It is a truth universally acknowledged that a notepad, pen and a spare pair of underwear are the three items that any good reporter has in their possession at all times. Phone batteries die and recordings can be accidentally deleted, but Teeline shorthand is a reliable tool in a journalist’s arsenal.
Last year, I saw on Twitter that a group of protestors were being arrested in a London borough ahead of a fortnight of planned climate change protests led by Extinction Rebellion. Here was my first breaking news scoop: after sending a few direct messages to the official Extinction Rebellion accounts, I managed to get on the phone with a protestor at the scene. Journalism is a race against the clock, so it was imperative that I get the information as quickly as possible in order to break the story before other outlets did. As I furiously scribbled down what my source was saying using Teeline shorthand — a language I had put so much effort into learning — I felt like a proper journalist at last. If it were not for shorthand, I would have been scrambling to keep up as my source told me about the mother he had witnessed being arrested.
To my parents’ generation, shorthand is a notation aid used by company secretaries to take minutes in meetings. But to journalists like me, Teeline shorthand is as vital as being able to speak Spanish in Spain. It is an important literary language developed in 1968 that allows us to quickly record information. It is just one example of a notation language — with others including Pitman or Gregg shorthand — but it’s Teeline that is required by the National Council for the Training of Journalists, which certifies the training of journalists in the United Kingdom. And learning shorthand is no simple feat.
The Building Blocks
I have wanted to write for a living ever since I learned my ABCs. But little did I know that I would have to relearn the alphabet as part of my quest to become a journalist. Since most U.K. news outlets oblige reporters to have an NCTJ shorthand qualification, I was taught Teeline shorthand as part of my diploma at the London-based journalism school News Associates.
Unlike languages that use an entirely new alphabet system — such as Chinese or Japanese — Teeline shorthand relies on what your brain already knows about the Roman alphabet to help you record information as quickly as possible. With the help of Marie Cartwright’s NCTJ Teeline Gold Standard for Journalists we learned the shorthand alphabet. This is a simplified version of the English alphabet designed so that you do not have to take your pen off the page when writing. Because the human brain is good at using context to deduce meaning, when writing in shorthand you omit vowels unless they begin a word to save time.
Like primary school children learning how to write their name, we drilled the shorthand alphabet, making sure our “outlines” (characters) were in the right shape, size, and position on the page. In shorthand, the letter “d” is represented by the outline “–,” which can mean “do” and “day,” or “to” depending on where it sits on the page. The size of your handwriting matters too: write your “u” too big and it will look like a “w.” Because individual outlines can carry multiple meanings, you deduce the missing vowels and infer the word that makes the most logical sense from the context of the rest of the sentence or paragraph.
There are also “special outlines” that are abbreviated versions of commonly used words or phrases. While some follow rules, others are less logical. The only way to learn these outlines is to drill them repeatedly until you have committed them to memory.
Once we had the basic building blocks down, we practiced writing alongside exam passages at the talking speed of 60-words-per-minute. But writing outlines is only half the battle with shorthand; you need to be able to read what you wrote to transcribe shorthand back to longhand (ordinary handwriting)! Practicing shorthand was very different to my experiences practicing French at secondary school. Since it is such a technical language and relies on drilling for speed development, it was a pressurized learning environment focused around passing exams from the very first day. My secondary school French lessons had been laidback sociable affairs where we watched Friends with subtitles and completed word searches at a leisurely pace.
As an adult learner with more developed study skills, learning shorthand was less frustrating than trying to wrap my head around French verb conjugations as a teenager. Still, there was a lot of social pressure to progress at a certain rate each week and eventually obtain the industry standard. My classmates were my competition: I would be pitted against them for work in the future and so there was definitely a sense of rivalry in our lessons, which felt very different from the more supportive classical language classroom. But this competitive atmosphere was also a useful motivator.
As it was a part-time course — taught on Monday and Wednesday evenings, as well as Saturdays, for 40 weeks — it was sometimes grueling to sit down and practice shorthand after a two-hour commute and busy day at my day job in marketing. Listening to passages about parish council meetings, arson attacks and road infrastructure proposals, I could feel my will to live ebbing away. Friends on the course felt exactly the same.
Perhaps sensing our waning enthusiasm, our tutor Emily got us to compete with one another to see who could transcribe a passage with the fewest errors. Each week an atmosphere of intense concentration would fall over us all as Emily hit play on the exam passage. We furiously scribbled, and then we were given time after the recording finished to transcribe our shorthand back into longhand. We would all stand up and read one word of our transcription, with anyone who missed a word or got a word wrong forced to sit down. It was a case of the last person standing; I frequently found myself in the final three, only to be foiled by an unintelligible scribble at the last moment.
Having grown up as the eldest of six siblings, my innate competitive streak pushed me to put in the extra hours of practice needed for an error-free transcription. Eventually, victory would be mine and I would feel jubilant upon being the last woman standing. The pain, the suffering, the sleepless nights where I had painted shorthand outlines on the ceiling above my head — they were all finally worth it!
Practice Makes Perfect
It was made clear from day one of the course that there was only one way to pass the notorious 100-words-per-minute exam needed to obtain the coveted NCTJ “gold-standard” qualification. I needed daily practice. I have never had the staying power for language learning using daily habit-forming apps like Duolingo, so I found mustering the self-discipline to sit down for 30 minutes to an hour of practice each day extremely difficult at first.
As I was a commuting student, the bulk of my shorthand practice took place on public transport. I got lots of strange looks from people I was sitting next to or opposite on the train; one gentleman asked if I was writing Arabic. Another elderly lady switched seats once she saw me scribbling away, perhaps concerned for my sanity!
Undeterred by the strangers who gave me quizzical looks, eventually my muscle memory improved and I got faster and faster. I started listening to 70-, 80- and 90-words-per-minute exam passages, gearing up to take the 100-words-per-minute exam. I passed the exam on my second attempt, but for many others it takes more effort to obtain the coveted industry gold-standard NCTJ qualification: the pass rate for the 100-words-per-minute exam in the 2018-19 period was just 24 percent, out of 1,378 sittings.
Inside The Newsroom
Passing the 100-words-per-minute exam is particularly important if you want to be a local news reporter as you will be expected to cover courts, where recording devices are not allowed. It takes many trainee journalists multiple attempts to pass their shorthand exams, but those who end up working in local news find it is worth the struggle.
Megan Stanley works for a local news site in England called HampshireLive, and she took the exam nine times in six months. She said: “I’d say shorthand is extremely important in the job I currently have as a trainee reporter. It makes interviewing and transcribing so much quicker, and I can just call someone up without having to faff with a phone or dictaphone. But it’s true importance comes into play when I cover court; it would just be impossible without it.”
I am a freelance journalist so I do not work in a newsroom like Megan, nor do I report from courts where recording devices are prohibited. But I realized just how useful shorthand is when I interviewed the band Bombay Bicycle Club for The Indiependent. My phone stopped recording part way through the interview, which would have been a catastrophe had it not been for the shorthand notes I took throughout; I had effortlessly kept up with what the artist was saying. I had not even noticed as my pen moved across the page, but I was finally good enough at shorthand to be more present in interviews — the band’s management even thanked me for the thoroughness of our chat afterwards.
Keeping Your Foot On The Pedal
While undoubtedly a useful language to know, unfortunately it is not enough to learn shorthand and then just use it from time to time. Unlike other non-spoken languages like Braille — where once you’ve learned it, you’ve learned it — you need to constantly practice to keep your Teeline shorthand at the rate a normal person speaks (150-words-per-minute).
Rachael Davis, a trainee reporter at MyLondon, learned this the hard way. She said, “I passed my NCTJ diploma with 100-words-per-minute shorthand last summer, but I did not start my first job as a reporter until November. Perhaps foolishly, I did not keep up my practice so I have definitely lost some speed, so unfortunately, I do not use shorthand at work as comprehensively as I would like. That said, I do believe shorthand is an invaluable skill for any journalist who regularly interviews people. ”
Shorthand also carries some legal weight, and thus feels like an extra magical skill I now have. As well as allowing journalists to transcribe conversations faster, dated shorthand notes are important legal documents: they show that a reporter has done their due diligence and reported information given by a source fairly and accurately. If you are a staff writer for a publication like Rachael or Megan, that’s another reason to keep your shorthand up to speed. Shorthand could stop you from getting sued!
Eat, Sleep, Transcribe, Repeat
Now that I have passed the exam I try to keep up to speed by jotting down lyrics from my favorite songs or excerpts from podcasts in shorthand. I also practice outlines when watching television, the same way that people watch other language cinema to develop their language skills.
Monolingual people often ask multilinguals what language they think or dream in. It is safe to say that I now think and dream in shorthand: it is impossible for me to drift off to sleep at night without seeing shorthand outlines dancing on the wall above my head. Many people have recurring dreams where their teeth fall out, or they are caught with their trousers down. The way I see it? You can take my knickers — I have spare ones, after all — but you cannot take my reporter’s notepad. I would be lost without it.
This article is part of a series commissioned and paid for by Babbel, but it represents the journalist’s views. It was edited by Michelle No and Thomas Devlin.