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Take back your power from these tests

TakeBackYourPowerBy Meridith Knepper Carsella

As students, we’re taking tests all of the time, particularly in speedbuilding classes. My teacher will remind us frequently, “I can’t think of any other student who must get an A+ (95 or better — for some it’s even higher!) to even pass their tests.” So the standards are very high. This is great, though, because we must retain those same high standards when we are out and working.

I have a confession to make. I was a former “A” hound. I’m not proud of it, but I once dropped out of college over an unfair “B”. Yes, you actually read that correctly. I realized that failing every single speed test that I take until I’m at speed and can pass one might actually take a lot of out of me. I set about finding a way to make each test important.

1. If you take a test, transcribe it.

I’m a hypocrite here. There are days, particularly the days when my children get out of school early, where I test and run. Some teachers will let you transcribe your test on another day, though.

This is so important to do, however.

  • This will teach you how to read through your garbage. Every honest professional court reporter is going to tell you that they have good days and bad days. You need to be able to read it anyway.
  • This will show you patterns. I keep a list of common misstrokes and turn them into word lists to practice later. When you see common misstrokes and then work on them, they become perfect strokes. (Or dictionary entries.)
  • This is another opportunity to build your dictionary! Obviously, if you’re seeing groups of words coming up, or words you cannot stroke properly to save your life, define them.
  • Keep track of how many words you wrote. Over time, you’ll see the word count trending upwards and this will allow you to see progress, even when you aren’t feeling it. This can be powerful.

2. If allowed, go ahead and check the test. This will let you see what kinds of errors you are making: what grammar you may need to work on, or if you have trouble hearing (processing, really) inflected endings, or you need to work on your vocabulary skills. (Wont and want are not the same word. Patience and patients are also different words. Although a lack of patience can certainly lead to patients.)

3. Do a forensic exam on your test. For each and every test, if you have the time to figure out why you didn’t pass that particular test, you are adding to your likelihood of passing another one sooner. I’m going to have to oversimplify it here: There are many solutions to each of the scenarios I’m going to put forth, but hopefully it’ll point you in the right direction.

Here’s what I do: I ask myself (nicely), “Why did I fail that test?”

I didn’t have enough words to pass it.Okay. That’s understandable. Most of us are in that very same boat! If this is the issue, it’s time for some serious speedbuilding, practicing muscle memory, and warming up with finger drills. You may want to really work on finding ‘the zone,’ the place where your ears hear the word and your fingers type the word and your brain is out having lunch. You will hear people talking about “getting their brains out of the way” a lot in high speeds.

Poor punctuation sunk this ship!

This is good news because it’s such an easy fix. Brush up on punctuation! Perhaps your school offers a class, or you can pick up a used copy of a grammar book. There are wonderful resources online such as and Grammar Girl. There are also online courses. Most public schools or even community colleges offer free or very cheap classes in punctuation.

Keep track of every single punctuation mistake that you don’t understand, look them up as soon as possible, and commit them to memory and/or make a crib sheet for transcribing (if your school allows you to have references while transcribing). Find a source and learn how to punctuate. It’s important! So many people say, “I’ll just hire a scopist.” I’ve got news for you, Charlie. Proofers and scopists don’t work for people who make their job really difficult. If you are just dreadful at punctuation, they will do one or two jobs for you and then be “too busy” when you call them again. I’ve heard this over and over again from graduates and professional court reporters, and I’ve heard it from actual scopists and proofers.

I can’t read my notes at all!

Deep breath. This could just be an accuracy issue. Try to slow down practice to your tar- get speed and slightly below. Pay more attention to what your fingers are doing. Look for patterns such as dragging extra letters, omitting them, using the wrong side for a particular letter (R is my big offender), and so forth.

Learning your own quirks will give you an opportunity to read through your garbage, correct common mistakes through targeted practice, and define things to your dictionary that you know would never be anything else. Suddenly these quirks are no longer a problem. They translate!

OR: You aren’t a good steno reader. Practice makes perfect. Start reading your notes. Print them up and take have some in your car, by the bed, in the bathroom — places where you may find yourself with a few minutes to kill. Bliss!

I’m fast enough usually, but there are some common phrases that just trip me up!

Briefs and phrases, my friend. I couldn’t embrace learning a ton of these in theory or speedbuilding, to be honest. I’m not good at memorization. What I am good at, though, is getting really sick and tired of stroking out “Ladies and gentlemen of the jury” and deciding to learn a better way to write them, one or two at a time. I learn the briefs or phrases for the ones that make me roll my eyes when I hear them. You really will end up with a nice arsenal of them. I did embrace, and still do, brief families. Or are they phrase families? You know the old, all of, all of the, and all of it, or I know, I don’t know, you know, you don’t know, he knows, and she knows, etc.

When you try new briefs and phrases when you’re writing, but they don’t come to you when you’re transcribing, that means you really need to read them when you write them for practice. Just looking at a flash card and memorizing it, then writing it, doesn’t always make it clear when it’s in the middle of a bunch of other steno. If you practice a brief or phrase to learn it, go ahead and read your notes back so you’re seeing it, too, in situ. It helps.

I failed because my teacher hates me, she read it too fast, it was too slow and I had too much time to think, the girl in front of me was jiggling her shoe, a dog barked outside, someone coughed, I could hear someone’s stomach growling …

We call this blame shifting. It’s a sign that you need to take a step back and really evaluate what’s going on for you. It’s always a worrisome sign to me when people are looking outside of themselves for the reasons that they’re not passing tests. We can’t control what’s happening outside of ourselves. Some people will hate you. Some will talk really fast. There will be distractions in the court- room that you can’t even imagine yet. (A field trip for me clued me into the rattling of chains, no kidding! I don’t know how that court reporter could hear the witness!) Those things are outside of our control. If we focus on things that are outside of our control, we don’t have a solution. This can lead to just giving up in despair!

But the good news is that we can control ourselves. We can choose not to care if some- one hates us. We can go faster, if necessary, when someone is talking too fast. (That will just make you a better court reporter anyway!) We can learn to tune out distractions. We can learn to focus on what we are doing. We can know that this is something we will do and just do it. Nothing can get in our way once we make up our mind. (Barring any serious industrial accidents, of course.)

We really have a whole lot more power over our journey than it sometimes feels when we see failed test after failed test after failed test. Instead of seeing the failure, letting our confidence take a hit, becoming depressed or frustrated about it, we can re- member that we have power, real power to turn things around and to make each failure count. They say attitude is everything in court reporting school. I choose the powerful attitude. I choose the positive attitude. I choose to conquer those tests, complete my journey, and enjoy the payoff later when I’m a bona fide court reporter! How about you?


Meridith Knepper Carsella can be reached at