Shorthand: a vital skill for a journalist, or an old-fashioned waste of time?


A lively debate about the merits of shorthand as a journalistic tool has been raging on Linked In recently, with many people arguing that shorthand isn’t a vital skill. The time spent learning to take notes quickly is better spent mastering the various forms of IT required for modern multimedia journalism, they argue. If a record needs to be kept of meetings or interviews it can be more accurately done with an audio recorder. In other words, shorthand is a nice-to-have skill rather than an essential one.

Picture: adamr at /www.freedigitalphotos.net
Picture: adamr at http://www.freedigitalphotos.net

As someone who did learn shorthand, I’m with those who insist that knowing how to take notes at – comparatively – lightning speed is at worst a useful skill and at best a vital one.

Secret language

I learned Teeline as a compulsory part of my college journalism course and there was an almost child-like thrill in being able, after just a few lessons, to communicate in a ‘language’ that most people would not understand. I remember leaving a shorthand note pinned to the door of my student house to inform expected visitors that my flatmate and I could be found down the pub. (We figured at the time that any passing burglars would not realise no-one was in – though quite possibly the very presence of a note on the door might have given just the impression we wished to avoid!)

At about month eight of the course I passed the 100wpm test that was the requirement for eligibility for the standard British journalism qualification at the time and went on, just before leaving, to gain a minor claim to fame among my classmates for also passing the 110wpm. I believe far faster speeds can be attained with Pitman – perhaps any Pitman users who read this could explain why that is?

The basic principle of Teeline

Picture: www.alfabetos.net
Picture: http://www.alfabetos.net

a) Each letter of the alphabet is written in an abbreviated form. E, for instance, is shortened to L while the crossbar is removed from the capital A and the downstroke omitted from the T.

b) Most of the vowels are then omitted. So ‘dog’ becomes ‘dg’, ‘cat’ is ‘ct’ and so on. You can include the vowel if the meaning would not be clear from the context of the sentence).

c) Then you join the abbreviated consonants together (just like in conventional joined-up handwriting, so ‘dog’ is the short-form of d joined to the short-form of g).

d) Then certain words can be joined together to make phrases (the symbols for ‘in the past’ and ‘we are’ for instance, are single joined-up strokes). Similarly, there are short forms for certain words and phrases – ‘judgement’ for example is shortened to the Teeline form of ‘jm’.

I remain a great advocate for shorthand. Apart from anything else, it’s great for making sure no-one can read your diary! And for work purposes it means you can keep up with fast-moving interviews far more easily than if you rely on longhand notes. I don’t feel that audio recording is an ideal substitute for shorthand, for a couple of reasons: one, many interviewees don’t like being recorded – it makes them nervous and less forthcoming; and two, recording adds another layer of work to the process, as you need to listen to the interview for a second time in order to transcribe it. It’s just quicker to take shorthand notes.

Not that recording devices don’t have their uses – especially as back-up if you lose your notes or find you can’t read them back. But I don’t believe they should be the only way of translating the spoken word to the typed word.

‘A fundamental skill’

In any event, for most British journalism students it’s highly desirable, if not compulsory, to know shorthand. The National Council for the Training of Journalists says on its website: “Shorthand is a fundamental skill for all journalists and an accurate shorthand note is vital”. Shorthand is a mandatory subject for the Diploma in Journalism, and candidates must achieve 100wpm to be eligible to gain the new National Qualification in Journalism.

There’s a blog on this very subject in the UK Press Gazette this week, in which News International, one of our biggest media groups, is quoted making the lovely analogy that a journalist without shorthand is like “a footballer without boots”.

“The bottom line for any aspiring journalist is that without [shorthand], many potential employers… will put your CV straight in the bin.”

UK Press Gazette editor Dominic Ponsford

Ponsford makes a valid point. Not having shorthand could be a huge handicap in terms of getting a first job in journalism. Why disadvantage yourself by not learning it, when shorthand really isn’t rocket science to learn? It’s fundamentally a straightforward system and far less esoteric than it might appear to someone looking at those strange symbols and wondering what they mean. It’s possible to get up to 100wpm within a few months (far, far, faster than the average person can write longhand).

Fair balance of views

Anyway, enough of what I think. Here’s what others think. I’ve tried to give a fair balance of pro- and anti-shorthand opinions, as there are some good points made by everyone quoted here. You can draw your own conclusions. The quotes below are roughly arranged, from top to bottom, in order of opinion, from those who think shorthand is vital, through those who say it’s useful but not essential, down to those who think it’s a load of tosh. So read the whole lot if you’re undecided and don’t want to be swayed by the pro-shorthand lobby! Thanks to all those quoted, who gave me permission to use their comments in my blog.

[For consistency I have edited American English into British English, except for the use of the word ‘stenography’, which, for British readers, is the AmEng equivalent of ‘shorthand’.]

‘It’s extremely useful, and it’s lazy not to learn’

“Shorthand is a very important skill for any real reporter to have. It is extremely useful – saves you hours of listening to taped interviews for golden quotes. I couldn’t do without it. It also makes you edit from the get-go by taking down only the quotes you might use instead of switching off mentally and switching on the tape recorder and then waste hours listening to tapes to find the juicy bits. Nobody would have employed me without at least 100 words per minute.

Listening to tapes of interviews takes hours of wasted time. Learn shorthand and stop wasting hours of your life every time you interview someone. It is laziness, pure and simple, not to teach shorthand and laziness not to learn it.

Mark McSherry, business journalist and professor, Greater New York City

‘It’s very important for working faster’

“Shorthand is very important because it eliminates a source of stress and uncertainty from your reportage and will make your work go faster. If you have good stenographic skills you will walk into interviews with an extra dose of calm and confidence because you know you can quickly and accurately record what someone is saying. Hastily scribbled half quotes and illegible notes make deadline a living hell.

Low-tech beats high-tech every time – especially when it comes to war and journalism. I hate taking notes by hand and I’ve used every kind of recording device to avoid it, but it has been my experience that the physical act of writing helps my brain process and retain the information much better than typing into a laptop. Plus I don’t have to worry about batteries or corrupt files.”

Richard Swearinger, Writer and Image Maker, Des Moines, Iowa

‘It’s vital, and easy to learn’

“Shorthand is a vital skill. I used it countless times while with the BBC and then in Scottish newspapers. I can read my shorthand back better than my longhand. Recording is useful as a backup but it is much too fiddly when listening back to an interview. Voice recognition software is not reliable enough. And shorthand is actually pretty easy. I think that the shorthand debate is often presented as a series of false choices. I saw one writer say that he would rather have a reporter who knew how to find a story than one who knew shorthand. Of course, but I don’t understand what stops journalists having both sets of skills, along with many more. No-one would say: ‘I prefer a journalist who knows how to get a story to one with a driving licence’. We expect them to have all these skills.”

Murdo MacLeod, communications and media professional, Stornoway, Western Isles, UK

‘Teach yourself if the college won’t’

“When a student in my class last year asked our tutor if they should learn shorthand to be a journalist: he said no. I immediately lost all respect for that teacher, assuming he’s never had to interview anyone. Ever. I’d advise other students to invest in a copy of Teach Yourself Teeline.”

Lucy Woods, journalism student, London, UK

‘It’s useful’

“I learned in high school. It was not my favourite subject but today, many decades later, I still use it for notes. I still do not necessarily like it, but it has been useful.”

Maralyn Hill, Board member, International Food Wine & Travel Writers, Phoenix, Arizona, USA

‘It’s impossible without it’

“I struggled for years to get down live interview comments. Even while typing on the phone, it’s nearly impossible to get verbatim quotes without some form of shorthand. I have happily never had anyone challenge my direct quotes, but it has been difficult to get exact wording. I think I would have benefited from shorthand years back.”

Mary Jander, managing editor at UBM’s Future Cities, Nova Scotia, Canada

Wish I could remember more of it’

“I took stenography in high school thinking it would be useful for a career in journalism. I don’t remember most of it now, but there are some strokes that I still use in my scribble (when taking notes by hand). I think it would be really useful if I could remember more of it!”

Stephanie Bouchard, writer, journalist and editor, Portland, Maine, USA

‘The one skill I wish I had’

“I will graduate soon and I was never taught shorthand. They favour teaching us how to shoot video (something I hope to never have to do post-graduation) and don’t teach things like shorthand, which is the one skill I really wish I had. I take horrible notes and end up recording most things and having to go back through and write that stuff down.”

Rosella Eleanor LaFevre, freelance features & women’s interest writer and editor, Greater Philadelphia, USA

‘I mix shorthand with longhand’

“At college I got up to 80 wpm, which I have not maintained. My notes are part shorthand, part notehand, part long hand, part scribble. I can’t type fast enough to take notes that way; I use a recorder when I can, but when I am on ‘location’, written notes are better for me.

I actually found a dictionary of Gregg Shorthand a few years ago, and I get a kick out of browsing through it and expanding my knowledge.”

Fran Severn, freelance travel, lifestyle, business writer, journalist, Dover, Delaware, USA

‘Wish I could do it’

“I wish I had that skill. I take notes on interviews, but also record them. In the end, I transcribe them or pay to have them transcribed because I can’t write fast enough to get the quotes, etc. It’s costly either way.

Shari Held, freelance writer and journalist, Indianapolis, Indiana, USA

‘Digital recording is best for accuracy’

“I took Forkner shorthand in high school and still use some of it. However, I ALWAYS record my interviews for accuracy’s sake. Don’t always transcribe them, but if there’s a dispute, there’ s nothing like being able to pull out my digital recorder to clarify.”

Krystyna Lagowski, motoring writer, Toronto, Canada

‘You don’t need to get every word down’

“Even though I don’t use shorthand (and have never studied it) my notes do draw on some elements of it, I often abbreviate words and use some other shortcuts to get things down faster.

But you don’t need to get every word down – just what you think you might quote. I mostly write for newspapers, so I work with rather tight word-counts, around 500 to 800 words, given that I speak to at least three people on ever story – and often far more – I just don’t have the space to include more than a couple quotes from each source.

To me it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to write down every single word. I take down enough to have a solid paraphrase of everything important and if I think I’m hearing what might be a good quote, I’ll take it down in full. I always end up with more quotes then I ever end up using.

If I’m recording and I hear something that I think I might use, I’ll make a note of the time on the recorder and part of the quote so I don’t have to transcribe the entire interview. I’ve only had one or two sources who were wary about being recorded. I simply told them “well I don’t want to misquote you,” and that settled it.”

Jacob Serebrin, Freelance enterprise journalist, Montreal, Canada

‘I’ve never used it’

“Shorthand is no doubt a great skill, but I’ve never used it. I abbreviate words as I take notes. I know that sounds risky, but I’ve been a working journalist for more than 20 years – including five years covering breaking news – and I’ve never had anyone complain that I misquoted them or took them out of context.”

Kellye Norris, content strategy and development, editing & writing, Dallas/Fort Worth, USA

‘Never had the need’

“In 25 years, I have never had the need. I either record or type directly into my computer.”

Beth Levine, journalist and writer, Greater New York City, USA

‘Typing direct is better’

“I’m a super-fast typist and take notes using my little laptop. I agree that listening to and transcribing recordings afterwards is a waste of time. I also agree that it’s more important to take down the good quotes and info – and not every word.”

Susan Kuchinskas, freelance journalist and author, San Francisco, USA

‘Shorthand is outdated’

“It’s a bit outdated, like typing on a electric typewriter when a story today can be sent by Blackberry. You don’t really need to write down everything that’s being said. I now use a digital recorder, but only transcribe the interview if I need an exact quote.”

Mahmood Saberi, senior reporter at Gulf News, United Arab Emirates

‘Recording means you don’t miss anything’

“I learned shorthand at uni, but I can’t remember any of it now. I think it’s a good skill to have, if you keep it up, but I prefer recording interviews because I worry I would miss something important if I’m taking it down, and I wouldn’t want to interrupt the interviewee’s flow by stopping to catch up.”

Christine Maguire, freelance journalist and editor, Adelaide, Australia

‘Technology does the job’

“I learned Pitman shorthand in high school and I still use it as a freelancer. My favourite tool for interviews is the Echo Smartpen. It’s not as intimidating as a digital recorder and you can get reasonably priced software for it that transcribes your handwritten notes into a Word document. When I know I’ve got a good quote, I just put a star beside it as I’m writing my notes, and then I can go back later and listen to that section with just a touch of the pen to the paper and it’s done.”

Heather Wright, freelance writer, copywriter & editor, Kitchener, Canada

‘IT skills are more useful’

“Stenography would be useful, perhaps to save time for transcribing interviews directly to paper instead of from recordings to paper. But from a student’s perspective, IT skills are more important just because so much more of our work will rely on areas like basic coding, multimedia, and managing our online presence.

If there were a recording device that automatically transcribes interviews into text, like you see in some lectures and presentations, I think that would sell really well among journalists.”

Max Antonucci, aspiring digital and multimedia journalist, Greater New York City, USA

What do you think? Is shorthand a must-have, a nice-to-have, or a don’t-need-at-all skill? Do leave a comment!

20 thoughts on “Shorthand: a vital skill for a journalist, or an old-fashioned waste of time?

  1. Joli says:

    Oh wow! What a blast from the past is this! I used to buy Pitman 2000 magazine just for the smell of the pages. Srsly!

  2. Sue Fenton says:

    You can answer my Q, then, if you’re not too busy sniffing paper, about why you can get higher speeds in Pitman than Teeline, Isn’t it something to do with using pencil for Pitman so you can make the same stroke mean different things according to how thick the line is? Or something.

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