I am proof you can teach yourself shorthand - and pass the 100wpm exam
Updated: Nov 28, 2020
Shorthand…a lot of people are surprised when I tell them it is still a requirement to get into journalism. They all seem to think that technology means that having this skill would no longer be needed, but oh how wrong they are.
When I had low points through the shorthand process, I looked for anything written by students that had gone through it themselves – but there wasn’t much out there at all. What made it worse was that the few articles I found had learnt in traditional ways with tutors and classes, and some articles even stressed that it is impossible to teach yourself – well I am living proof you can teach yourself shorthand and pass it!
So here is my story of learning shorthand, right through to passing the 100wpm exam – all in seven months from start to finish. I’ve also got some tips I’d pass on, and a few pearls of wisdom from Tracey Schapira, a shorthand tutor (firstname.lastname@example.org).
My journey through shorthand
I started to learn the theory for shorthand in mid-December, just a month into my distance learning course. Now, seven months on, I have passed my 100wpm exam and it is probably one of my proudest achievements ever.
Back in December I had the Teeline textbook, and around 200 passage recordings for practice…that was it. It certainly was a daunting task ahead of me!
It all started off quite nicely, the textbook broke the process into part one and two. Part one was made up of 20 units of theory, starting off with learning the basic alphabet and vowels, right through to word endings and currencies. They recommend you do a unit per day – I liked this structure. It was all very comfortable, I was ticking off the units as I went, and it felt very manageable. Looking back, I was definitely in a place of ignorance for what was to come.
The theory was the easy part. Not to downplay its importance – if you don’t get that right in the early stages, you’re never going to get to 100wpm because you’ll get into bad habits. Theory is the foundations for it all, so you do have to take your time with that before building up speed.
It took me from mid-December to early January to work through all the units and revision exercises. That was part one done, but don’t be fooled, this does not mean you’re half-way through the process.
Next you have part two, which is speed development. There are a total of 30 passages, ranging from 50wpm to 120wpm. The aim of this is that you keep repeating the same passage, and once you can do it at one speed, you then try it at the faster speed. It’s all about repeating and practicing over and over again – there is no getting away from it.
As I write this, I have my part two checklist is front of me, and it shows I was taking about a month to increase speeds. I was confident with 70wpm by the end of March, then by the end of April I was happy with 80wpm.
After getting through these passages, it was a case of sourcing extra practice pieces. The NCTJ supplied a Dropbox file of passages from 60wpm to 120wpm, along with the transcripts to go with them. I also bought I few extra passage files too – you really do need lots of material to practice with.
In terms of time, I was doing about an hour a day until May (exam booked in July, in May I was at 90wpm) – after that I was increasing it to a couple of hours each day. I broke it up into half hour slots though, just to make it more manageable. I would plan it into my day, so it became part of my daily routine and less forced (and this was for weekends too, you need to be doing it every day).
I will say that you will have some good days and some bad days, and that you may do better in the morning than in the afternoon – it just depends on the day – but whatever your mood, make sure you do it every day. That’s why the small chunks of practice work, some days my 9am practice completely failed, and I felt awful, but then I would do much better at 11am.
Leading to the topic of exams, I was booked to do my 60wpm in April, as they tell you it’s good to get a practice in before doing your 100wpm. Covid put a stop to that though, my April exam was pushed to July, so I figured I would just swap it to 100wpm and hope for the best.
It is a bit like a driving test, there is an element of luck in it too – a passage with a couple of words that throw you can completely ruin your chances because you can only have three errors – adding a word/getting a word wrong. I was accepting the fact I would probably have to do it again in September – especially when someone that was in my exam said he’d been trying to pass it for three years at this point! Not what you want to hear on your first attempt!
I did pass that exam though, and I’m still pitching myself about it now to be honest.
What I’ve learnt
So that’s my route through shorthand. Now I thought I’d include some things I’ve learnt as a distance learning that I would tell anyone in the process of learning it now, or could be learning it in the future.
Don’t stress too much about word groupings – they help for sure, but I only ever learnt a handful
Always try and read back what you’ve written – it’s all well and good getting faster, but if you can’t read what you’ve written then it’s useless! In the exam, you are tested on transcribing it back from your shorthand notes so that needs to be spot on!
- I would always dictate at least one passage back per day
- Type it out, don’t just read it out – then you can see your errors clearly
- Be strict with bits you’ve got wrong
- Practice any words/phrases that keep throwing you
Keep doing the same passage, pausing each time you need to catch up, then keep drilling it and you will slowly reduce the number of times you need to pause it
There is no way around it, you just have to keep practicing – you will be surprised how fast you speed up once you get to 60wpm
Other, more practical tips:
Buy cheap notebooks – you will be getting through A LOT OF paper
Fold your page in half (length ways, as you can see in the photo), this way you can quickly get to the next line to keep up with the passage and you’re not wasting time moving your hand around
If you’re left-handed like me – don’t use a ring binder
Keep your writing small, this helps you get faster because you’re not making huge outlines that take longer to write
Practice it through headphones as well as playing the recording out loud through your speakers (my exam was through headphones)
Pearls of wisdom from Tracey Schapira:
Drill special outlines/word groupings/words/sentences over and over until you know them without hesitation
Take down notes from news, songs, soap opera conversations, daily headlines
Some students like to record lists of the annoying/more difficult phrases they are struggling with
Most importantly, always transcribe your notes back and make sure you are able to accurately do this several days later too
There are no short cuts, and like learning any other skill be prepared to invest a huge amount of time and effort
If you want to know more about learning shorthand (as a distance learner or not), or just want some more detail, please feel free to ask:
I did an interview with the University of Leicester which covers my journey from A levels to working as a trainee reporter