Tips for the Stenographer in Training

We started as a blog discussing issues for newbie reporters. In more recent times we’ve pushed this thing to encompass all kinds of issues, questions, and even political ideas. Perhaps it’s fitting to return, briefly, to the things that students can do to make their time in school more productive, less stressful, or even shorter. After all, the field needs new people, so logic tells us that efficiency in preparing and producing stenographers for the workforce is paramount.

Right out of the gate, let’s get one thing clear, respect perspectives. You will read things online and see things in the world that directly contradict what your teachers tell you. You will meet people that tell you that your teacher is wrong, or Stenonymous is wrong, or the world is wrong. Your newness to stenography may lead you to the conclusion that the most authoritative voice is correct. That way of thinking is an offshoot of the Might Makes Right logical fallacy, and may lead you down a hard road. Succinctly, take in opinions and asserted facts, but don’t draw too many conclusions. Everyone’s perspective is colored by their experience, and though our experiences may be similar, they are often quite different and can lead to wildly different advice.

With respect for what we just said, don’t be afraid to act. If you are so busy respecting other people’s perspectives that you never make any decisions, your progress will suffer. As an easy example, some reporters believe we must always use the number bar. Some reporters believe we must never use the number bar. You can respect both opinions. But in the end it is better for you to “pick a side” or develop your own method instead of trying to please everyone. Hesitation can make your job much harder than it needs to be.

Now for the good stuff. You want writing tips. That’s why you came. Here’s a look inside some common perspectives. Brief things you hear often. You may very well reach a point in your career where you are making 40,000 strokes a day with briefs. If everything takes two strokes, that’s more like 80,000 strokes. The amount of stress and strain on your hands is not a joke. Shorter writing can make you a faster writer.

Funny briefs work. You’ll remember them. It’s memorable. Just make them funny for you. It doesn’t matter if anyone else gets it. At one point in my own career every proceeding would start with the sections of law 240.30, 250.20. How long before they became TWAOEFT? Just to drive this point home, an old friend made up a brief for casino when we were in school a decade ago, SKWAOEPB. To this day, I remember it, and it doesn’t come up all that often at all in New York.

It’s better to write than lose. We’re expected to get pretty much everything in the working world. So if you have to make a choice between making a silly outline and dropping, write the silly outline. This can come in the form of condensed words (pseudo briefs) or even half words. For example, perhaps someone briefs “persuasive.” Finally, persuasive comes up — and someone doesn’t remember their brief. It’s okay to write “PER SWAEUF.” In some cases, it’s okay to write “PER.” For example, if the sentence is “The salesman was very persuasive when he sold me the car”, the only time you wouldn’t transcribe your PER as persuasive is if you don’t care or you’re not paying attention.

Testing with tactical drops. Most programs I’ve heard of count a missed word as an error, specifically one error. It doesn’t matter if the word is “Hippopotomonstrosesquippedaliophobia” or “hi.” So what happens, often, is students lock up or trip up on small words, and then a big word pops up, and all of it gets dropped or jumbled. So let’s analyze the fake test statement, “hi, my name is Joe, and I have had Hippopotomonstrosesquippedaliophobia since I was age 24 in 2018.” All things being equal, on test day, drop the big word and get all the little stuff. Those small words before the big one are potentially 9 errors. 9 errors versus 1. No contest. Please note, in the working world, you need the big words, but you also have the power to ask people to repeat themselves. Also, as a rider to the tactical drop, if you have to drop a word or punctuation while writing, drop the punctuation.

Practice fast. The whole point of speed building is being able to hear, process, and take down what you heard. Some practice slow and work on accuracy, and I hope that that works for them, but ultimately we are training our brains to hear the words and write with what educators call an “automatic response.” You want to be practicing at 10 to 20 words above your target speed. On that note, at least some of this has to do with muscle memory. Repetition is the name of the game. Don’t be afraid to take the same fast take over and over until you get it. Do that with enough takes, and your muscle memory becomes varied and fast over a wider variety of words. My take on slow practice? It’s working against you and training you to be slower. The only thing it might be good for is a confidence booster.

Know your numbers. It doesn’t matter if you use the number bar or not, you need to be very ready to hit numbers. Some of the most common numbers are years, and you should have easy ways to get those out. You can do funky things with the asterisk and lower letter keys to create creative number bar outlines, or you can create short forms. Everyone’s brain is different. Many people brief 2019 in one stroke. I do TWOEUPB TPHAOEPB. Yet with the 90s I do TPHAOEPB TPHAOEPB TPHAOEUPB, which translates literally to 19199, but because I defined it, comes up 1999. Three-stroke outlines are generally a no-no, but if you’re hitting it seamlessly, it hardly matters.

Try to practice interrupting. Worry about this one close to graduation. A lot of the tips so far have been about trying to get it or the tactical drop. Let’s touch on a working skill a lot of reporters don’t have practice with. The interrupt. In the working world there are folks out there that say just let the audio catch it. If you didn’t hear it, it may not be as clear as you think on that audio. So being able to interrupt is a valuable skill. If you have a family member or friend, see if they have time once a week or once a month to read to you. Ask them to read way fast every few pages so you can get a little practice with varying speeds and interrupting. Take note that how you ask can change outcomes. “I’m sorry, please repeat what you said” usually gets people to repeat exactly what they said. “What?” usually makes people expound on what they said or define what they said. Also note that interrupting is situational. Sometimes it makes sense to interrupt on the spot, and other times it makes sense to wait for a break to clarify names or spellings. No matter which way you shake it, how you do it matters. Be polite and professional.

Build your dictionary. There are two major schools of thought here. The first school is methodically go through and add outlines for stuff proactively from the dictionary or news. Another school of thought is to build your dictionary to the work that you do. Some people even maintain different dictionaries for different types of work. Succinctly, it doesn’t really matter what school you’re from, but you should always be adding stuff, with the understanding that anybody who’s taking the time to add stuff from Merriam Webster will have a larger and more complete dictionary.

Analyze misstrokes. If you have the same misstroke commonly enough, it’s either you or the machine. If you can’t get splits or stacks out of your writing, but they don’t conflict with anything else, just put it in. That misstroke that you fix manually every time just became a dictionary feature. In this same vein, if you have a close friend at school, maybe once every couple of months try transcribing each other’s notes. For one, it’ll teach you to read through “rough notes.” On the other hand, your friend may give you ideas that you wouldn’t have had by yourself.

Read back. Practice reading back out loud whether or not you have to do it alone. Practice reading back off notes and transcription. Read back is one of our important skills that we don’t get a lot of practice with. Speaking clearly is surprisingly helpful in matters of business, employment, and stenography. Your ability to speak well may not only affect on-the-job performance, but also whether or not you get a job at all.

Practice writing. At the very least, make sure you know how to compose polite, professional emails, a cover letter, a resume, and a rate sheet. We often like to assume we don’t need any help in this area, but as you have probably seen on this blog and from your fellow students, everyone makes mistakes, and practicing these functions before graduation will make you more employable.

Practice accents. A great deal of our training revolves around perfectly clear speakers at very high speeds. In the real world you may meet people that don’t speak particularly fast, but are not very clear speakers. The more time you get in school or training practicing this, the less difficult it will be during your work and the less likely you will make a critical mistake, such as misunderstanding testimony.

Create your own dictation. Are you having problems with a specific type of word? You can actually create a dictation tailored to the fingering problems you’re having. Get your creative writing on and take a few minutes to compose something, anything. Then you can even mark the thing for the speed you want. The manual way to mark for speed is to take your target speed and divide it by 4. That tells you how many words you need every 15 seconds. So 100 wpm goal divided by 4, you need 25 words every 15 seconds. Count 25 words, make a line. Then you time yourself reading with a stopwatch and hit your lines every 15 seconds. The automatic way to mark for speed is to use Todd Olivas’s Slasher. Alternatively, if you know anything about Python code, you can use my computer program. There are low barriers to creating your own dictation. Google has a stopwatch app and digital recorders can be as low as $50. Explained in more detail here.

Three chances to get it right. Our need to get it right is inviolable. A wise teacher said you’ve got three chances to get it correct, the writing, the transcription, and the proofreading. Countless working reporters skip that proofreading phase, and you may one day find yourself doing just that. That acknowledged, in your formative years and as you are learning, it will make you a better reporter to take that time to proofread your tests and early jobs. We make mistakes. It happens. We are new. The best way to identify mistakes is to take advantage of all the chances to get it right.

You are in charge of your destiny. We have been told by the arrogant that certain people are not fit to be a reporter, or that people over 30 cannot achieve high speeds. For some, this became truth. For others, this became a challenge. Determined reporters across the country have trained to do this. Whatever your issue, whether it be something you feel about yourself, or whether it be an inadequacy in your training, you can compensate and beat it. This is not meant to call anyone’s struggle illegitimate, but to point out that in the end the most likely descriptors of any endeavor are success or failure. Be a success. Everyone wants you to be a success and go on to help other people succeed, but it’s your action or inaction that’ll decide the outcome.

July 10, 2019 Update:

I came across this Doris Wong Blog and the Student Corner. Skimming it, it seems to talk about all kinds of things, and I agree with the writer on a lot of what they say.

Language Study and Service Revisited

Let’s just get to the point. There is a study to be published in the linguistic journal Language in June 2019. Stenonymous covered this immediately. Succinctly the study showed that court reporters in the Philadelphia area were pretty inaccurate when dealing with the dialect of African American English. We had some suspicions about potential inaccuracy in the way the news was reporting it, and kept an eye out for information as it developed.

In early March, we came across new articles which identified one of the hard-working linguists on the study, Taylor Jones. Upon review of Mr. Jones’s blog — soon to be Dr. Jones as far as we’re aware — we reached out and he responded to everything we had to ask.

Though we haven’t yet gotten to see the study, between correspondence with Jones, review of his blog, and review of media coverage on the topic, we have some conclusions to present:

  • The court reporters were reporters working in court.
  • It’s true that stenographic court reporters were used.
  • The trials were not testing the reporters’ real-time accuracy, and participants were given as much time as they wanted to transcribe.
  • The accuracy of sentences was only 59.5% correct. When measuring word-for-word accuracy the accuracy was as much as 82.9%. Obviously, our stenographer training measures word-to-word accuracy.
  • Small “errors” were not counted as errors, such as if a speaker said “when you tryna go to the store?” Trying to and tryin’ to would both be counted as correct. An error would be “when he tries to go.” So the errors, as best I can tell, would fall in line with what NCRA says constitutes an error.
  • Misunderstandings come from a number of different sources, including common phonetic misunderstandings and dialect-motivated misunderstandings as discussed in William Labov’s Principles of Linguistic Change trilogy. While Jones himself said bias cannot be ruled out, there are a number of syntactical and accent-related issues that may honestly be a challenge for court reporters and the average judge, juror, or listener.
  • There were over 2,200 observations done in this study. 83 statements multiplied by 27 court reporters.

Now for some interesting highlights from my exchange with Jones:

  1. African American English is not wrong. It is not slang. It has grammar and structure. It’s not slang, Ebonics, or street talk.
  2. The people that conducted the study are not accusing court reporters of doing anything wrong. In fact, in my conversation with Jones, he was supportive of a human stenographer over an AI or automatic transcription because we still carry a far greater accuracy than those alternatives.

So here is where we are: We’ve got a piece of evidence from the linguistic community that there is an area we can improve on. I had briefly been in touch with a Culture Point representative who said they can work with organizations around the country on their transcription suite package, and that the budget for the workshop varies dependent on modality and class size.

We should all do our best to incorporate these ideas into our work and training. If you are a state or national association, don’t shy away from the opportunity to dive in and develop training surrounding different dialects, or even fund studies to seek out these deficiencies. If you are a working reporter, don’t be afraid to ask for a repetition. You are the guardian of an accurate and true record, and our work collectively can impact people’s lives and fortunes.

Short last note, I apologize to my readers and to Mr. Jones. I had promised my readers I’d get this article out and the email exchange out much sooner. I feel this is important and want to be a part of spreading the message that we can always do better. Though the initial response by Mr. Jones was March 8, I was unable to get this draft out until April 2. For that, I am sorry.

May 23, 2019 update: This came up in the news again and another person brought to my attention this draft of the study made available before its publication in the Language journal. It was noted by that person that the reporters were asked to paraphrase what was said, and that we do not interpret. My understanding and memory from my email with Jones is that they were asked to transcribe and interpret, and that at least one participant transcribed incorrectly but interpreted perfectly.

June 6, 2019 update:

Philadelphia judges came together to discuss language access after the study. As of this article, it seems the solution would be more training for court personnel than having interpreters for different English dialects.

September 13, 2019 update:

Another article popped up, ostensibly on this same study. With great respect to those article writers, I believe the headline that white court reporters don’t get black testimony is incorrect. I also believe that the contention that this is slang or Ebonics is incorrect. When I wrote Jones he was very clear that AAE is not slang. It’s a dialect. It has rules. I do hope that people really read the work for what it is and not what they want it to be. People mishear things. Judges and juries mishear things. This study brings to light that even we, the people who care most about every word said, can mishear things, and that makes it very, very important to be situationally aware and ask for clarification when it is appropriate, like many of us do every day.

January 28, 2020 update:

It should be noted that Mr. Jones, presumably now Dr. Jones, is listed as a co-founder of Culture Point on LinkedIn.

Addendum:

After some time I had an interview with VICE about this study because I was identified as being a stenographic reporter with a lot of knowledge on it. I will say while, in my mind, it showed us we must do better, ultimately it confirmed that we are people’s best chance at being understood in the courtroom. The pilot study 1 showed regular people were about 40 percent accurate. The pilot study 2 showed lawyers were 60 percent accurate. We were about 80 percent accurate. Clearly, we all want 100 percent, but when you read that we’re twice as good as your average person at taking down this dialect, it changes the spin. Later on, a Stanford study showed that automatic speech recognition had 20 percent error rate in “white speech,” 40 percent error rate in “black speech,” and worse with African American English dialect. When I graded the AAE example on their site, I saw that if it had been a steno test, it would be 20/100! It’s our skill and dedication that keeps us top quality in making the record and broadcast captioning.

Stenotrain

So we came across Stenotrain for a second time around. Coincidentally it was already on our resource page. It is purportedly a US Legal company that trains stenographers. We were only able to pull up a couple of reviews on the program, and an article that shows they may have acquired it around January 2018. Unfortunately, as of writing, the full article is scrubbed and no archived article appears on our time machine today.

Let’s be clear: We’ve had some pretty not-nice things to say about US Legal in the past. We can honestly say that we are skeptical here. While the reviews we did find on Stenotrain were glowing, there were so few that it’s hard to get an accurate snapshot of what’s going on there.

There are two big reasons that companies acquire companies:

  • They believe it will make them money and want to provide a good service for a good return.
  • They want to mothball or dissolve the company to destroy competition.

Which one are we looking at here? I don’t know. Certainly it’s not mothballed or dissolved, but how many resources are put into that program versus what we have seen in terms of direct mailers and efforts to get digital reporters? These are questions only internal documents from those companies could answer for me, and until someone leaks that, I just won’t know. Hopefully we can take the glowing review or two I did see as a sign that this a serious and successful program going on right now. If you have anything to say about Stenotrain we encourage comments below. We have never censored a single comment on Stenonymous as of writing!

One thing is for certain though: We could use some entrepreneurs getting into the education business. I wrote recently about New York’s new process for creating a degree-granting institution. There’s no doubt that the startup costs are steep, but I think the best programs will come from those who look at such a challenge and say “so what?”

January 2020 Update:

It is apparent that Stenotrain has been dissolved or scrubbed from the internet. Its internet presence is basically nonexistent now, with my blog post being the number one Google result for it. I would say that this reinforces me feelings that US Legal is anti-stenographer, which is terrible not just for us, but the consumer. Please note that this article has been modified, the formatting was incorrect and displaying incorrectly for readers. It has been fixed as of January 2020.

Knowledge Preserved Is Power

Connecting Dots.

To some degree, we all enjoy researching pieces of history.¬†Sometimes it’s fun. Sometimes we learn things that nobody else knows. Sometimes we get to use our knowledge to help those close to us, and that’s a wonderful thing.

But I had quite the experience exiting steno school years ago, I found that knowledge was hard to come by. I wanted to know all about the old Federation for Shorthand Reporters. I wanted to know why it failed, and I wanted to know what people’s rates used to be so I could compare them for inflation. Some stenographers were kind, and gave anecdotes, like they made $2.85 in 1989, which was interesting, because I was offered $2.85 when I began my professional steno career in June 2010. $2.85 in 1989 had about the same buying power as $5.20 in 2018. Sincerely, I’m told some have worked for less than $2.85 a page today. I’m basically saying freelancers should be making $5.20 on a regular easy. Laugh all you want, it’s the math. And that’s the point. How is this not common knowledge? How are we not talking about this? How are we not discussing the best ways to negotiate and pull up whatever we’re making today?

Finding real concrete information was hard, and often, even when I became an established professional,¬†people who had some experience in the field were done with the field and didn’t want to take the time out to share their experiences.

It’s imperative that I write a little bit today about why I started to preserve some of these ideas about the market, competition, and steno in general. Some of it is a modern look at how we might make things better, but also it’s about catching up, preserving knowledge, and putting it out there so that stenographers everywhere might benefit.

Let’s be very honest. How easy is it for an agency to tell a kid out of school that they’re only worth $2.85? The kid doesn’t know! The kid doesn’t have anybody to tell them what was or what may be. The kid only knows they’re in the moment and they’re being offered XYZ. It’s not like agencies can’t afford stenographers, they just have an interest in paying the minimum that’ll get the job done. That’s the reality.

We have probably 100 years of stenography. If we assume there was an average of only 20,000 stenographers in those years, that’s 2,000,000 years of life and steno experiences. The industry has survived and thrived. Our biggest weakness is that nearly all of the information today is locked up behind paywalls, private practice sessions, quiet conversations. This constant limiting of the spread of knowledge has hamstrung us like no enemy ever could. As Ariel Durant said, a great civilization is not conquered from without until it has destroyed itself from within. Connect the dots, lift people out of ignorance, and the civilization will take care of itself.

Winning.

It’s about training people not to be afraid anymore. It’s about reaching out to students and telling them where you’ve won, where you’ve lost, and how they can be successful. Give them real numbers. Ask how they’re doing. Tell them what people were making in the 80s, 90s, and now. Tell them how people outside of New York City make a dollar on copies. Tell them New York officials make at least dollar on copies. We cannot teach resourcefulness, but we can facilitate an attitude and environment where people understand the market and push for private clients and create stenographic-only firms. We can get to a point where companies like US Legal stop pushing their electronic recorders and start contributing to training more stenographers.

The bottom line is that without a healthy field in multiple disciplines, eventually the train runs off the tracks. I hear a lot of people echo “come to court”, “come to CART”, “come do what I do because it works for me.” But the bottom line is to continue to thrive, stenography needs to continue to grow its market share, and it needs to push to retake where it has lost. A lot of victory has to do with perception. If stenography is perceived as failing, then it is less likely that people will want to get into it, and less likely that people will start schools dedicated to it. Such a perception would be a deathblow for this field.

On the other hand, if it is seen as something new, exciting, and with growth potential, it will encourage people with money, entrepreneurs, and innovators to invest in it. We’ll encourage the building of more free steno materials. It will cause a boom for us, and if we’re smart about it, we may not see that boom end in our lifetime. So I’d say yes, absolutely encourage people to join your particular discipline, but also listen to their problems, and suggest how they might do better where they are too. It’ll make a world of difference for them on an individual level, and save all of us as a whole.