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Shorthand and transcription for fun and profit

HOW TO get those spoken words into a text file? What transcription hacks do we know? And, for younger readers - what is shorthand, then? And why do we hope that machine transcription of shorthand never works? These were some of the questions before the September meeting of London Freelance Branch.

Lizzy Millar and Angus Batey

Speakers Lizzy Millar and Angus Batey

As vice-Chair Matt Salusbury noted in introduction, in the post-Snowden era of mass digital surveillance, one of the advantages of shorthand is that you can't be hacked. Indeed, for some of us shorthand is one of the more effective ways of "encrypting" our notes...

Lizzy Millar is a freelance minute-taker, reporter and shorthand tutor for the National Council for the Training of Journalists (NCTJ) and through www.shorthandtutor.co.uk. She opened by pointing to Branch co-secretary Nick Renaud-Komiya - "I taught him shorthand". How did it go?

"In a former life," Nick responded, "I was a staff report at the Health Service Journal. I had done some courses as a part of my training and Lizzy came in to give us some tuition on practical applications. Shorthand has proven incredibly useful. It's a skill that you need to keep alive - not that I manage to practise an hour a week. It never runs out of batteries, for a start.

"One particular example was the time I went for a job interview at a financial newswire service. There was a really scarring test, in which I had to phone up "sources" who were editors pretending to be various people. It was vital to be able to do the calls and have all the notes in one relatively easy-to-read place to write them up."

Shorthand "is great if you're covering meetings or court cases or parliament or its committees. It's also really fun to freak out people who aren't journalists who think you're writing a different language."

Lizzy observed that there are three types of people on her courses: students doing NCTJ courses; people who are fed up with transcribing Dictaphone recordings, which is quite laborious and time-consuming; and people like those Matt mentioned who might want to pass through airports and security checks. It's easier to have things on paper rather than in electronic form, which can be intercepted.

Any kind of handwriting is better

And even if you don't have shorthand it's better to write than to type. There are academic studies that demonstrate that when you write by hand you absorb more of the meaning, rather than merely copying words.

Yet another advantage is that you can edit on the page - go through your shorthand with a highlighter. If you're transcribing you have to get everything down and then edit.

No permission is needed to take a shorthand note when you speak to someone on the phone. As Nick suggested, you don't need to carry kit or replacement batteries.

And have you ever met anyone who's regretted learning a new language or an instrument?

So what's hard about shorthand?

You have to re-learn how to write the alphabet. Adults can be resistant to that - whereas children take to it. It's quite time-consuming to start with. If you're left-handed or dyslexic that can present a barrier to start with, as can having scruffy handwriting or preferring typing.

Yet another advantage is you can avoid listening to that droning committee member's voice again if you have their words already written down.

Lizzy understands that there is a place for transcription - especially for legal texts or legally-sensitive texts. But if you're on the move shorthand is much more efficient. It'll take you some time to learn, but in the long run it'll be much quicker.

Tips for backsliders

A member reported that they'd learned the Teeline variant of shorthand at City University and have been using it since. But using digital technology means their handwriting's gone bad - and now their Teeline has also gone bad, which if you're under stress can be really critical. So: does Lizzy have tips for backsliders?

The answer is to practise! Take down a quote in longhand and then write it in shorthand - keep a wide margin so you can annotate it. Right there you have a practise drill.

You can get a Teeline dictionary; and see the Teeline Resources at teeline.weebly.com - practise on the TV news, or plays lyrics to take down, or if you like cricket write down the commentary,

Make sure to use a sharp pencil on good-quality paper.

A member agreed that the most important thing it to use a good notebook. You can use a mix of long- and short-hand. It's important to transcribe it within 24 hours - or it'll be much harder.

He had overheard something very interesting on a train "but when I got back to the office I couldn't read my notes. So: would Lizzy recommend a recording as a backup?

She would - especially if you're reporting a long meeting. Have the audio for a final clean-up sweep through your record.

Another member asked whether anyone had suggestions for speakers of other languages.

Committee member Federika Tedeschi responded that she hasn't practised her shorthand: "I've not done the jobs that require it." But when she was learning "it was all about listening and switching". As with getting more fluent in the language itself, not switching back and forth helps: "when I came to England and learned shorthand I closed the door to anything Italian for a while. It helped."

But is shorthand still relevant in this day and age, a member asked: "I've been doing it for three decades - I was always told that when doing interviews it's good to have something on tape, in case you're challenged."

Technology can let you down

But, Lizzy responded, technology can let you down. She recalls a time when someone tapping nervously on the table wrecked an audio recording. Again, a technological recording can be intercepted and it can be hacked.

What does training cost and what's it like, a member wanted to know.

Nick responded that it's two hours per day, four days a week, plus homework. In theory he should be doing 100 words per minute - but he's still at 60 to 70. The editors are looking into the costs.

A member questioned whether an audio recording was more reliable than shorthand or handwritten notes as evidence in a legal dispute.

Lizzy recalled that the police had seized shorthand notebooks to be used as evidence during the phone hacking trials. She said that the courts treated both audio recordings and shorthand notes as admissible evidence.

Finally, Committee member Larry Herman observed that photographers can use shorthand too, to record quotes to go with images or just jot down captions.

Transcription with less pain

Angus Batey introduced himself: "I'm not a trained journalist: I've never learned shorthand and I've been doing this for 30 years." He is a music journalist who has now moved to cover the very different patch of defence.

So, he observes, "I'm not just looking for data but for colour and personality and there's no alternative to recording."

Sometimes he's tried transcribe just parts of a recording - "and I'd be going back wondering whether there was something better just there..." He long ago decided he needed complete transcripts.

Transcribing yourself has advantages. You remember exactly what you have. It can become part of your working and editing process, helping with shaping the piece as accurately as possible and conveying colour and personality.

Still, transcription is the bane of your life. In his work, a 20-minute interview is short and two hours is not uncommon.

On the NBT email list for music journalists the subject of the pain of transcription comes up every few months.

"I've tried paying colleagues to transcribe." Angus reports; but "mistakes come up. If the interview refers to an album that the transcriber hasn't heard of, it comes through as phonetic word salad."

Recently, he's been working on a magazine that comes out daily during major air shows. He was very glad to have a recording of an interview when a defence ministry got angry about a quote: "we were able to say 'we have the tape', and they withdrew the threat. It's not every day I get threat from a defence ministry."

Getting the client to pay

When he was reporting a conference, which he'd have to write about for the next day, an editor suggested that Angus try an online transcription service called rev.com to save time. The editor would pay for the service: "it would free me up to be more productive while I'm on his dime - and save him quite a bit of cash overall."

That cost is US$1 a minute - and within 24 hours you get a Word document. You can get it back faster for twice the fee. The human transcribers are good, even getting technical acronyms and arcane business terms. Occasionally they do make mistakes, but more often if they know they're not sure about something they put a note in square brackets with a timecode reference to the recording.

For the next airshow Angus had to do a lot of work in advance - 30 interviews in a month. So he said to his editor: "You have confidence that I'm not being lazy: how about we split the cost of the transcription service so I can free up time?" He was able to do at least twice as much work, and says "I am not a lawyer but I'd say that's a cast-iron example of a tax-deductible expense, too. "

There are much cheaper services that use machine-learning to do transcription untouched by human hand. That from rev.com costs US$0.10 a minute. Its accuracy is "not that great" but the work is turned round in 10 to 15 minutes. It can be useful "if you're doing quick news reports such as, in my case, Boeing's update on its woes with the 737 Max plane."

Then there's Transcriva software for Mac computers that lets you stop and start audio playback without taking your hands off your keyboard. It "doubles long-form transcription speed".

Angus says he "would love to learn shorthand - but I don't have two hours a day, four days a week for 16 weeks" to spare.

When to avoid transcription services

Angus "wouldn't use any of these services for anything that was remotely sensitive - and I'd think twice abut using it for an exclusive story." The rev.com transcribers are anonymous and they have to sign Non-Disclosure Agreements with a US company.

But you're still transferring data about someone to an unknown third party in another part of the world. [And that's true even for machine transcription - ed] There's a data protection issue: "I wouldn't dare risk using it without their explicit consent," Angus notes; "I make sure that all my devices are backed up and encrypted - including audio files."