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Shorthand Makes a Comeback

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During my second semester of community college I took a class in shorthand and typing as an elective. Of all the courses I took throughout high school and college, this is probably the only one that’s earned its keep.

I hadn’t intended to become a secretary – I had no future plans, something, I’ve since learned, that can be hazardous to your health. My fate took a sharp turn when the teacher handed out our first sheet of Gregg shorthand symbols and their meanings: it was love at first sight. I was entirely intrigued by these squiggly lines and curves, and the more I learned, the deeper in love I fell. Eventually I could take dictation at a whopping 130 wpm. When I transcribed the symbols into English prose, I felt a thrill of accomplishment, as if I’d cracked some arcane code. In fact, that is precisely what shorthand is – an arcane code – and translating it requires the same skill set used by any cryptologist. Of course, shorthand was never as respected as cryptology – but what do you expect? It was “women’s work.”

Barely 18, I left academia, propelled by my passion for shorthand, and hit the Manhattan pavement. Within a few hours I landed a job in the Advertising Department of U.S.News & World Report for $77.00 a week. I still remember the names of the two men I worked for, and their initials, which I typed at the tail end of every letter, like so: CFR/ms and PEH/ms. The first thing each of them taught me was how to prepare their respective morning coffees.

And that’s pretty much the way it went: I brought them coffee, answered their phones, and typed sheets of tedious ad statistics. Except for the sex, of which there was none, the secretarial life was the way it’s portrayed on Mad Men — so accurately, I can’t bear to watch the show. Perhaps three times a week one of my guys would call me in and “dictate” a bunch of correspondence (we secretaries privately riffed on the phrase taking dictation.) But they thought and spoke so slowly I never got to fly at my previous breakneck speed, and soon dropped to 90 wpm.

I proceeded from USN&WR to the typical zig-zag employment life of a writer-mother, diving in and out of the steno pool dozens of times. I witnessed the sad decline of shorthand, replaced first by the tape recorder and later by technology, concurrent with our women’s revolution. Both all but wiped out the need for secretaries: now everyone can type.  I’m glad we’ve dispensed with the horrific power dynamic of boss/secretary – but much has been lost along the way. Back in the day, for instance, a woman with secretarial skills could move to any city in America (or any country, if she spoke the language) and within two days have a respectable, self-supporting job. Now she has to know seventeen different kinds of software.

When I graduated from secretary to journalist, I revived my shorthand skills – I’m one of the few reporters who doesn’t use a tape recorder during interviews. When I worked at On Our Backs as Susie Bright’s assistant, she asked about the scribbles in my notebook, so I gave a demonstration to impress her. Apparently it did: she never forgot I take shorthand, and last week sent me an email with the URL to a story about a woman in Colorado who transcribes shorthand for a sizeable clientele.

So now, in addition to typing, writing, editing, and proofreading – anything word-related – I am offering transcription services (see my complete list of services on BookBuster, my biz blog).  I’m still waiting for the rush of clients, so spread the word.

Shorthand Lives! Vive Le Shorthand!

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4 responses »

  1. I failed steno in high school, but my first job after college was as a secretary, and they sent me to speedwriting school. Remember, they always used to advertise on the subway.

  2. Marcy,

    I’m so glad you wrote this shorthand memoir! 😉

    My mom could write blistering-speed shorthand and when I saw you do it, my heart skipped a beat.

    I STILL want to learn. I have this fantasy that there is this Don Draper out there somewhere who I am going to “take dictation” with.

    You take dictation FROM, Susie, not WITH. It’s an important distinction.–MS

  3. I found your blog when I Googled “Mad Men” and “shorthand” after watching the first episode this season. They showed a male reporter interviewing Don Draper, and he was taking shorthand. I think they got it wrong, though, because I don’t think that in the mid-60’s, there were any men who knew shorthand!

    I learned shorthand in high school and, like you, immediately fell in love with it. In fact, I was our county shorthand champion two years in a row (a high school competition in the late ’60’s). I used it on the job for years and years. During boring meetings, I doodled in shorthand. Even after I advanced in my job and the technology changed, I used shorthand for taking my own notes. I still love it!

    Great blog…thanks for bringing back some good memories!

    It’s good to hear from a fellow Gregg aficianado–but I don’t know if I deserve the label anymore: someone hired me to de-code a page of shorthand, and, {gasp} I had to send it back. I couldn’t do it. I could read most of the symbols, but they didn’t form anything cohesive. Remember, each symbol has a multitude of meanings, and many look very similar except for size. But mainly I think transcribing ability comes from having taken the dictation in the first place, so the shorthand jiggles our memory when we read it later. I’m not giving up on this line of work after just one failure, but I don’t feel so sure of myself anymore.

    And by the way, tho you’re probably right about ordinary men not taking shorthand in the 60s, Billy Wilder, the movie director, was famous for his shorthand and typing speed.

    You’re lucky you got to use it a lot. Thanks for your comments.–MS

  4. Never took shorthand altho’ I was fascinated by the skill. But typing and bookkeeping, both of which my mom insisted on, have been more than valuable to me… not in getting jobs, however, just in keeping life remotely manageable!!

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