On teaching myself shorthand

Have you ever had one of those dreams where you realise you didn’t do your school exams? It recently happened to me too, except this time, it was true.

I’m talking about shorthand. The journalist’s best friend next to coffee and sources. It’s a form of note taking that’s been described to me as hieroglyphic on more than five occasions. It’s crucial for taking down an accurate quote on the phone, on the move and in courtrooms where you’re in contempt if you hit record.

I’d never gone beyond 70 words per minute. And though I’d attempted 90wpm in my second year of uni, I didn’t pursue it after I failed. 100wpm is the gold standard for newsrooms, and its importance hadn’t quite sunk in. I left it and went to work for magazines, relying on dictaphones and typing whilst interviewing on the phone.

An exercise in realisation

Back in April when I looking for something to do, I signed up to an online interactive training session on breaking news. It was the nerdiest bit of fun I’ve had for a while. 

At the end of the session the host held her notepad to camera and asked how many of us had used shorthand for the quotes. I tried to scrutinise the pixelated and once-familiar squiggles, and I felt this pang of nostalgia for a time when I’d known how to do it; how I’d known it to be part of the bedrock of what it meant to be a journalist. I felt a knot of shame that I’d given it up.

When I woke up the next day, I realised I’d dreamt about my failure to carry on studying. I went to the NCTJ website and found a 7-minute video about shorthand. Like an explosion that kept going off, editor after editor said 100wpm was the gold standard, that they wouldn’t hire without it, that it’s the mark of a dedicated and serious journalist. Hot panic rose to my forehead. Those were the credentials I wanted for myself. I felt stupid and ignorant, like I’d been walking blind.

I felt this pang of nostalgia for a time when I’d known how to write shorthand

Getting started

I ordered a book – the book – Marie Cartwright’s Teeline Gold Standard, and committed to teaching myself. It was the middle of May, and the exam was in July. I worked out how many hours I needed to practice to learn all the theory and then start speed building. It would take four hours a day, every day, for the next six weeks.

As I waited for my book and notepads to arrive, I dug out my old university handouts. They were curled after 10 years of being rolled and secured with a rubber band. I shuffled through the papers and saw the ink from my pen that I’d held when I was just 18. Could I do this again? I began drilling the shorthand alphabet. A flame flickered at the back of my mind; a recognition that wasn’t quite muscle memory.

From purpose, to disappointment

Learning shorthand gave me something to do every day. It brought intention to my locked down days. It became a full-time commitment that kept me going with purpose – and every day I felt like I’d achieved something.

But I failed my July exam. It took me a few days to get over the disappointment. I booked the September exam to try again. I knew I could dedicate over two months just to speed development. I supplemented my daily practice by doing phone interviews with my shorthand note (while recording a back-up), for real-world practice that didn’t involve a lot of the NCTJ’s favourite keywords.

I shuffled through the papers and saw the ink from my pen that I’d held when I was just 18. Could I do this again?

I hit a major milestone in September, and did an interview just using shorthand with no backup recording. I was nervous, but it also felt liberating. Immediately afterwards I regretted being so cavalier and confident, and I couldn’t stop worrying about transcribing it back. But it turned out I had nothing to worry about.

Second time around, I passed.

If I’d passed in July, I know it would have been a lucky fluke. Failing gave me the time I needed to develop. It would never have been enough to scrape through with good enough. I needed to become more confident with it, to get to know my version of the language. Getting a pass the first time would have given me a false sense of ability. Failing was the right sequence of events.

This whole thing has been one of the most personally rewarding things I’ve done. I’m not sure when I last felt this proud of myself. Learning shorthand, like language, was never something that was going to happen overnight. Sitting down to it every single day brought a totally different pace to life’s usual script of instant gratification. And not for nothing, it’s helped me prove to myself that I am the dedicated journalist I’d always hoped I was.