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Tips on Passing the NCTJ Shorthand Exam

Updated on August 8, 2017
Learning shorthand takes a LOT of practice!
Learning shorthand takes a LOT of practice!

Shorthand - Still an essential skill for journalists.

When I studied for the NCTJ journalism diploma we were told time and time again that shorthand is an essential skill which all news editors expect, with most not employing anyone who has not achieved 100wpm. If you're reading this you probably know this already and if you are tired of daily practice and getting disillusioned at the prospect of ever reaching 100wpm you have my full sympathy.

I got on OK with the theory but my handwriting has always been terrible and keeping a legible transcription at such high speeds seemed impossible. I struggled to do 80wpm whilst other students breezed through the 100. After the course ended I had to soldier on for a few months before I felt ready to return to my college and give it another shot. Finally my efforts paid off and I got the all important NCTJ Gold Standard. Here are some tips which helped me. It's not an exhaustive list just the things I found most useful and advice I wish I had had sooner. Feel free to share your own tips in the comments section.

Transcribing songs is a fun way of practising shorthand. Can you tell which song this is?
Transcribing songs is a fun way of practising shorthand. Can you tell which song this is?
  • Practise transcribing a variety of texts. Possibilities include: news bulletins, children's programmes, audio books, TV shows and songs. I started a blog of songs that are good for Teeline practice. Whatever you take down make sure you read it back afterwards. Also use any willing friends to dictate to you.
  • Concentrate on perfecting common words, articles and prepositions. They can easily be confused if they are not written clearly so drill them regularly so you can write them quickly and accurately. If you have these down correctly it will be easier to work out longer words from context.
  • Take down passages at slower speeds than you are preparing for that are longer than two minutes. This helps you develop your stamina and ability to focus. Also, as the speed is not uncomfortably fast it helps you write clearer outlines. If you are preparing for 100wpm doing 3 mins+ at 80wpm will make 2 minutes at 100wpm easier. A common technique is to do dictations at faster speeds than you are preparing for. This is a useful thing to do as well but when I started doing the slower, longer dictations I noticed a considerable improvement.
  • Always go into your exam with confidence. If you know your theory and have been practising every day you have every chance of passing. Most centres do everything they can to help candidates relax and focus and make the passage as easy to take down as possible. You'll probably also get a boost of adrenaline once the exam starts and these factors combine to make the dictation seem 10-20 wpm slower than it actually is. Many students pass exams at speeds they have never achieved before!
  • However well or badly a dictation is going stay focused and keep writing. The first time I took the 80wpm exam I felt a moment of elation at the realisation that contrary to expectations I was keeping up and getting everything down; then I started to fall behind.
  • After an exam dictation don't start typing up straight away. Spend the first 5-10 minutes reading through your notes. Firm up any unclear or incomplete outlines either in the text or the margin. Circle numbers, underline abbreviations and add punctuation. You will be more likely to recall what was said if you read through your notes straight away. If there are any parts you cannot read don't panic and carry on. You will often find you can read them clearly when you come back to them later.
  • An exception to the above is if your exam includes a quote. Type that up straight away and take care to get it word perfect!
  • Remember NCTJ dictations do not include abbreviations like couldn't or don't. It is very easy to type them this way and you'll lose valuable marks if you do. Practise typing up transcriptions to highlight any easy to avoid errors like this you are prone to making.
  • Pens. This is a matter of personal preference. I settled on using a Pilot V5 Hi-techpoint 0.5 pen which is very light, smooth and comfortable to write with.

And finally, a reminder of why you're doing it...

Good luck!


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