Shorthand writing: A reporter's guide to better skills
Shorthand was first taught to me and my classmates as part of a three year journalism undergraduate degree in England. The shorthand lessons lasted for one year, or more accurately one term, of the degree. These lessons were in the final year of the degree because the tutors quite rightly believed that shorthand would then still be fresh in our minds when we graduated and began job hunting.
The lessons took place everyday of the academic term and lasted for two hours in the morning. During this time we learned new shorthand outlines and the words they represented. We also practised shorthand dictation and did mock shorthand exams to improve our ability.
During this time the shorthand teach set us homework to do each night before the next day's lesson. This was more shorthand practise and could last between an hour and two hours. The lessons were split into groups between the most capable students and those who struggle with shorthand. In some respects there was a clear link between somebody's shorthand ability and the amount of practise they did outside the actual lessons.
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After one year of shorthand lessons each group took official NCTJ shorthand exams. The exams were available to take in different speeds. The most competent shorthand writers took 100 words a minute shorthand tests and passed first time. For those that didn't pass their exams the first time they were able to have more lessons and retake the exams before final graduation. Those that did pass their exams were able to withdraw from shorthand lessons and focus on other areas of journalism study and practise.
One of the best ways to improve shorthand writing skills is to write in shorthand for other tasks while you are learning. Some shorthand students at university were able to use shorthand when working for the student newspaper or in their everyday journalism practise for the degree. Those that did this improved far quicker than those who continued to write in longhand.
After graduating from university shorthand became invaluable for me in my first role as an agency reporter for a news wire in the UK. Some people will argue that shorthand is obsolete in a world of digital recording equipment but I can categorically say that shorthand is essential for anybody who wishes to work as a reporter in newspapers, television or radio. Once again, I'll repeat that. Shorthand is essential for anybody who wishes to work as a reporter in newspapers, television or radio.
The area where the ability to write in shorthand is most important is when reporting from courts and hearings. This includes criminal courts, coroners courts, civil courts, employment tribuanls and family courts. Digital recording devices are not only banned in these settings but it's actually illegal to use them here and people that do could be prosecuted under the Contempt of Court Act.
Writing in shorthand to report from courts is essential. There are two main benefits: speed and accuracy. Both of these are the hallmarks of a good journalist. There were many times when I myself had reported from court and I struggled to write up a piece in the hour or less we had to file copy in the court lunch break or after the hearing. In these situations being able to quickly transcribe clear notes became a very important skill. All too often I would see rival reporters asking each other what the judge had said or comparing their shorthand notes. I didn't want to be so dependent on other people and gave more value to getting my own shorthand notes as accurate as possible.
In conclusion, one of the most important things for not just journalism students or professional reporters but anybody who wants to learn shorthand is to practise. Secondly it is to find an experienced shorthand teacher who can pass on their experience and skills. Shorthand really is an invaluable tool for so many people and it's important that it continues to be used.
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