What do sanscrit, sumerian and aramaic all have in common? That’s right, they’re ancient languages. And, unless you have an interest in raiding tombs for lost treasure, it’s unlikely you use them much in day-to-day life. Is the same true of note-taking ‘language’ shorthand? The value, or otherwise, of this skill is a common subject for debate (and Twitter beef) among journalists.
Once considered one of the most important tools of the trade, shorthand is no longer essential to learn before setting foot in a newsroom. While some job ads still ask for 100 words per minute, dictaphones and transcribing software have proved to be an adequate replacement for many media professionals.
So, where does shorthand fit in journalism in 2021? Crucial skill? Dying art? Pain in the arse? It all depends on who you talk to. So, let us give you the lowdown on who still uses it and whether you should learn it
What Is Shorthand?
If you looked over someone’s shoulder while they were writing shorthand, you might be forgiven for thinking it was a type of hieroglyphics. But shorthand is less of a distinct language and more of an abbreviated way of writing. Before the wonders of dictaphones and your Voice Notes app, it was used more widely among secretaries, police officers and, of course, journalists.
Though there are many different shorthand systems out there, the general idea is the same – to be able to get information down on paper as fast as it’s being spoken at you. The National Council for the Training of Journalists teach one called Teeline on their diploma courses, which is based on a cut down version of the alphabet, and is generally written without vowels. Every shorthand system has symbols or abbreviations for common words and phrases, which can save you a ton of heartache if you’re at a press conference without your smartphone.
“It is an essential skill for journalists to ensure they can produce quick and accurate copy – and remember you can’t record in court!”
Lucy Dyer, News Associates
Speaking to Journo Resources, News Associates editorial development manager Lucy Dyer explains why they have it on all their courses: “Firstly, because it is an essential skill for journalists to ensure they can produce quick and accurate copy – and remember you can’t record in court! But also because it looks great on your CV – everyone talks about being dedicated and hardworking but having 100wpm shorthand to your name proves that.”
Typically, to get a shorthand qualification you need to take classes and pass an exam once you get to a certain speed (100wpm is the standard benchmark across the industry). Once compulsory on the NCTJ Diploma, it was made optional in 2016 – though many still take the module anyway. It’s hard, repetitive work and not everyone passes on their first go, but lots of journos think that it’s worth it. For those aspiring to become court reporters, where recording devices are not allowed, it is an especially crucial skill often demanding shorthand speeds of up to 120wpm.
What Do Editors And Journalists Say About Shorthand?
Most established writers say that shorthand is a useful skill to learn but opinions differ on how crucial it is. Press Association Editor-in-Chief Pete Clifton told Press Gazette last year that job applications without shorthand would “go straight in the bin”, while Manchester Evening News editor Darren Thwaithes took a softer approach. He said that, while shorthand remains essential for both court reporters and general news reporters, “there are plenty of new journalism roles that simply don’t require physical note-taking”.
Similarly, former BBC Sport journalist Jimmy Smallwood wrote in the Huffington Post: “Modern technology renders shorthand convenient for a journalist, but no more than that.” In short, even the editors are divided on whether or not it’s an essential skill for reporters. So, what to working journalists think?
Conrad Duncan, a news reporter for The Independent, learned shorthand during his Newspaper Journalism MA at City University as an optional extra. “You had to pay £100 and get up for 9am on a few more days to do it,” he told us. Though it came at a price – both metaphorically and literally – he didn’t regret doing it. “We had it as an option on my course but no-one who opted out of it did anything better with their time.”
“It’s way quicker to jot down a few notes in shorthand from an interview than to listen back to a whole recording and transcribe from that.”
Jess Murray, a Guardian journalist who learnt shorthand as part of her NCTJ Diploma while doing MA Journalism at the University of Sheffield, was eager to get to grips with the skill as soon as possible. “I bought the textbook over the summer and started teaching myself the basics a few weeks before the course started,” she explained. “So I had a bit of a head start when classes began.”
Like Conrad’s, Jess’s classes were daily and started at 9, or sometimes 8.30, in the morning, which helped her build the speed she needed for her 100wpm shorthand exam. “It takes a serious amount of dedication and persistence to reach 100wpm shorthand, so making shorthand compulsory can actually help as it isn’t as easy to give up,” she said. “I think it should be a compulsory part of some journalism qualifications, particularly straight news reporting ones – with exceptions for those who aren’t able to do shorthand, due to disability for instance.”
Freelance journalist Hannah Shewan Stevens added: “While shorthand is a useful and integral skill for many parts of the industry, 100wpm is rarely attainable for disabled journalists. I maxed out at 80wpm because the pain I get in my hands prevented me from achieving the top result. It sadly locked me out of several job opportunities when I graduated but, luckily, I have adapted and shorthand is not a necessity in my line of work.”
One journo who chose not to learn shorthand as part of his course was George Griffiths, who did his master’s at Cardiff University and didn’t take the optional module: “My MA was in magazine journalism but most people took shorthand.” George says his decision came down to juggling other commitments. “Before I started the course, I weighed up the pros and cons and decided that I wasn’t going to take it,” he said. “I never regretted it when I saw the amount of work required when I was already studying and working as a music editor alongside it.”
“Hand on heart [I’ve] never [regretted not taking shorthand]. I’ve always had by dictaphone and been able to transcribe quickly.”
Asked if he’s ever had any use for shorthand at work, George, a writer at Metro.co.uk, NME, Dazed, and more, said: “Hand on heart: never. With interviews and screeners and Q&As, I’ve always had my dictaphone and been able to transcribe quite quickly so I’ve never struggled, even on a deadline.”
For news reporters, however, shorthand tends to prove more useful. Though Conrad mostly obtains quotes through recordings and email, he maintained that having shorthand on his CV would give him more options if he wanted to change jobs later in his career. “I think it is an extremely useful skill,” he said. “For on-the-ground reporters, it does remain the fastest way to get quotes down.”
Jess, who does more field reporting in her role, admitted that work would be that much more difficult without shorthand. “Firstly, it’s difficult to cover a court case without it. It’s against the law to record in court, so you have to write down everything that is being said. Shorthand means you can keep up with confidence, and get down all the complicated details and verbatim quotes.”
“It’s also useful for producing articles at speed,” she continued. “It’s way quicker to jot down a few quotes in shorthand from an interview than to listen back to a whole recording and transcribe from that.”
So, What Is Shorthand’s Place In The Industry Today?
It seems that how essential journalists think shorthand is depends on their job role and past experiences. In short, if you’re looking to be a court reporter or news journalist, it’s more likely to be part of the job description. If you’re more interested in other areas of journalism like feature writing, essays, or broadcast, it’s easy enough to get by without. So where does that leave shorthand as a skill in the industry? Are you better off knowing it, and should you learn it if you haven’t already?
There’s no denying that having shorthand can get you out of a jam; technology could always let you down and, in sensitive situations, a source may not appreciate a phone or a dictaphone being stuck in their face. “I think shorthand will always have a place in journalism,” Jess Murray said. “As a journalist, it’s your job to soak up facts, ask questions and note down details, so anything that helps you to do that efficiently and accurately will always be useful.”
“I have adapted and shorthand is not a necessity in my line of work.”
Hannah Shewan Stevens
For many journalists, though, shorthand is a nice-to-have rather than an essential. George, and many others like him, have managed to succeed without it. “It’s quite an archaic skill that I’ve seen older journalists in the industry cover when there are actually ways around learning shorthand and still getting the job done,” he told us. “I’m just glad I’m a fast typer.”
Jess agreed: “There are many successful and accomplished journalists who don’t use shorthand, and it is by no means a requirement for entry into the industry. In some respects, it depends on what kind of journalism you work in, but also on how you work best as an individual. If you struggle with shorthand, can’t get to the necessary speed, or can’t read it back efficiently, then there are other ways you can do your work.”
There’s also the issue of accessibility – many aspiring journos can’t afford to pursue postgraduate courses and the 100wpm speed required by some newspapers may disqualify disabled journos. As Jess explains, publications should do more to keep this from being a barrier to employment. “To make the industry more accessible, employers shouldn’t automatically expect applicants to have shorthand in all instances. More employers should support young journalists to learn shorthand while working.”
While shorthand isn’t the be-all and end-all it used to be, it isn’t going to disappear anytime soon – and can definitely be a useful arrow in the quiver of any journo, depending on your plans. Whether you take it on or not is entirely down to you, your personality and the career path you want to follow. But if you do decide to learn shorthand, don’t be afraid of it, stick it out through the difficult mechanical parts, and remember: practice makes perfect.