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Cleaning up messy notes and misstrokes

By Kay Moody

Kay Moody

Many students and educators think that developing speed and skill in machine shorthand is accomplished by working on dictation material 20 to 40 words a minute over their goal speed. (Goal speed is 10 or 20 words a minute over the highest five-minute speed test you’ve passed with 95 percent accuracy or higher. In other words, if you passed a five-minute test at 80 words a minute, your goal speed is 100 to 120 words a minute.) It is true that this is how students increase their speed; but many times when students are limited to taking super-fast dictation, they lose control and develop sloppy notes that cannot be read or correctly translated. There are a couple of ways students can eliminate this problem and clean up their messy notes.

Gaining control and cleaning up messy notes from straight-copy material:

Research has proven that this is the most effective way to develop clean notes. Straight-copy practice, writing from printed material as opposed to writing from live or audio dictation, is also for students who want to prevent losing control. It is recommended that all students spend at least 10 to 15 minutes a day working on straight-copy material. 

Select an article or script that you want to practice. This can be from the newspaper or a magazine, a textbook, a printed transcript, or something positive or inspirational. The daily editorial, the sports page, or gossip columns are good sources in that they contain proper names, numbers, and great material for captioning. Straight-copy practice can also be a good way to study material for an academic class. You can also select lyrics from a song, your favorite poem, or a Bible passage.  Pick something that’s positive and makes you feel good.

In addition to the straight-copy material, have a red pen and a highlighter pen. If you get the material off the internet or your computer, format it so it is double spaced, and print the material in a font that is easily read.

Preview the material. Quickly read through and highlight the preview words with the highlighter pen. As you read through the selection, add additional words that may cause you to hesitate when you write. Look up difficult shorthand outlines you are not sure of in a shorthand dictionary.

Practice selected preview words. Practice the entire list of words five times. Print your shorthand notes, read the preview words from your shorthand notes, and make corrections with the red pen. (Read “The importance of reading back shorthand notes.”) Continue practicing the list until you can write it with perfect steno outlines.

If you are tired or tense, take a few deep breaths during your practice session. Learn to inhale deeply and exhale slowly when practicing from straight copy. Keep your eyes on the printed material. Do not look at your shorthand notes, your fingers, or your steno machine when writing on your shorthand machine. Instead of using your translation software, read back from your shorthand notes from time to time.

Practice the entire selection. If it is long, practice one paragraph or eight to 10 lines at a time. Focus on correctly writing every outline. If you misstroke an outline, use the asterisk (*) key, and write the correct outline.

Again, print your shorthand notes and read back from them. With your red pen, correct each incorrect outline every time you misstroke a word.

Make a list of words that are misstroked. Practice the entire list five or six times until you can write all the steno outlines perfectly. Don’t forget to read back this list. Continue to practice the entire list from the first word to the last one until you can write the list error free.

Practice the section again. Continue to practice and read back the selection until you can write the entire selection with 100 percent accuracy.

NOTE:  When working on straight-copy material, don’t time yourself — focus on accuracy, not speed.

Gaining control and cleaning up messy notes from dictation material:

There is an abundance of dictated material available at your school, on the internet, and other sources. To get perfect notes from audio dictation, take a selection that is at least 20 words a minute below your goal speed. If you can vary the speed, use a selection that you have worked on for speedbuilding; otherwise, select material that is considerable slower than what you use for speedbuilding. Follow the same directions that are listed for straight-copy practice:  Preview words, write the selection, print your shorthand notes, read and correct the notes, and repeat until your steno outlines are perfect.

In conclusion, ideally students should balance their practice schedule with fast material that is 20 to 40 words a minute over their goal speed and straight-copy material or dictation 20 words a minute under their goal speed with the goal of writing 100 percent perfect notes! Think of speed and skill development as being like the pendulum on a clock:  Go back and forth — back for accuracy and forth for speed.

Kay Moody, MCRI, CPE, is an instructor at College of Court Reporting in Valparaiso, Ind. She can be reached at

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