Over the last four months I've gone from petrified to passing 100 words a minute – the necessary standard for the National Council for the Training of Journalists (NCTJ) diploma.
Although I am going to say it – if I can pass it anyone can – I hope that this may be a bit more comforting to you than it was to me, the many, many times I've heard it, because I am dyslexic.
On a bad day even 'longhand' – as I can't shake calling it – can illicit a groan and so if I can take and pass the dreaded '100' then you're certainly in with a shot.
In the depths of a Christmas break spent trying to break a 90 plateau I sought out every tip, trick and piece of shorthand advice I could find.
Now I've passed muster I thought I'd add my own.
Shorthand is all about practice – I found two hours a day was about right but if you just can't find the time then do something, anything. Half an hour a day is better than long sessions twice a week, which causes peaks and troughs in your speed.
There is no way around it and if you haven't got the time you'll just have to find it. On the bus? Drill special outlines and groupings. Break between lectures? Put dictations on your mp3 player/phone, find a study room and do a piece.
The NCTJ seem to be in love with certain special outlines and groupings from 'Teeline Gold Standard' and throw them at you at every opportunity. If you know them they will save time and bolster confidence.
It's time consuming and repetitive but whether you're drilling the word 'at' or the grouping for 'over and done with' you need to write it so many times that it becomes automatic. Saying it aloud as you go, makes you feel mad, but will help remind you when you hear it again in dictation.
Set yourself little tests. At the end of each day's practice write a few words in longhand, date it and then see if you can write it back in shorthand two days later. This way you've got a constant rolling supply of short tests and can see which rules you need to recap.
There are some tricky rules that will continually trip you up. For these, it helps to use a website like morewords and search for every word that contains the rule you're having trouble with (for me it was -erity/-ority/-arity etc).
Write out a page of the more common examples in longhand and then go through the page and write the shorthand alongside as quickly as possible. You know that you've mastered a rule when you can write the word 'solidarity' without hesitation!
Draw a line vertically down the middle of your page. This saves time moving your hand back across the page. You're allowed to do this on the exam paper too so it's a useful habit you can carry through to the big day.
I use a very cheap black biro and an A4 notebook, to avoid the risk of a mid-dictation page turn, with a narrow rule to make outlines smaller, neater and quicker. The amount of practice you'll be putting in it's best to get the cheapest supplies you can. Recycled paper is a no-no though because bits come off the page and slow you up.
What really matters, though, is consistency. From the start of your dictation practice find a pen and notebook that works for you and then stock up. You will become so familiar with them that it becomes a part of your shorthand routine and a change will throw you off.
The selection of free dictation passages online is few and far between. The NCTJ do a good range of dictation CD's. Steer clear of the older ones as they are poorly recorded and have odd formats.
Repeating a passage enough times makes your speed artificially high and you can transcribe it from the ropiest shorthand so it's worth getting together as a class and investing in some CDs if you need more material.
Always use dictations at a higher speed than you are being tested on. This advice, from my fantastic tutor, proved invaluable. Sitting down to a 120wpm piece will frustrate you but when you then hear a 100 it will suddenly seem slow – and slow is the first step to manageable.
Always transcribe a passage back because learning to read your own shorthand – and decipher dodgy outlines – is half the process.
Perseverance is the key to speed building. Once I got used to writing something for every word in a 100 piece I knew I could physically keep up and then started to work on getting all of those hours of theory down onto the page.
Circle and practise wrongly written or unreadable outlines but learn not to dwell mid-passage – you may well be able to transcribe it from context and there will probably be a few unpractised words in your exam passage so even writing just the first letter and carrying on is an important skill.
Don't get disheartened: every time you sit down to it you’re getting better. And remember – if I can do it so can you. Good luck!
Mamiyo Padi is a freelance journalist and an MA journalism student at Brunel university.