I really believe I have somehow stumbled into the job that suits me better than any other in the world. If the careers counsellor at high school had asked me to name the characteristics of my ultimate job, I would have nominated: keyboard-based, high-pressure, something using my hands, and something to do with words. Who would have thought, firstly, that my frankly conventish school would have had anything as forward-thinking as a careers counsellor; secondly, that such a fantasy job exists; and then that I would somehow find my way into it? It doesn’t just fit, it TOTALLY FITS.
The pressure element is crucial. I just can’t cope with being bored. I get stressed and torpid. I’ve had calcifying jobs in the past – filling out form letters, following a phone script, dealing with idiot customers – and I would end up dulled into such a stupor I could almost feel my brain dissolving or perhaps being scorched by the flames of my intolerance of pointlessness.
Then there’s my hand fiddlery. I am a compulsive fidgeter. How brilliant then that I have a job where I get to use my hands to stroke a keyboard in chordal fashion approximately 10,000 times an hour.
I truly love words. I like to think I have an extensive vocabulary and a good grasp of grammatical tenets.
And lastly? I love gadgets, and keyboards. I love QWERTY keyboards, piano keyboards, numerical keypads, but none so much as the steno keyboard.
I mean, look at it. It just makes SENSE. It’s like a musical instrument for word nerds with OCD.
How does it work, though? The left bank of keys are for the initial consonants; the vowels along the bottom are, er, the vowels; and the right bank of keys are for ending consonants in a particular phonetic stroke. You’ll note not all the letters of the alphabet are represented. Some require two or three or more keys to be depressed at once (i.e, initial-side “L” sound is created by striking “H” and “R” at the same time; “N” is formed by striking “T”, “P” and “H”; the “oy” sound is created by striking “OEU” together). In this way it’s possible to create any phoneme in the English language. The fundamental rule is to write a single stroke for every consonant you hear.
So, for example, to type “unfortunately” on the QWERTY takes 13 strokes.
In steno, it’s only four – UN/TPORFP/TPH-T/LAE.
1st stroke: UN
2nd stroke: FORCH
3rd stroke: N-T
4th stroke: LEE
(In the case of a word like “unfortunately”, it’s probably only one stroke, since most writers adopt even briefer “shortforms” for common words like that. I write “TPHRAEFP” for “unfortunately”).
rendered in English, says:
“I am eating a plum right now and juicing the joint up.”
That’s 15 strokes on a steno keyboard, or 54 on a QWERTY. So you can see how we can attain such high speeds. This is clearly the most efficient form of written English communication for so many applications, I can’t see why more people don’t learn it.
In the past, a stenographer had to read back their paper notes (the ones that look like a long folded receipt spewing out the back of the machine) at the end of the day for transcription by a typist. Now, we use computer-aided transcription software which instantly matches steno strokes against a lexicon of English words pre-prepared by the user. That’s how we can provide an instant realtime feed to judges and lawyers in the courtroom; and also do live-captioning of TV shows, uni lectures or meetings.
To write realtime steno is ridiculously challenging, even for someone with strong language skills and fleet manual dexterity. Cast your eyes over these everyday sentences and see the problems that can arise with not being able to spell words out (and that’s assuming you can get your brain to translate things into phonemes fast enough, and your fingers fast enough to hit the corresponding keystrokes):
This music will rid dancers of their inhibitions. [This music will riddanceers of their inhibitions.]
Isn’t the park along this road somewhere? [Isn’t the parka long this road somewhere?]
Does that say lines 5 and 6? [Does that salines 5 and 6?]
Put the tube away in the backpack. [Put the tuba way in the backpack.]
We knew mercury was poisonous. [We numeric /RAOE/ was poisonous.]
They have a very low customer approval rating. [They have a very locust /PHER/ approval rating.]
Will they seek retribution? [Will they secret /TREUB/AOUGS/?]
They’ve been mute lately on that subject. [They’ve been mutilate /HRAOE/ on that subject.]
This toy lets children be creative. [This toilets children be creative.]
I represent Asian shipping companies. [I representation shipping companies.]
That will help fulfill our quota. [That will helpful fill our quota.]
Someone whose vision is normal sees better. [Someone whose vision is normalcys better.]
How much stress per vertical pillar? [How much stress pervert /K-L/ pillar?]
That’s your duty per jury instructions. [That’s your duty perjury instructions.]
Is this real tortoise shell? [Is this realtor /TEUS/ shell?]
I knew clear, concise answers were important. [I nuclear, concise answers were important.]
I missed six tee shots. [I missed sixty shots.]
The ball lay just inside the 50-yard line. [The ballet just inside the 50-yard line.]
We knew sensory stimulation might help. [We nuisance /RAOE/ stimulation might help.]
Is this month’s bill lower? [Is this month’s billower?]
How come pairs aren’t kept together? [How compares aren’t kept together?]
We had to get towed. [We had to ghettoed.]
How’d the guy who robbed the bar gain access? [How’d the guy who robbed the bargain access?]
Do they sell bait? [Do they celibate?]
Either pass or deal the cards. [Either pass ordeal the cards.]
I hope for your sake red is still available. [I hope for your sacred is still available.]
A big mist is lying over the valley. [A bigamist is lying over the valley.]
They have every breed of cat listed. [They have every breed of catalysted.]
Boy, can that guy dance! [Boy, can that guidance!]
Add ambivalence to his character flaws. [Adam /PWEUV/HREPBS/ to his character flaws.]
We can add here, here, and here. [We can adhere, here, and here.]
We’ll add unique decorative accents. [We’ll adieu /TPHAOEBG/ decorative accents.]
I am bushed! [I ambushed!]
I am motorcycling with friends. [I ammo tore cycling with friends.]
We’ll add hockey to the sports program. [We’ll ad hoc /AOE/ to the sports program.]
I’ll add recipes to my collection. [I’ll address peas to my collection.]
I am peering out the window. [I ampereing out the window.]
They returned my bag yesterday. [They returned my baggiester day.]
When was the ban issued? [When was the banish /AOU/ ed?]
Is gambling in the bar legal? [Is gambling in the barley gal?]
That’s the base estimate. [That’s the basest mat.]
The bee continued stinging her. [The beacon tin eweed stinging her.]
Was Ben officially sworn in? [Was Beneficially sworn in?]
Has the flow of blood diminished? [Has the flow of bloody min /EURB/ ed?]
That bore dominated the conversation. [That boredom /TPHAEUT/ ed the conversation.]
It’s a little bay concealed behind a cliff. [It’s a little bacon sealed behind a cliff.]
See? It’s virtually impossible to construct a sentence that doesn’t involve phonetic word boundary conflicts, and that’s just looking at it from a language point of view, without delving into steno theory at all.
Putting aside the mechanics of the keyboard that I’ve outlined above, the process of stenoing, at its most basic, goes thusly: you need to take in and deconstruct a sentence into phonetics, identify suffixes, prefixes, and medial syllables, remembering to differentiate for homonyms or conflicts, identifying also compound words and inflected endings; then structure it so it’s grammatically correct, and get your fingers to stroke it (1) accurately (2) at high speed and (3) almost without thinking about it, so you have room in your brain to begin the whole process again for the next thing you’ve heard and are trying to retain while completing the previous bit you’ve heard before it disappears from your memory. If people are talking at 250 words a minute, you’ll actually be writing at about 270 words per minute because of all the punctuation and formatting strokes you need to execute.
It’s annoying when I’m watching captioning at home with someone who doesn’t understand the process and they say something like, “Oh, but it’s too slow. Oh, there’s a mistake.” I find myself continually explaining how it takes time for the writer to execute all the above steps, and then for the information to get from the steno machine to the computer to the TV signal. That we need to lag behind the slightest bit to get some idea of context and where sentences begin and end too. That if they were to watch a writer writing live, they would see our hands are flying (people can actually see this in court so they don’t question it. But not the stenos you see in court scenes in movies. Movie stenos appear to be writing at about 35 words per minute, and their machines are set up too high. They’d all have carpal tunnel syndrome within two weeks).
It’s hard to flick back and forth between phonetics and spelling, but sometimes it’s unavoidable. It can take a tenth of a second to remember which stroke we’ve chosen to use to differentiate “pour” from “poor” or “pore” (or “im-POR-tant” or “POR-cupine” or “dias-PORE”), and that looks like a big lag in realtime. This consolidation of theory principles is ongoing, since English is fluid and there is no standard or repeated structure for its use. The other main work we do outside of on-the-job work is dictionary maintenance. I honestly walk around all day thinking in my head, “Flotsam! Chutzpah! Pernickety! Canoodle! Schwarzenneger! Those words wouldn’t translate in my dictionary!” and then I jot it in one of my ever-present notebooks for later dictionary entry. Updating my personal dictionary so I write “cleaner” is a job that never ends. It’s massive – 184,000 entries – and invaluable to me. I am extremely over-cautious and have it backed up approximately 112 times on external sources stored in classified locations all over the world and also in various of my email accounts.
A side bonus to this dream job is how desperately under-populated the field is (at least in Australia and Asia), meaning I can pick and choose excellent jobs and be remunerated with the sort of salary I never thought I’d earn, with a front-row seat to the best (and worst, and most secret) bits of the law, politics and current affairs. It’s extremely fulfilling; in fact some days I feel it’s too good to be true – after all these years!
I’m posting this because I’m going to start doing lots more steno posts, so I thought some background information would be helpful. Also, the more I think about it (and the more negativity I hear and read about other people’s occupations), the more I realise that what so many people do for such a large part of their life is “just a job”. I feel incredibly lucky that what I do for a living is so much more than that to me. I identify very strongly with it, and so do other writers I’ve met. I guess it stems from having put in a lot (A LOT) of work to master a really complex skill that hardly anyone understands or can do, and most people look upon as a menial administrative job.
If someone asked me to list the top five important things that make me me, one of them would be “I can steno”. So, yeah. It’s confusing. It hurts my brain and my fingers. I love it.
This is a pretty good – albeit somewhat dripping with cheese, and Americano – video showing what I do.
(I work in an environment where confidentiality is paramount, so most likely my future posts on this topic will be password-protected. Please contact me if you’d like the password.)