Though posted by me for the purposes of this site, this was written by Claire Williams, who can be found on Twitter @claireducky. Reference: Open Steno.
If you’ve ever served on a jury, been to a court hearing, or watched an episode of Law and Order, you may have noticed someone in the courtroom typing into a strange-looking machine. That person with the flying fingers is a stenographer, and their job is much more important than you might imagine. These behind-the-scenes professionals efficiently document the inner workings of our justice system, write closed captions for those who are deaf or hard-of-hearing, and much more. In the past, you had to invest in specialized training and expensive equipment to become a stenographer. The volunteers at the Open Steno Project are trying to change that, however, by helping people learn stenography for free so they can use this valuable skill in their everyday lives.
To an untrained observer, shorthand writing systems might seem too complicated to be useful in the real world. However, stenography isn’t just for transcriptionists, court reporters, or the actors that play them on television. Typing on a traditional keyboard is fairly straightforward: one keystroke equals one character. Stenography works by pressing multiple keys together that represent a specific sound or syllable. Much like playing a piano, steno keys pressed together are referred to as “chords”, and these chords vastly increase potential writing speed. While an average person can type about 40 to 60 words per minute, and skilled typists average between 70 to 120 words per minute, someone trained in stenography writes well over 200 words per minute. This is even faster than most people speak. Just imagine how much your productivity would increase if you could type four or five times faster than you do now.
Stenography may appear to be a dying art in a digital age, but the skill is actually more relevant today than ever before. Speech-to-text software cannot compete with the accuracy and contextual writing of a trained stenographer. If you’ve ever tried using a dictation application on your phone or computer, you’re probably familiar with the technology’s limitations. Frequently, documents produced by speech recognition software are littered with spelling, grammar, and syntax errors—all of which make the editing process take even longer. Let’s face it: artificial intelligence systems aren’t really all that intelligent yet, and even the best-trained computer can never interpret a human voice perfectly. To do that, you need to have a human ear to listen and a human mind to translate speech with complete accuracy.
While stenography is commonly associated with legal professions like court reporters, shorthand writing actually has a broad range of applications outside of the courtroom. Along with incredible speeds, stenography provides serious advantages in ergonomics and functionality over a traditional QWERTY keyboard or the Dvorak Simplified keyboard. Instead of lettered keys, the chords on a steno machine can be customized and mapped to practically anything, including macros, phrases, symbols, or even snippets of code. This feature alone makes stenography infinitely more flexible than traditional writing methods. Additionally, fewer keystrokes mean less movement and stress on the hands and wrists, making stenography a great skill to learn for anyone who spends a lot of time typing or is concerned about repetitive motion injuries like carpal tunnel syndrome.
Writers, journalists, and administrative professionals could use stenography to increase their typing speed. Computer programmers, mathematicians, and scientists could use it to help write documentation or academic papers more efficiently. Certain nonverbal individuals could use it to communicate in real-time with others using assistive text-to-speech software. With all of these potential people who could benefit from stenography, why hasn’t it become more widespread?
Shorthand writing was first developed more than a thousand years ago. Stenography in its current form has been used for over 100 years. Despite this long history, the skill has never become mainstream—largely due to the many barriers to entry that exist. Typically, anyone who wants to learn stenography must take professional courses through a college or trade school. On top of a steep learning curve, stenography equipment is often prohibitively expensive, running anywhere from $2,000 to $5,000 or more. As a result, stenography is woefully underutilized, because few can afford the investment to get started. Thankfully, stenographer Mirabai Knight and the Open Steno Project have been making strides to change that.
From 2005 to 2007, Mirabai Knight attended the New York Career Institute to become a stenographer. The proprietary tools and upfront expenses required inspired Knight to do something to make stenography accessible to anyone who wished to learn. To that end, Knight founded the Open Steno Project, a volunteer community dedicated to bringing stenography to the masses for free. Since then, the organization has helped thousands of people learn stenography and discover new ways to use it in their career and lives.
The first major breakthrough for OSP happened in 2009, when Knight funded the development of Plover, a free and open-source steno software that allows people to use their regular keyboard as a stenography machine. Since its initial launch in 2010, Plover has grown into a feature-packed program for Windows, Mac, and Linux which works with keyboards and steno machines, integrating seamlessly into the background of an operating system. Keystroke emulation allows Plover users to use stenography not just for transcription or court reporting purposes, but within any program or website they want, like Microsoft Word or Facebook.
To help new users learn how to use the program for stenography, the Open Steno Project community has created many free resources, including the Learn Plover! online textbook and a stenographer training game on Steam called Steno Arcade. Additionally, OSP members have tackled the issue of expensive stenography hardware by offering affordable beginner options, hobbyist equipment, and steno machine alternatives like key-toppers.
Thanks to the impressive efforts of Mirabai Knight and the Open Steno Project, now anybody can learn stenography for free. Anyone considering a career in court reporting or transcription should definitely check out the resources available from OSP, especially before spending money on a degree or certification program. Even if you don’t plan on becoming a professional stenographer, the immense benefits of learning this skill make the Open Steno Project a wonderful resource for anyone who wants to improve their life and productivity with stenography.