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 1   Strokes

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Every shorthand student wants the satisfaction of watching their hand zoom along the line, producing all the correct outlines instantly, and then reading it back without hesitation. Most advice that you will see from your web searches will tell you to practise, practise, practise. This is absolutely correct, as you will get nowhere if you just read and mentally digest the theory chapters. You must get to the point where the required outline jumps to mind without you having to construct it from theory. The question to ask yourself is – what is the purpose of this particular exercise or drill? I think you will get the best results if you break your practising down into different goals and approach each one with a separate method. There are three main ways that I would like to suggest to you – facility drills, dictation, and visualisation.

FACILITY DRILLS are used to practise new outlines or phrases in isolation. Facility means easiness and drill means doing the same thing over and over again – repetition in order to make easier. It is helpful to write the sample outlines in a different colour e.g. red ink, so that if you do have to glance back at them, you can instantly locate them. Once you have begun filling in the page, it becomes impossible to do this rapidly if all the ink is the same colour. This is a good excuse to treat yourself to a second shorthand pen, or cheaper options are to use a soft red drawing pencil, suitably sharpened and kept for this purpose only, or run a highlighter pen over the sample line so that it stands out. Facility drills are used for the following.

Familiarise yourself with a new outline or phrase Write each new outline on alternate lines in the margin, and then copy them along all the blank lines. A line or two of each new word is sufficient. Write it slowly and carefully several times, and then go somewhat faster once your hand has become used to writing it. Repeating single outlines is fine for when you first learn a new one, but this rapidly becomes difficult as the mind tends to switch off through lack of interest or variation, with the hand unable to maintain control over the outline. You may also end up writing the shape from memory without associating it with the word it represents and, while this has some use in training the muscles of the hand, it does not help much in learning the outline for future use in dictation. If your hand starts to falter or sprawl, move on to the next outline in the list.

Learn new outlines Make up a line-length sentence containing several of the new outlines surrounded by very simple ones that you already know. Copy the line all the way down the page, speaking the words out loud or mentally. After a few lines, you will be repeating the sentence from memory and can look at your writing and not glancing at the sample line.  This is what a ready-made facility drill book does for you, rather expensively it seems to me, but you can make up your own, tailored to your own needs, at no cost at all other than your normal notepad. You must copy correct shorthand, so using sentences from the instruction book is ideal. Keeping these sentences in a separate file as well gives you instant revision material.

Correct an outline that you are consistently getting wrong This needs to be a more severe drill because you are having to unlearn what has become an incorrect habit. Fill a whole page (or more if necessary) with the correct outline, so that your hand is in no doubt as to what it should be doing. When your hand or mind starts to wander from the task, stop, change activity, and come back to it later. Planting the recalcitrant outline in a short sentence drill will provide the variation needed to keep your mind engaged on the task. This is where you need your sternest frame of mind, because incorrect habits, if not completely eradicated, will resurface like perennial weeds in your beautiful garden.

Improve the flow of your writing Make up simple line-length sentences, preferably with lots of phrases, and write at the top of each page of the pad. When you copy this sentence all the way down the page, concentrate on an even movement of the pen. Aim for a low consistent speed, not high speed, with no change of pace from outline to outline and no stopping between outlines. Glide from the end of one outline to the next, like a swallow dipping over a lake. The outlines should be stroked over the page, not dug or pressed into.

Make your own drill books
Make your own drill pages for single outline/phrases, and sentences. Fill lots of pages with spaced out sentences from your instruction book. With one sentence at the top, you can also do a speed check - count the words in the sentence and see how many times you can write it down the page in one minute. See Links page for Online Stopwatch/Timers.

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DICTATION is your second line of attack, as it puts together everything you have learned in the drills. There are several types, depending on what you are aiming for.

Prepared dictation This method enables you to absorb new outlines and gets you used to writing from dictation, without the hassle of being presented with a stream of completely unknown outlines. You need to have the passage before you in correct shorthand i.e. one of the exercises in your instruction book. Read it through several times until you can read confidently with no hesitation. Write out the sentences one at a time and practise them. Any hard or new outlines should get extra attention. Write out whole passage as neatly as possible and then read from your own shorthand. When you can read the shorthand passage from the book without hesitation, read it out aloud but at the same time recording it on your computer or device. You can now take this dictation as it will be a reasonably easy speed, although writing it is always somewhat harder than just reading. Practise any outlines that you hesitated over. Read and record the passage slightly faster, from the longhand key if necessary.

There is no need to calculate the reading speed, but it is helpful to attempt to write at varying speeds, getting faster and faster on the same passage. You might prefer to read slowly with pauses at the end of each sentence, to give yourself some catching up time. After the passage has been well practised, aim to keep up with the spoken words and finish writing as the speaker finishes. It is very satisfying to get to a pause and not have to write anything because you have got it all down! The only speed descriptions that you need to think about are “comfortable” and “getting uncomfortable”! If you cannot resist counting and timing them, then it is well to remember that speed capability on known matter is likely to be entirely different from that on unprepared matter.

Unprepared dictation – this is what all your shorthand learning is aiming for, taking down speech with no knowledge of what is coming next. During any dictation you are doing at least three things – listening to the word, recalling the outline and writing it – all simultaneously, as you are dealing with the next few words whilst still writing the previous ones. These too should be done at varying speeds so that you do not get either lazy from too many slow ones, or unduly discouraged from too many fast ones. An unprepared dictation will not teach you any shorthand, but it will train your mind to retrieve outlines rapidly and show up whether your concentration on the task needs some strengthening. Obviously you cannot retrieve an outline that you don’t know, but you can write parts of it or some of the consonants. As you read back your notes, mark up the gaps and errors, and work on them, then retake the passage. Recording a batch in advance should give you a chance to forget the content.

Slow or easy dictations enable you to concentrate on neat writing (something that often gets left behind in the headlong rush for high speed). If prepared, you can concentrate on neat flowing writing. If unprepared, you can gauge your skill in recalling outlines without too much pressure. This will also help with gaining the skill of remembering what has been said, whilst writing the current outline.

Fast dictations put all your learning together into a situation that approaches the final use that you will be making of shorthand. What they show up is how your mind is reacting to the situation, whether you panic and freeze up, or whether you can maintain control and press on. It is a battlefield where you see what you are capable of, but it is not going to teach you any actual shorthand. They keep the writer alert and in a swift frame of mind, but they should be greatly outnumbered by the prepared ones, which are filling your mind with the correct shorthand that you will need when the fast dictations are undertaken.

Silent dictations can be done by writing the shorthand over the top of the text in a newspaper, magazine or leaflet. This will help you practise recall of outlines, but to get most benefit you should say the words to yourself, either out loud, whispered, or at least heard mentally. Such an exercise is ideal for when you are in public or do not have your shorthand materials with you – in the park, during lunch hour at the office or college, in a library or waiting room. Draw a ring round any words that need later attention.

 
Squeezing the last bit of use out of leaflets before recycling the paper. Catalogs are especially good as they repeat the same words and phrases on many of the pages. The glossy ones may need biro rather than ink.

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VISUALISING means listening and imagining the outlines being written on imaginary paper. This allows you to practise just one part of the whole process – recall of outlines – without being hampered by all the other parts, such as writing, moving from line to line, turning the page, doubts about being able to read it back, or the duration of the dictation. With a strong will, you can do very well on matter that would be too fast if being written for real, and I think the reason for this is that it avoids the insidious and unhelpful habit of glancing at what you have just written and worrying about the state of the outlines. However, you cannot congratulate yourself if you are just missing out chunks, especially as there will be no real notes in existence to check up on those unnoticed omissions! This exercise can be done anywhere where you can safely give attention to the words being spoken in your hearing – on a bus, in a queue, television, radio, etc. With eyes closed works best, so home is obviously the safest place for this activity.

A useful extension to this method is to have a large piece of paper and, with eyes shut, write the shorthand that you are visualising. Write along the paper and then go back to the beginning for the next “line”, keeping to your normal line length. The idea of having a big piece of paper is so that you do not worry about falling off the edge of a pad. The shorthand will be an unreadable scribble written on top of itself and can be thrown away. You can get the same effect by pretending to write, with a capped biro or the wrong end of a pencil, on a newspaper or even the table top, as there are still no actual outlines visible to distract you. You can either use spoken words, or recite to yourself a favourite song or poem. To avoid the frustration of unknown outlines during visualisation, it is helpful to keep some paper handy to jot down any words you wish to look up later, although this must not become a ruse to interrupt the flow.


Maybe it's better not to look at the results! Continue with the shorthand while resting tired eyes, during a power outage, or lying in bed waiting to fall asleep.

Visualising the shorthand can be quite a revelation of just how much of speed difficulties are caused by your mind pondering and fretting over what you have already written and generally getting in the way of what should be the simple task of recalling outlines to match the words. These internal distractions are just as bothersome and intrusive as external ones, causing you to fall behind and stealing from you outlines that you know very well but just don’t have time to write.

My shorthand teachers used all these methods, although at the time we merely did as they requested us to do, without particularly wondering about the reasons behind the methods. They always gauged the dictations so that we were encouraged, not discouraged, with a mixture of speeds and levels of difficulty. I don’t think they would ever have pulled dictations out of the book without first deciding on the purpose of each one. Most passages were done at least twice, with time for corrections and questions in between, and we were expected to read back the last dictation at home, to save precious lesson time. After college, when attempting to increase speed, I spent more time thinking about the best way to demolish each type of problem, and so my approach to the subject became a bit more focused.

 

There are many ways to practice shorthand, but the important point is to identify what is being aimed for and target the activity to achieve it. Piecemeal successes not only add up over time, but also bring a sense of ongoing achievement that contributes greatly to one’s determination to continue with the subject. Just like other types of study, training, or even gardening or housework, if you tackle one type of challenge or job at a time, I believe you will be giving yourself the best chance of success.

 

Read a condensed version of this page written in shorthand on:

http://www.long-live-pitmans-shorthand-reading.org.uk/blog-pages/blog-2012-10.htm#How_To_Practise

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