BY BENJAMIN LAW
Plenty of people would describe what I do as journalism, but I’m going to come clean: I ain’t no journalist. This isn’t coming from some deep, dark reservoir of low self-esteem; it’s just I have never completed a journalism degree, never worked in a newsroom and am usually out to sea when one of my editors queries me on legal aspects of my story. ‘Asking me probably isn’t the best idea,’ I’ll tell them, slowly going grey. ‘And, uh, you guys have lawyers, right?’ Some of the stories I write for magazines—like Good Weekend and The Monthly—are definitely a kind of journalism (I come up with an idea, get on the road, interview people, do background research and spin it into a story) but I feel like a fraud when people describe me as a journalist, which happens often enough. At university, I studied creative writing. (I know: I’m instinctively wary of any professional qualification with the word ‘creative’ in the title too.) When I started the degree in 2000, the course was almost brand new. My cohort of fewer than 30 students was the third batch to enrol. Being a three year course, this meant not a single person had graduated from the degree yet. We were all a grand experiment, with no idea of what career prospects lay ahead of us, if any. For a long time, we referred to our major as Creative Shiting—a joke I reckon has aged pretty well—and while our course coordinators spun out plenty of original content, we also piggy-backed heavily onto media studies and journalism subjects. As part of our course, we were required to complete three mandatory journalism units: news writing; sub-editing and layout; and feature writing. As a writer with aspirations to work for Rolling Stone, I totally dug the classes. (My fiction-writing buddies loathed them.)
I learned plenty in those journalism units: the inverted pyramid structure; how to properly spell ‘villain’; the difference between a lede and an intro; the importance of reading the daily news; how to use programs like Quark and InDesign; how to pitch a feature; the importance of leading and kerning on the page; and how to deal with fuckwit former newspaper section editors who’d found themselves tutoring newswriting to teenagers at university, and therefore had a major chip on their shoulder. However, we also missed out on a lot of key skills that were considered prerequisites for journalists a generation or two ago. And one of them was shorthand.
Shorthand might conjure up a certain 1950s image of secretaries taking boss’s notes and trenchcoat-wearing court reporters hurriedly scrawling down quotes from police officers. However, the use of shorthand goes far further back. Most old civilisations—Ancient Greece, the Roman Empire, Imperial China—all had their own abbreviated forms of rapid writing. In the mid-300s, the Greeks used a shorthand, found on marble slabs in the Parthenon, that revolved around a system of vowels with key embellishments for consonants. Letters were simplified to one-stroke marks and could double as frequently-used words. In Ancient Egypt, shorthand was an informal practical script, distinguished from sophisticated Hieroglyphics.
In twentieth century offices and newsrooms, shorthand was essential. 100wpm shorthand was often a mandatory requirement for scoring a cadetship or job. Now, however, with the proliferation of cheap dictaphones and voice recording apps, most would argue there’s barely a need for shorthand at all. To someone like me, who began writing for magazines in the early 2000s, shorthand seemed unnecessary and outdated. It felt like an impressive party tricky that could boost your cred, like speaking French or having a background in animal biology. Very cool, potentially helpful, but by no means a prerequisite. What I focused on instead was the craft of interviewing: what questions to ask; which questions to leave out; how to disarm someone into volunteering more information; how to keep an interviewee talking. For me, that was far more important than how to document what they were saying. I read textbooks, asked mentors for advice and studied interviewers like Andrew Denton, Terry Gross, Louis Theroux, Richard Fidler and Ira Glass. The technical process of interviewing—how to take notes and how to record—was always an afterthought to me.
As a result, how I record my interviews is an ad-hoc system that’s developed out of trial and error. (There have been a lot of errors.) Nowadays, on assignment, I record all important conversations onto a dictaphone, while simultaneously taking notes and observations in a Moleskine reporter’s notebook. If I’m really attentive, I’ll note time-marks where the interviewee’s said something important or hilarious, that I know needs to appear in the story later, word-for-word. From there, I transcribe the recordings with ExpressScribe, paraphrasing most of what’s been said, but transcribing verbatim the good stuff. I’ll skip the fluff and pleasantries. Actively listening and typing is a taxing process, and 60 minutes of recording time can mean anywhere up to three hours of hunched-over keyboard bashing.
Sometimes, if I’m on a heinous deadline, I’ll take a shortcut and outsource the transcribing process completely by paying someone to do it. It always feels like cheating, but sometimes there’s no way around it. It’s also not ideal for the writing process: re-listening to an interview reminds you of things that only occurred to you during the interview, or the nuances of speech that can add to a story. Sometimes though, there just isn’t enough time. Last year, when I shattered my right arm in an accident and required surgery, I forked out to pay a professional typist in Israel to bash out all my interviews for nearly two months. This reliance on recordings hasn’t just been time consuming but has also made me susceptible for fucking up the job entirely, especially when I started out. In the pre-digital days of using micro-cassettes, I can’t tell you the number of times my recordings were completely mangled by unseen magnetic fields, extreme temperatures or corroded phone lines. Afterwards, I’d spend hours, listening to our voices trapped in a sea of white noise, trying to remember and discern what-the-hell we were saying. It was like trying to listen for voices in the afterlife, while conducting a seance with headphones.
'Shorthand lets people believe you are more honest'
Recently, I started asking my friends—journalists, feature writers, non-fiction authors—whether they ever learned shorthand and, if not, how they went about their interviews. Of the 16 colleagues and friends I spoke to, only six had been taught shorthand, and only one—Erik Jensen, writer for The Monthly and former Sydney Morning Herald journalist —still used it regularly. In fact, Jensen used it exclusively, never or rarely using a voice recorder. As someone in his mid-20s, Jensen is a wonderful anomaly and his system is enviable.
‘All conversations are recorded in shorthand,’ he says. ‘The novelty of this often endears me to sources and certainly does not create the barrier to trust a dictaphone can build. Dictaphones are the domain of entrapment and the law. Shorthand lets people believe you are more honest - that you are negotiating an interview together, taking down what they want to tell you instead of waiting to catch them out. Of course, this is not the case, but in my experience it is the perception. Personal observations are made in longhand immediately after conversations - usually in the car with a photographer or playing over descriptions myself in a taxi. I am lucky in that I have a strong visual memory and that I often have the structure of a story and key descriptions sketched at this point. I will also jot down frivolous lines of description on the off chance I use them later.’
Without shorthand, every other writer I spoke to had adopted an ad-hoc approach to their interviews: a combination of dictaphones and scrambled longhand. Of the writers who’d never learned shorthand, almost all wished they had. Mostly, the reasons were practical. Novelist and writer Emily Maguire said that she thought about learning shorthand ‘every time I need to transcribe hours of interview recordings.’ Journalist, editor and author Anne Summers said, ‘I had the chance to learn Pitman’s and decided not to. Bad call. It would have been so useful. I really envy people who have shorthand.’ For others, the regret came from a different place. Freelance magazine journalist Andrew McMillen said, ‘I feel kinda guilty, like I’m a fake journalist, for not even trying to use it.’
Writer and journalist Anna Krien, however, was the only non-shorthand devotee to happily shrug. She had no regrets and was pragmatic about the entire thing. ‘They tried to teach me shorthand at The Age,’ she says, ‘but I was a dismal failure. In the tests I’d just draw scribbles in panic and hope they wouldn’t check it too thoroughly. I can’t learn any other language than English. It’s best if everyone switches to suit me rather than the other way round.’ Her system relied on a combination of speedy longhand and a good memory. ‘Basically I take notes and keep an ear out for golden quotes - those I’ll write in full. And when the interview is over, I’ll say my goodbyes and then when the interviewee is out of sight, I’ll write a million more notes and observations.’
On the other hand, writer and essayist Michaela McGuire says there have been plenty of occasions where she’s seen the value in shorthand: ‘Every day in court,’ she says. ‘Watching the seasoned journalists from The Age was incredible; they were able to get enough material for a news story before morning break, quite often, only relying on shorthand notes. Their quotes would always match up with mine exactly, but they were doing far less legwork to make a note of them. I also hate having my notes on display. Press galleries are packed pretty tight if the trial is interesting, and at least if you’re taking notes in shorthand you can pretend to yourself that nobody else knows what you’re writing.’
Hearing Michaela say that made me think of my own work. Later in the month, I was scheduled to be covering a court trial for a bigger story, and Australian courts enforce an outright ban of any recording equipment. It means reporters must be able to write at breakneck pace with watertight accuracy. Considering my longhand is atrocious (I still write in ALL CAPS), I figured something had to change.
Prior to research shorthand, I had no idea there were so many different varieties. Most schools, however, only offer either Pitman or Teeline. Not really knowing the difference, I naturally turned to Twitter, asking:
Journalists/writerly nerds: When it comes to shorthand, which system would you recommend and why? Pitman’s New Era, Pitman 2000 or Teeline?
The managing editor of The Conversation@mishaketch responded:
@mishaketch: I reckon there are very few journos who can answer that b/c few have learnt both. I did Teeline. It was OK.
Most people barracked for teeline. Amongst the other supporters were The Australian’s Arts Editor@ashleighbwilson, freelance arts writer @elissablake, ABC political reporter @naomiwoodley and The Australian journalist @SquigglyRick.
@ashleighbwilson: teeline. Fast and efficient.
@elissablake: Teeline....quicker, easier to learn.
@naomiwoodley: Teeline. It’s a contraction of your natural handwriting (mine is anyway) so I think it’s much quicker to learn. Good luck!
@SquigglyRick: Teeline, without a doubt. Pittman’s is an affront to God. Teeline makes sense (after a while) and faaaaast.
However, one Pitman enthusiast and purist—the young Melbourne-based writer and journalist @BroedeCarmody—threatened to throw cats at me if I opted for Teeline over Pittman. He was one of the few people who’d tried both methods, and when it came down to it, he insisted:
@BroedeCarmody: When I learnt Pitman after a little bit of a Teeline, it was like a mindgasm. MINDGASM.
It sounded appealing. Carmody explained a little further that Pitman was a phonics-based system, rather than how Teeline worked, which was a contraction of letters. But considering the overwhelming enthusiasm for Teeline—the main form of shorthand still taught to cadets—I decided to choose that instead. I would risk Carmody throwing cats at me, even though I’m allergic.
However, Teeline courses are heinously expensive. It’s not like classes teaching German or Mandarin. The demand isn’t big enough, so the prices are high, and the choices of class are few. Class times were at odd hours and inflexible with delivery, so I started looked for iPad apps and online learning courses, until I settled on the one that looked most professional, called TeelineOnline.com. I forked out the subscription fee, and for the next fortnight, I spent my spare hours getting the basics under control, via the introductory video lessons. In the lesson, the teacher scrawled with his pen over the screen with the following sentences, asking me whether I could discern what he was saying.
Tln is vry esy to lrn We shl go to Lndn nxt wk Pls do sm shpng fr hm Cn u rd ths?
I found the last message—Cn u rd ths?—rather poignant. ‘So hopefully you see that,’ he said, reassuringly. ‘What we get rid of first of all are nonessential vowels.’ Already, it seemed like a cinch.
Essentially, learning shorthand is learning the alphabet all over again. Every letter has its own corresponding rapid-stroke equivalent. In some cases, the letters resemble their longhand cousins (A is an upside-down V; B is 6), but others are mysterious and code-like. H is a single vertical stroke; T is a horizontal one at the top of the line; S is a tiny circle. The sound sh has its own shorthand letter: s. Lined paper is imperative, because where the strokes rest determines what letter it is.
Like learning the alphabet, part of the process is magical, like watching Sesame Street all over again and feeling your brain synapses making new and undiscovered links. On the other hand, it also makes you feel infantalised, idiotic and illiterate, like learning any new language. The video ran through the entire alphabet, over and over again, which I found terribly tedious, like Abraham Simpson in that episode of The Simpsons where he recites the alphabet broadcast from beginning to end. So I fast-forwarded this part and practised like a demon, racing through the alphabet. After a blind test, I did pretty well. The only letters I didn’t get were H, I, L, N, P, Q, S, T and U. 17/26 ain’t bad. 65 per cent is still a pass. After another fast run, I missed out only on I, L and V. Then I sung the alphabet song to myself at proper speed to see if I could keep up. For a while, it worked.
In the end though, I found it impossible to keep up for the long run. Soon, practising shorthand felt like an indulgent hobby, and in several weeks, I was nowhere near fast enough to use it for work. Work took over and I fell back into the rhythms of my old system: Moleskine, pen, dictaphone, before transcribing like hell on the MacBook. The sad truth is that shorthand takes time to learn. When you’re a full-time freelance writer, time is one resource you really can’t afford to give up. Learn it when you’re young, or don’t learn it at all, I figure. As my friend, the writer and author Liam Pieper—who did learn Teeline at one stage—says, ‘It took me forever to learn that you get the best results just talking to people, and letting the tape pick up the slack.’ Funnily enough, I’ve been doing that all along. For me, and anyone else with a poor memory and lack of time, it works just fine.