Mamiyo Padi is a freelance journalist and, at the time of writing, an MA journalism student at Brunel university. Update: This article was originally published on 26 January 2012 and was updated by Emily Redman who provided additional tips.
Just 16 weeks ago, at the end of my first shorthand session, I could easily have run home and never returned.
Over the last four months I have 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 have heard it, because I am dyslexic.
On a bad day even 'longhand' – as I cannot shake calling it – can illicit a groan and so if I can take and pass the dreaded '100' then you are 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 have passed muster I thought I would add my own.
Shorthand is all about practice – I found two hours a day was about right but if you just cannot 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 have not got the time you will just have to find it. On the bus? Drill special outlines and groupings. Break between lectures? Put dictations on your phone, find a study room and do a piece.
It is time consuming and repetitive but whether you are 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 have got a 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 are 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 have mastered a rule when you can write the word 'solidarity' without hesitation.
Use shorthand while watching the TV
Try practicing shorthand at every opportunity, like when watching TV. You will not be able to get down all of what they are saying but you will get used to the speed at which people talk. This will improve your shorthand and make 100wpm seem a doddle.
If you want to control the speed of someone talking, a good method is to use YouTube. Pull up a video with someone talking, hover over the settings icon at the bottom of the video, and then press the playback speed. You will be able to reduce the speed as much as quarter speed that they are talking. You can try as many times as you like, and try increasing speed as you go.
Do loads and loads of mock exams to make sure your nerves do not get the better of you even when you are ready. By going onto the NCTJ website and using their shorthand resources page to practice, you can get access to loads of past exams. This will get you adjusted to the speed and know what to expect on the day.
Do not get hung up on the outlines. The beauty of shorthand is the adaptability of it, do what feels comfortable to you. Sometimes custom outlines can work better than those in the shorthand textbook. However, once you change an outline you have to stick to it – otherwise you will get really confused when reading it back.
Draw a line vertically down the middle of your page. This saves time moving your hand back across the page. You are allowed to do this on the exam paper too so it is a useful habit you can carry through to the big day.
I use a very cheap and simple black biro. A reporters notepad avoids any danger of a mid-dictation page turns. With the amount of practice you will be putting in, it is 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. 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 CDs.
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!
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