but it is, in fact, the standard by which today's captions are measured.

To become proficient, a captioner must first be sure that each letter is programmed into the dictionary in a way that joins the letters so that the translation appears to be a word that’s actually in the dictionary. The viewer should not notice that the word has been fingerspelled. Second, this skill must be employed at a very high rate of speed, so that no other text is lost. A good way to practice fingerspelling is to make a list of words and spell each out letter by letter, seeing how fast you can get through the list without making a mistake. Keep in mind that your fingerspelling must be extremely precise because any error will result in a long and unreadable translation.

Boot camps — what are they all about?

Captioning boot camps will give you a competitive edge in competing for realtime captioning positions. Over the past several years, VITAC has hand-selected employees directly from the VITAC Captioning Boot Camp held at Stark State Community College in Canton, Ohio. The camp consists of 24 hours of concentrated instruction in broadcast captioning. Its topics include the history of captioning, dictionary development, dictionary management, writing improvement, broadcast technology, caption format, speaker IDs, descriptors, forcing and blanking, sending credits, captioning music, research and preparation, performance evaluation, and equipment needs. Each class is limited to 18 students. Learn more.

How can a working reporter retrain as a captioner?
  1. Perfect your realtime skills by taking courses or studying books.
  2. Read a daily newspaper, as well as magazines like Time or Newsweek, for content. Highlight words that you do not know or that are not in your dictionary.
  3. Build your dictionary with these new words. For a quicker dictionary build, you can purchase commercially available programs.
  4. Practice, practice, practice, in all forms of TV programming.
  5. Monitor or participate in online forums for captioners. Read NCRA's Journal of Court Reporting and the Captioning Community of Interest section.
  6. Attend captioning seminars, workshops, and boot camps.
Do I need to attend the VITAC Boot Camp or other training?

While a captioning boot camp is not absolutely necessary, a record of attendance is a plus when you apply for a captioning job. It can help demonstrate that you understand dictionary development and management, the technical side of captioning, research methodologies, and other essentials. It gives you an edge in your effort to stand out among hundreds of candidates.

How can I learn more about captioning?

You may want to read:

  • Realtime Captioning...the VITAC Way, by Amy Bowlen, FAPR, RDR, CRR, CBC, and Kathy DiLorenzo, RDR, CRR, CBC. which can be purchased through the National Court Reporters Association.
  • Alternative Realtime Careers and Inside Captioning, by Gary Robson. (available from Amazon.com)
  • Related articles on NCRA's website for the Captioning Community of Interest.

You can also visit the Broadcast Captioning Group at Yahoo.com, or search the Internet for captioning-related material.

Can I come to VITAC for training?

Unfortunately, no, unless we’ve hired you to work for us.

Where do I send my résumé and cover letter?

Write

Amy Bowlen
Manager, Realtime Captioner Training
VITAC Corporation
101 Hillpointe Drive
Canonsburg, PA 15317

Or email amy-b@vitac.com.

What types of programming sample files should I send with my employment application?

We ask for one half-hour of first-run material in .txt format, from NBC Nightly News, the CBS Evening News, or ABC World News Tonight. Send your files to Amy Bowlen at amy-b@vitac.com.

What will you look for in the sample files that I send?

Near-perfect verbatim translation. A tall order, we know, but that’s the job for which you’re applying. We’ll literally read your files word-for-word to evaluate readability, content, understanding of the material, dictionary development, ability to fingerspell, and other keys to professionalism. Since we’ll be reading every word, I strongly suggest that you do the same before turning it in.

This word-for-word reading must be the standard process for every aspiring or new captioner. It is, in fact, the only way to truly perfect your writing — reading every word, deciphering and diagnosing every error, and resolving it to avoid the same or similar errors in the future. Every error is made for a reason, whether it is a fingering error, a mistranslate, an untranslate, an unknown word, or a key adjustment problem. It’s not enough to say, "Oh, that was just a fingering error," or "Oh, that was just an untranslate." You must diagnose each error and resolve its cause to prevent it or similar errors down the road.

How do I know if I'm ready to send in a sample file?

A good indicator of when you're ready is an average of no more than three errors per page, including punctuation. When completing a word-for-word review of your file, count the errors. If you find no more than an average of three errors per page in a half-hour broadcast, you're ready to submit the file.

You don't really count punctuation as an error, do you?

Absolutely. Understand that the viewer sees only two to three lines of text at a time. If the punctuation is absent or incorrect, the material becomes difficult to follow. By the time the viewer realizes where the punctuation was supposed to be, whole sentences can have left the screen. Therefore, it’s imperative that a captioner punctuate correctly during the realtime. There's no opportunity to go back and add punctuation later. Remember, it’s the captioner’s responsibility to provide the correct words and punctuation. Quite simply, it’s your job.

If all I submit is a text file, how will you know if I've missed some content?

We will. We've been writing captions and watching captions for many years and can instantly recognize generic captions, pronouns and articles substituted for proper names ("this woman,” “that woman,” “this bridge,” “that street," "he said,” “she said,” “they went"). While we won't know if you missed a word here or there, we are familiar with the way in which news is delivered, the density that typically accompanies a certain type of program, the flavor of a sportscaster’s speech, and other nuances.

Once I’ve qualified through file submissions, what’s the next step for in-house or remote employment?

If VITAC is hiring, we will set up a phone or in-person interview – depending on your location – during which we will together attempt to find out if this job is for you and if you are the person for the job. We will discuss job requirements, work schedules, income, what VITAC expects of you, and what you expect from us.

If you are hired for an in-house position, we will talk about relocation issues and a start date. If you are hired for a remote position, we will bring you to our Pittsburgh headquarters for approximately one week of training that will include instruction on the software and hardware, your communication with the office on and off the air, your connection to our internal network, and other company policies and procedures. You will meet with our human-resources team to go over your compensation and benefits package, and get to know the people with whom you will be interacting once you get back home and begin your new captioning job.

If VITAC is not hiring at the time your writing files qualify, we will hold your application until hiring is resumed and then contact you to confirm your interest in a job with us.

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