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.

Or, phonetically:
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.)


31 Comments Add yours

  1. mish says:

    i love how some of those steno examples had dirty mistakes. i thought it was just voicing software that did that.

    (also, gimme that password. thanks much.)

    1. jadeluxe says:

      Maybe it’s just me and you πŸ˜‰

  2. Toni says:

    OH THAT WAS SO INTERESTING! I wondered what you did exactly — I knew it had to be complicated but I had no idea it was SO involved.
    Totally agree that you should work in a field you love if at all possible. I have never wanted to be anything but a wife and mum. Hubby is working his dream job. I think we’re better people for it.

    And yes, please, password is desirable.

    1. jadeluxe says:

      I so admire you living the “mum” dream. I think I am a pretty good mum but probably not a natural one…
      Found Fabio’s words the other day fascinating, by the way. Really thought-provoking. It sounds completely life-changing for him.

  3. Rhiannon says:

    That’s so interesting! I love your job, thanks so much for this post. How do you train for it? Do I need the password to find that out?
    I too have found my relatively obscure dream job: Conservator. Not a tree hugging conservationist, as I am often mistaken for… I get to play with old things in the Museum all day – spend days doing nothing but scraping gunk off things, computer work, exhibition installs, public outreach.. bit of everything. We are the most arty of the scientists, and the most sciency of the artists.
    Awwww, you’ve made me want to go back to work!! (I’m on maternity leave now..)
    Thanks πŸ™‚

    1. jadeluxe says:

      Your job is my childhood dream job! I obsessively download documentaries of people conserving old treasures. In fact I just watched one last night about the team conserving the “colonial gift” department at the Vatican. Amazing. I’d love to hear more about what you do. Is it on your blog? Heading over to have a look now…

  4. cinova says:

    Thanks so much for explaining this amazing job. I love your description of the keyboard, “a musical instrument for word nerds with OCD”. And the list of everyday sentences, I have never considered those phonetic word boundary conflicts. I especially liked “I missed six tee shots”, I’m sure your dad would as well! I laughed at the dictionary maintenance, chutzpah! You are one talented chick and deserving of such a lucrative position. And I totally agree re how special it is to realise you have found your dream job. I have found my dream career, but not ‘job’ as yet. I know it will come though, cos like you, I need to follow my passion/bliss and know what I am good at. Not sure that too many people have such self-awareness and determination. Too many settle for whatever, just for the security of an income. Blah to that! I look forward to reading more about the steno world. Password please.

    1. jadeluxe says:

      Cheers for your kind words. I just don’t understand people who complain about their job every day – but never do anything about it! For 20 years! It’s too easy to stay where they are, or learning something new would be too hard, or whatever. Um…your job is where you spend most of your time! What a waste to not love it!

      I’m all about acknowledging when you’ve got it good (in my case, through a combination of luck and determination); and if you haven’t, then get up off yo behind and work that shit out.



  5. Catherine F. says:

    That was so interesting. Thanks for taking the time to create that post and share it with us. I’m all for people trusting their instincts and doing what they love – things generally have a great way of working out when you believe in yourself and love what you are doing.

    Thanks again.

    1. jadeluxe says:

      Hi Catherine. Thanks for your kind comment. Loving what you’re doing has to be the what this life is about, when it comes down to it, right? I feel pretty blessed (most of the time ;).

  6. Jenni says:

    Great blog post! I too loved the description as a word piano. I’ve always described it as that to other people.

    I’m a student right now, but want to do court reporting after I get out of school and then perhaps transition into captioning or CART someday. Can’t wait for the next steno installment!

    1. jadeluxe says:

      Thanks, Jenni. I better write one then πŸ˜‰

      Your site is great, by the way…heaps of good stuff!

  7. Mdm_Rptr says:

    I found you via Twitter and am glad I did. I’m a fellow stenographer/court reporter from the United States – Los Angeles, California, actually.

    You’ve done a wonderful job here explaining what we do. Thank you for sharing it with the world and adding that personal touch of how you came to this wonderful profession of ours personally.


    1. jadeluxe says:

      Hi Mdm. Thanks for your lovely comment. Do you have a blog somewhere? I love reading other stenos’ thoughts.

  8. This is such a great post and interesting read. People who complain about subtitling mistakes really need to read this to understand the level of skill involved. I’d be very much interested in reading more posts on steno captioning – please provide p/word if needed – thanks πŸ™‚

    1. jadeluxe says:

      Everyone complains about captioning errors! I just want to invite caption viewers in to work for one hour to see the huge amount of prep and dedication involved.

      There’s a lot of drama among captioners at the moment about whether falling standards in steno competence or technical shortcomings at TV networks are to blame for bad captioning…it’s interesting out there on the steno bulletin boards, that’s for sure!

      Thanks for stopping by.

  9. Veronica says:

    This is so interesting, thanks for talking about it. I guess I’d never thought about steno before.

    1. jadeluxe says:

      My pleasure. You’d be a great steno… πŸ˜‰

  10. Wow, this is really interesting! I’d never thought about it before, and it sounds so complicated! So great that you love what you do πŸ™‚

    1. jadeluxe says:

      Thanks, Megan. I feel very lucky to love what I do. I also feel pretty pumped to have come across your blog. Maybe there’ll be something on there that will enable me to stop reading Gruffalo for the 6,835th time tonight πŸ˜‰

  11. Ash says:

    Wow! I was gripped by your post – especially as a phonics fan πŸ™‚ It was just fascintating to read. Please oh please can I have the password?

    1. jadeluxe says:

      Phonics, yessssssssssss! πŸ˜‰
      I will email the password later – would you believe I’ve forgotten it and have to remember where I wrote it down…!
      Thanks for dropping by.

  12. Holy crap that makes my brain hurt! What ever you get paid to use that thing is not enough I say!

    1. jadeluxe says:

      On the contrary, I feel I’m ripping someone off by earning mad scrilla doing something I’d do anyway for half the pay πŸ˜‰

  13. bigwords says:

    I was a court reporter ages ago and I always wondered how you could type that fast! Really interesting x

    1. jadeluxe says:

      A lot of lawyers still come up in the lunch adjournment and are really surprised to see we’re not typing on a QWERTY keyboard. Imagine!
      As a fellow lover of big words, I am stoked – there has to be a better word than that πŸ˜‰ – to find your blog. Cheers.

  14. Kelly B says:

    Apart from feeling a little out of my depth, it is ABSOLUTELY facinating! Do you feel like a secret agent?

    1. jadeluxe says:

      Yes, I do sometimes feel like a secret agent! Sometimes I write my status updates on Facebook in steno. I’m pretty sure I’m the only one who doesn’t think that is lame πŸ˜‰

  15. delovleo says:

    I’ve found my way to your blog months after you posted this particular write-up, and after having read a number of your other very engaging posts as well, must say I’m very admiring of your chutzpah and am appreciative of the wider view into your life and thoughts. (Just looked chutzpah up to be sure it’s apropos to describe my impression from your writing.)
    I too am a court reporter ~ just wish I’d started younger. Don’t you think part of the mental processing you’ve described so aptly is comparable to what an interpreter does? and that being bi/trilingual, having studied piano and read assiduously, plus a heavy dose of stubborn persistence, make for a good background for this field?
    So, by the way, is the dialect (steno theory) you write Phoenix? which I’m unfamiliar with but that’s my guess since you’ve attributed the word boundary illustrations to them.

  16. jadeluxe says:

    Hi delovleo.
    Thanks for your very verbose comment – appreciate it πŸ™‚
    I think the mental processing is somewhat similar to what an interpreter does. I would have said it was basically an identical process until I moved to Hong Kong and started learning Cantonese. Now I have an understanding that verbatim interpreters have an extra step where they also translate sentences grammatically and for cultural context. I’d say half the cases I work on use interpreters, and I’ve very much enjoyed working with them over the past two years. The sentence and grammar structure of Cantonese is so very different to English, they have to rearrange everything before interpreting it; and very often ideas/concepts that we take certain combinations of words in English to denote don’t translate culturally here, so they have to consult their own broader knowledge and lexicon.
    I really admire them and one of my intentions with learning Cantonese is so interpreting can be my back-up career should I get carpal tunnel syndrome or some other debilitating wrist/hand problem.
    Absolutely agree a history in piano playing is a good indicator of future steno success, and reading widely is really important – for all things we do, but especially captioning.
    Yes, I write Phoenix and love it πŸ™‚ But I’m sure most people say that about the theory they write. Yourself?

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