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Training Matters: How not to learn shorthand

The reason I learned shorthand is that for a period of my early career I didn’t have it. I arrived at the Dagenham Post at the age of 19 and signed indentures – a kind of 19th century apprenticeship – after a six-month probation period.

As part of my indentures I was to be sent on two block release courses of two months each, a year apart. By the time I arrived at Harlow Technical College I had a total of 18 months in the job without shorthand. In an office where everyone was under 25, you had to learn fast. So you “got by” in your note taking – and not well. I don’t like to think how many stories I wrote with only one quote and a lot of indirect speech.

On my return to the office I had a very basic grounding in shorthand, but soon it was short cuts rather than shorthand. A year later and two more months of Teeline but, to my embarrassment, I barely got above 40 words a minute. Without the required 100 wpm, of course, there would be no proficiency certificate. Well, I don’t think James Cameron had shorthand – you will see the immediate flaw in that cocky self-delusion. I was not then, nor am I now, James Cameron or anything like.

The big problem was that I had got used to circumventing or ignoring the problem. Fortunately I was never called on to produce my notes for a court case or give a judge’s full remarks verbatim.

After four years of successfully hiding my failing I was offered a job at the Cambridge Evening News. One of my first jobs was covering a speech by the new Cambridge University vice-chancellor. She talked in long, flowing sentences that became sharp clear paragraphs, which expressed complex, intellectually coherent ideas about the future of the university and her interesting, important plans for that future. Unfortunately, my attempts to record them in my notebook rendered them into a bitty, inaccurate gibberish. I had been caught out.

A few months later, and one failed job application to the Press Association because of inadequate shorthand, and I bought the cassettes and practised Ted Heath’s speeches until I finally became competent in Teeline. I paid to take exams and got 80 wpm – not perfect, but over the years it has become an invaluable tool that I still use every day. I wish I had got the 100. Of course there are tape recorders and mobile phones. There are also trains, boats and planes, but everyone takes their driving test because most of the time you drive yourself. Once learned, shorthand is there as a basic support forever; learn it because you’re worth it.

  • Chris Elliott is readers’ editor at the Guardian and chair of the NCTJ’s accreditation board.

6 comments

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  • May 21, 2013 at 9:05 am
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    Totally agree. I now work in PR but continue to use my shorthand when interviewing academics and find it soooooo useful.
    Very encouraging also read that you are where you are Chris despite the ups and downs.
    There’s hope for us all.
    Rose
    (x Cambridge Evening News)

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  • May 21, 2013 at 10:28 am
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    I couldn’t live without shorthand and so glad I learnt it alongside my degree so I was prepared when I started as a junior. With so many fast-speaking councillors and magistrates it’s been like gold dust! When I watch the reporters from rival papers trying their best to scribble down proceedings in messy longhand it’s no wonder I see so much misquoted – everyone should learn shorthand!!

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  • May 21, 2013 at 10:30 am
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    Pitman shorthand was a pre-requisite in 1964. From scratch and in eight weeks I was on 50 wpm. Within six months it was 170 wpm. In the office I was one of the ‘slow ones’. An old stager could top 210 wpm. We were engrossed in shorthand. Half way through ‘love letters’ to a girlfriend my thoughts were expressed in shorthand! Even now, watching the TV news, my index finger ‘writes’ the stories. How can anyone really exist without shorthand. The 100 wpm requirement is a really soft option.

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  • May 21, 2013 at 12:16 pm
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    My first job of the day as trainee on the Westmorland Gazette was to try to transcribe The Times leader in Pitman’s. Yes, I did get my 100 wpm. That was in the fifties. I’m now 84 and still find my shorthand note invaluable. I can’t record telephone messages on my new machine, so take a shorthand note in order to pass on the details of family news to my wife.

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  • May 21, 2013 at 1:18 pm
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    Pointless waste of time. Unless you want to be a court reporter all your life, buy a digital recorder and a smart phone. As far capturing every word uttered by some tedious windbag of a local councillor – WHO CARES?
    haha!

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  • May 23, 2013 at 2:50 pm
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    I spent half of my teenage years learning Pitman’s shorthand at evening classes. While covering a business conference in London for a trade newspaper in the 1960s, I was terrified to see that the official shorthand writer was my teacher — a fearsome lady. When she saw me sitting with other reporters, she came over, grabbed my notebook and, when she saw some of my “dodgy” outlines, gave my a stinging slap on my hand! Sadly, when I started working in broadcasting, I didn’t practice enough, with the result that my speed is no longer good enough. Bluestringer, you’re wrong about using a digital recorder and smart phone; transcribing from a recording takes three times longer than doing it from a good shorthand note, as I know from personal experience!

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