Part-time Brighton Journalist Works student, Gemma, has broken a BJW record and passed her 100 words per minute shorthand exam within six months. Gemma shares her top tips on learning the essential journalism tool… With a little help from Eminem:
My palms are sweaty, knees weak, arms are heavy. My arm muscles are burning and on the surface I look neither calm nor ready.
I am not about to go into a rap battle but I am about to take my 100 words per minute shorthand exam after many hours of preparation. I don’t feel prepared at all but, luckily, I manage to go with the flow of the passage and I find out a few weeks later that I’ve broken a course record, becoming the fastest part-time student at Brighton Journalist Works to pass their 100wpm exam. I can now spend my Saturday afternoons in a beer garden or writing a blog about passing my shorthand exam (or both) and not in a classroom – this is good news!
Shorthand is probably one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to learn, especially while working full time, and if anyone knows anything about overcoming hardship, it’s Eminem. Since his old stuff has been sneaking into my nostalgia playlist, and because I like listening to him talk really fast (unlike my shorthand tapes), I knew that a blog about shorthand success could only benefit from his input.
I hope that, while you’ll find at some points that the lyrical metaphors are tenuous at best, this blog will help you on your journey to 100 words per minute.
Here are my tips:
1. My tea’s gone cold
I’m wondering why I started shorthand at all.
When you’re learning the theory around shorthand it starts out overwhelming and even as it starts to make sense you feel like you have to spend hours a day learning each and every odd little rule.
Stop right there. Long stints of shorthand practice do nothing but hurt your hand – make sure you break it up into small, manageable chunks throughout the day. As a general rule, if your tea’s gone cold since you started your shorthand practice you should probably take a break.
2. Lose yourself in the music
Once the theory was done and dusted, one of my favourite ways to practice shorthand was to just listen to music and sign out the lyrics with my finger. I got into the habit of (subtly) signing out the lyrics to Christmas songs on my way to work throughout December and then carried it on with my other favourite tunes as my exam approached. This meant I could practice shorthand anywhere, without a pen and paper, and I learned to get creative when words came up that I didn’t have outlines for.
I didn’t totally stick with music either – I’d “sign” what newsreaders and things my friends and family said as they said them. It slowly just became natural and I found that my speed started to massively improve.
3. The words won’t come out
Taking exams was weird to get used to – it feels like so long ago that I had to do one! And, while I totally get that some deal with the stress better than others, I don’t know anyone who feels totally confident and chilled before an exam.
One of the unique things about listening exams is that you only get one shot – there’s no chance to rewind or pause. You’ve got to be in the zone in that moment, and that can be super hard when you’re worrying about what will happen if you fail the exam and what you’ve got to do at work later.
For me, something that really helped was the Headspace app. It helped me learn to focus on what’s going on immediately around me and not all the things buzzing around my head. Replicating some breathing exercises from the app as I sat down to take the exam helped me to get into that mode of paying attention only to what’s happening in that moment. It might not work for everyone, but that’s what worked for me.
4. Life is no Nintendo game
Everyone on the course has commitments and responsibilities unrelated to journalism and that can present a lot of challenges when it comes to finding the time to practice shorthand.
Like I said above, finding little time pockets to try out outlines even without a pen and paper, like your walk to work, can help you get the practice you need. There are plenty of other opportunities too – I take notes in meetings and conferences and write my to-do lists in shorthand which helped me learn to get faster (because these notes actually mattered). It also starts a lot of conversations with colleagues who are wondering what unrecognisable language I’m scrawling in.
5. Lookin’ puzzled, in a daze
One thing that I first thought as I was going through lessons is that I had to learn every outline and special outline and shortening for every word and phrase. That’s not true (although they are all helpful).
Instead, I soon found that if I was faced with a situation where I didn’t know the outline I could just make it up in the best way possible and that it would usually make sense to me when I came back to transcribe everything.
You’re never going to remember everything – if there’s an easier way to use an outline that’ll get you through the exam without freezing to think, just use it.
As Eminem says, “If people take anything from my music, it should be motivation to know that anything is possible as long as you keep working at it and don’t back down.”
So stick in your headphones and keep soldiering on – never give up and don’t let anyone say you ain’t beautiful.