Passing the 100wpm shorthand exam is the thorn in every journalism student’s side. I saw someone tweet it took them 15 attempts before they passed. It’s notoriously difficult, and for good reason.
The exam has an extremely narrow error margin. You need 97% to pass, which is roughly 9-11 incorrect words. You also have to perfectly transcribe back the quote at the end, otherwise you fail. Add to this the pressure of knowing how important this qualification is to editors, and how useful it’ll be if you want that dream journalism job… it can derail anyone.
I recently passed my 100wpm shorthand exam (read about why I went for it, 12 years after my degree). I failed the first time around in July, and I never thought I’d get there. I’ve been thinking about all the things that helped, which I’ve decided to share here.
Practice every day
This is non-negotiable while you’re learning. Practicing every day, like exercise, helps you build muscle memory and strengthen the pathways in your brain. Think about what goes into this process: you have to hear the word, break it down into phonetics and translate that into theory, then an outline, write it down – all while listening along to the rest of a dictation and holding it in your brain.
You’ll notice a drop in speed and some rustiness if you take a few days off, so it’s really worth putting a short amount of time aside every day. Once you get started – even if you say to yourself you’ll work just for five minutes – you’ll probably end up working a little longer. Something is always better than nothing.
And if you need more convincing on what consistent practice does to your brain, my favourite ever Ted Ed video explains it perfectly.
Find a pen that you love
It took me a while to settle on a pen that felt right, but it’s worth trying a few to see what feels best. I tried a biro, a fineliner and a pilot pen until I landed on the best pen for me, which was a Uniball Eye Micro.
When I was testing, I was looking at whether I could keep a relaxed grip at speed; that I didn’t have to press too hard on the paper to get the ink down (so important you don’t get hand cramp when you’re note-taking); that it didn’t smudge as I moved my hand across the page; and that the tip effortlessly moved over the paper without dragging or scratching. Finding a pen that works for you is half the battle. When you settle, buy lots of them. And always have several next to you with the lids off in case the ink runs dry part-way through dictation.
Transcribe your shorthand. Always.
I didn’t always transcribe back when I first started taking down dictations, and I paid for it later. Because really, what’s the point in getting everything down in shorthand if you can’t read the thing back?
Transcribing helps you identify flaws in your outlines and patterns in theory you might struggle with. It helped me identify that I couldn’t distinguish between ‘we’ and ‘you’, that I was struggling with F-blends, and that sometimes I wasn’t elongating R-blends enough.
Transcribing is also a really useful way of getting to know your version of the note. When you’re building speed, outlines will become scruffier. If you can get to know your note and recognise your own quirks, it could save you in an exam.
Download past exam audio
Once you start speed building, you’ll constantly be looking for things to write along to. The NCTJ has a library of past exam audio passages for a small fee. There’s a few key reasons why it’s important to try these.
Firstly it’ll help you get you used to the style of the exam. They’re five minutes in total: two passages of two minutes, and a one-minute quote at the end. But secondly, and probably more importantly, listening to longer passages builds your stamina. The Teeline Gold book comes with a CD for dictation practice, but the passages are only a minute. I settled in and got comfortable at 60 seconds, and two minutes felt like eternity. Start early.
Find new things to listen to
If you’re practicing every day you’ll soon run out of fresh material. If you have a wide enough selection of audio dictations you can re-listen to them a few times. I quickly got used to the passages and was able to anticipate what was coming. It gave me a false sense of speed. Try YouTube videos (so you can watch them back and check your transcription), songs, pick a character on TV and write everything they say, or take down the news.
Record your progress
I began tracking my progress (I used a spreadsheet) so I knew what exercises I’d completed and what drills I’d worked on. But I also made a note of the special outlines or phrases I’d struggled with drilling. Having a reference meant I could easily check my list and go back and work on them until it was automatic.
Imagine outlines in your head
This is a weird one, but the more I learned, the more I found I was imagining outlines in my head during conversations or when I was listening to the news. It seemed like a good way to apply theory to words that don’t crop up in the NCTJ recordings (which tend to favour certain words and phrases). Using real-world examples helps develop your vocabulary and potentially strengthens your theory, without lifting a pen.
Check out these YouTube channels
If you’re learning without a tutor but want some expert input, I recommend a couple of YouTube channels. First is Shorthand Sue. Sue was my lovely shorthand tutor at university, always full of tips and tricks. Her videos have some gems in, and I definitely learned a few extra shortcuts.
The second channel I got into was Let’s Love Shorthand Together. It’s a mix of theory and phrases about a particular passage, followed by speed dictation. I found a few nuggets in these classes too (my favourite was the shortcut for my name is, which comes up a lot in exams).
Enjoy the process
Learning shorthand can be frustrating, especially if you hit a speed plateau (I hit one at 80wpm). But if you keep on it and see it as part of your day, you’ll soon notice how you develop and how outlines become natural. It’s so rewarding to see how something that was an alien concept becomes second nature. You’re in it for the long run, so you might as well try and enjoy getting there. Good luck!
Do you have any other tips to share on mastering shorthand? Leave yours in the comments below.