20 Tips for Transcribing Handwritten Documents

Family researchers and genealogists have all faced this situation at some point in their research – the discovery of a valuable handwritten document – a will, deed, personal letter, the back of a photo, or family Bible. You are absolutely thrilled; but, then your excitement quickly fades when you realize you can’t read what is written.

From an online collection of letters from World War II, 1941-1942 period

Sometimes the challenge of reading an old document is related to its physical condition. Paper documents were often folded, causing creases, tears and holes. Long-term storage of documents and exposure to a variety of environmental conditions can cause the paper itself to deteriorate. Insects and rodents may have used the paper for lunch or nesting. And, if a document was exposed to moisture, the ink may be smeared, words faded, or perhaps covered with mold stains.

In the sample World War II letter, you can see that certain letters and words are faded. We don’t know what caused the fading, it could even have been in that condition when it was received; after all, it was mailed from Bill lying in a military hospital to his sweetheart, Edith. Or, just a romantic notion, maybe the faded words were the result of Edith’s tears falling on the paper as she read it.

If you overlook the letter’s physical condition, the most significant challenge to reading this letter is the fact it was written in cursive. Bill actually had fairly good writing skills and most of the letter is relatively easy to read. But, even if you’ve learned to write cursive, reading someone else’s cursive handwriting can be difficult.

Transcription Challenges

The most common challenges to deciphering handwriting are: language, lettering style, a person’s unique handwriting style, writing conventions used during the period (e.g. punctuation or none), insufficient context, and legibility (excellent penmanship or just chicken scratches).

A portrait of Noah Webster in an advertisement for the first Merriam edition of Webster’s dictionary, published in 1847–1848 (source The New York Review of Books)

It’s interesting to note that spelling, punctuation and capitalization were not standardized until the 19th century. It wasn’t until 1806 that Noah Webster published A Compendious Dictionary of the English Language –  the first American lexicon to define spelling. It wasn’t until years later that proper spelling had caught on.

20 Transcription Tips

If you’ve volunteered to transcribe documents for a genealogy project, you fully understand just how frustrating and time-consuming it can be to accurately transcribe a single name or word. But with a bit of practice, patience and using these 20 tips, you can learn to decipher handwritten documents with greater ease.

  1. Read the entire document quickly to get the context. Even if you feel like you don’t understand anything on the page, your eyes will start to get familiar with the handwriting, and you will begin to recognize some words.
  2. Write down the words and letters you recognize and leave blanks where you don’t. Don’t spend too much time struggling over a single word. Write down the letters you do recognize and then leave spaces for the letters you can’t figure out (Fr__k_in) and move on. Continue transcribing the document and come back to these words. Having the document in context will help you fill in the blanks. Oh, that was “Franklin.”
  3. Type what you see. The primary goal of transcription is to create text that mirrors the original document. Write down words and paragraphs as you see them. Preserve original spelling, grammar, punctuation, and word order, even if it is grammatically incorrect today. You may include the correct spelling of a word in double brackets next to the incorrectly spelled word if that would assist a future read. For example, “Abraham Lincon” [[Abraham Lincoln]]
  4. Create a lettering style sheet. A letter may be written differently depending on its position in the word (at the beginning, middle or end). Capital letters have different forms to noncapital letters. Trying making a sheet where you copy the style in which identifiable letters are written to build an “alphabet” for that person’s handwriting. Once you get the feel for it, unidentified letters will fit into those you have yet to identify.
  5. Punctuation. Punctuation was seldom used, and when it was, it was used haphazardly. Dashes or equal signs were often used at the end of a line, after an abbreviation, or to show the word extended to the next line.
  6. Phonetics. Words were often spelled phonetically, the way they sounded. Local accents could also affect the way a word was spelled; for example, the proper surname Hymee may have been written Hime.
  7. Surnames. Surnames evolved as a way to sort people into groups – by occupation, place of origin, clan affiliation, patronage, parentage, adoption, and even physical characteristics (like gray hair). Surnames were commonly misspelled or purposefully changed, especially among non-English speaking immigrants. For example, written variations for the Norwegian surname Tveit (which is a village in Norway) are Tvet, Twedt, Tevt, Tviet, and Tvedt.
  8. Double “ss”. If you see a double “ss” in a word, it will often appear as “fs” in cursive. This is known as the leading “S”.
  9. Abbreviated given names. Given names are commonly abbreviated in documents, such as Thos for Thomas, Chas for Charles, Wm for William, Danl for Daniel, and Geo for George.
  10. Ditto. Ditto is a term that means “the same as stated above or as before.” It is often expressed in documents with the letters (do) or quote bracket (“), which means the word, phrase or figure above is to be repeated.
  11. Suffixes. Suffixes for names like Senior (Sr), Esquire (Esq) or Junior (Jr or Jun), or Roman numerals (I, II, III) varied depending on whether the person was dead or living.
  12. Lowercase letter “c”. A lowercase “c” with a slant stress mark over it means “with.”
  13. Substituting “Y or y” for “i”. Old English borrowed the Latin Y to write the native Old English sound for “i”. For example, the word dyed for died or eyther for either.
  14. Medical, scientific, and occupational terms. If you’re struggling to interpret these types of terms, simply type it into Google using your best guess at spelling. There are hundreds of vintage dictionaries and professional references books online that can help.
  15. Wills. Often, the first line in a will is “In the name of God”. Other common phrases are: “I give and bequeath to my…” “My last will and testament”
  16. Deeds. “This indenture made this …[date]” often begins a land deed. Also appearing are these words or phrases: “grantor,” “grantee,” and “appurtenances”; “Know all men by these presents…”; “In witness whereof I have hereunto set my hand and seal this [date]”; “Signed sealed and delivered”
  17. Inquests. Within inquest documents you may find references to dates in which events occurred or will happen. For example, the abbreviation inst. means instant or in the same month; prox. is the abbreviation for proximo, or the next month; and ult. is the abbreviation for ultimo or in the previous month.
  18. Ask others what they think. Sometimes fresh eyes will see what you do not. Facebook genealogy groups are very helpful in providing you with suggestions or their intepretation.
  19. When all else fails. If you’ve tried your best and used your best judgment and still can’t make out a word, use [illegible] in the transcription.
  20. Enjoy the quest! If you’re frustrated, put it down for a few days and come back to it. Don’t let one word stand in the way of your research enjoyment.

Related

Print and Cursive Handwriting Workbook. 35 Lessons to Improve Your Penmanship. Take your penmanship from poor to beautiful.
Reading Early American Handwriting. Learn how to read and understand the handwriting found in documents commonly used in genealogical research.
Cursive Writing Workbook for Teens. 3-in-1 cursive tracing book including over 130 pages of exercises with letters, words and sentences

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