Pharmacological perturbation is a powerful tool for understanding mRNA synthesis, but identification of the specific steps of this multi-step process that are targeted by small molecules remains challenging. Here we applied strand-specific total RNA sequencing (RNA-seq) to identify and distinguish specific pharmacological effects on transcription and pre-mRNA processing in human cells. We found unexpectedly that the natural product isoginkgetin, previously described as a splicing inhibitor, inhibits transcription elongation. Compared to well-characterized elongation inhibitors that target CDK9, isoginkgetin caused RNA polymerase accumulation within a broader promoter-proximal band, indicating that elongation inhibition by isoginkgetin occurs after release from promoter-proximal pause. RNA-seq distinguished isoginkgetin and CDK9 inhibitors from topoisomerase I inhibition, which alters elongation across gene bodies. We were able to detect these and other specific defects in mRNA synthesis at low sequencing depth using simple metagene-based metrics. These metrics now enable total-RNA-seq-based screening for high-throughput identification of pharmacological effects on individual stages of mRNA synthesis.