Ever wonder how journalists and secretaries did their job before the invention of recording devices? Or how court stenographers can type so fast when dictating court proceedings? In most cases, they’re using a “language” called shorthand. The idea of shorthand is pretty simple: A series of abbreviations and symbols (called “forms”) are used in place of writing whole words and phrases. It’s fast and reliable… if you know what you’re doing. Like most languages, it takes a bit of studying and practice. Even if you don’t have a knack for learning languages, exploring shorthand writing can be an enjoyable and enlightening experience.
If you want to try it, though, you’ll have to decide which method you want to learn. Not all shorthand is the same. A great way to look at the various methods of shorthand is to consider them dialects of the same language — similar to how people in Mexico and those in Spain don’t speak exactly the same variations of Spanish. There are three main styles of shorthand. Let’s take a look.
Pitman shorthand was invented in 1837 by Sir Isaac Pitman and is designed to work with the English language. The markings in Pitman shorthand don’t represent letters, but sounds. For instance, there is most likely a symbol to represent the hard “i” sound in words like “light” or “hide.” You’ll also find symbols representing compound consonants like “Fr” and “Ph.” Confusing? Possibly. It’s also worth noting that whether a line or symbol is written with a thin or thick stroke can change the sound.
Just like all languages evolve and expand, Pitman shorthand has also changed over time. Interestingly enough, however, it’s mostly been condensed. Of the several updates, the most recent is called Pitman 2000 and only contains 144 short forms. Remember: You’re not comparing short forms to letters in the alphabet, but rather total words. That’s 144 short forms used to represent millions of words one might use. Pitman was originally taught through a correspondence course and was once the most popular shorthand.
Pitman was ultimately replaced by Gregg shorthand, which was introduced just 50 years after Pitman was invented. Many see it as the shorthand answer to long-form writing’s cursive, as it’s based less on lines and dashes and more on elliptical shapes. One major difference between the two forms is that Gregg dropped the troublesome use of thick and thin lines, which required special fountain pens. Instead, it differentiates between sounds using the length of stroke.
One super cool feature of Gregg shorthand? Because of its flow, it’s easy to write in either direction. That meant that left-handed writers could write in mirror image, right to left, instead of dragging their hands over their work while writing left to right. The most recent form of Gregg shorthand (published in 1988) cut things down to a minuscule 132 forms.
The newest and still most-used short form is Teeline. It was invented in 1968 by James Hill. Unlike the previous two popular forms, Teeline is based on the actual alphabet, instead of phonetics. Vowels are often removed if they’re deemed unnecessary, silent letters are removed, and compounded letters (“th,” “ph,” “cr,” etc.) are often grouped together in one symbol.
Many see Teeline as the easiest shorthand to learn — which may explain why it’s actually part of the UK’s curriculum for teaching and certifying journalists.
First things first: Speed writing is not the same as shorthand, even though there is a type of shorthand called speed writing. Although they help writers achieve the same goal and take down information more quickly, shorthand is written in practically a different language — complete with symbols and replacement letters.
Speed writing is a note-taking skill that takes practice. It’s a lot like running. If you want to improve your time, you must train to reach a certain goal. Instead of your legs, your focus is your hand muscles. On average, people can write (not type) 25 to 45 words per minute. When you learn how to speed write, you can put up to 60 to 70 words on the page per minute. So, speed writing is more of a note-taking strategy.
Speed Writing Tips
If you want to write like the wind, all you need is a little practice and discipline. Think of speed writing as a sport. The only way to get better is to get stronger. Luckily, we’ve found several tips that will help you leave other writers in the dust.
- Write every day. This helps build the connection between the words in your head and fingers. To strengthen that relationship and those hand muscles, you must put in the time. So, write a page a day or journal daily.
- Sit up straight. Your parents have probably told you this a million times, but slouching can actually slow you down. For optimal writing speed, your form needs to be perfect, so avoid hunching over your desk.
- Hold the pen or pencil in a way that feels comfortable. Everyone is different and holds their writing utensil in their own way. However, make sure it’s the right form for you. Don’t be afraid to explore other pen-holding positions. The better writing feels, the faster you can go.
- Don’t hold your pen or pencil too hard. Writing can get intense but make sure you don’t have a death grip on your pencil. When you put too much pressure on your pen, your hand gets tired more quickly.
If you’re interested in shorthand, you’ve probably thought about stenography. A stenographer is someone who is trained to type using shorthand practices. They can write just as quickly as someone speaks and commonly used in court cases or during medical conversations. They can also be television captioners or transcribe voice calls for deaf people in real-time. Stenographers are key to reviewing and understanding complicated conversations. They can even handle conversations with two or more people.
Before technology, stenographers transcribed everything by hand, but today they use shorthand typing tools called stenotype machines. This allows them to type more than 300 words per minute, which is twice as fast as the average person speaks.