By Popular Demand: How I Got Into Stenography

This post was originally my response to an email I received regarding teaching oneself steno. I figured it was about time I write the whole story in one place so I can stop telling the same story over and over again and also because I owe Mirabai my “How Plover Ignited My Career in Professional Stenography” article I’ve promised her for, I think, two years now. ūüėõ

The original email asked:

I’m really interested in learning to caption, and would like to hear how you taught yourself because I could sure skip the $$$ of court reporting school/courses at this point in my life. ¬†I also have a linguistics background and wonder how much that might help? ¬†How much time did you spend at it, etc.

My response:

I’m glad you are looking into teaching yourself steno.¬† I am currently mentoring a friend who lives near me in learning machine shorthand. She, too, recently acquired a machine and wants to teach herself.

Getting Started/Plover

I started my journey learning stenography by teaching myself Gregg shorthand in university and got really fast at it in a very short amount of time. This was strictly for the purpose of keeping up with instructors in class when taking notes. When I took computer programming, there were actually multiple deaf students in the class because it was for the Summer Academy, a sort of grant-funded scholarship sort of program whereby the UW will let deaf or hard of hearing students take classes for free at UW related to tech and engineering. We had a captioner in every class hooked up to a projector and for the longest time I was in awe and had no idea how the system worked until I finally went up to the prof and asked how in the world could every word he uttered in class (along with every word uttered by the students in the class) go up in real-time on the screen.

“She’s doing it,” the professor says while glancing at the little lady sitting at the front I hadn’t noticed until then. She had a very strange-looking keyboard on her lap and I was fascinated, watching her effortlessly make a few taps that would expand into entire sentences at lightning speed on the screen. I eventually went up to her and asked how she operated that machine.¬† So she then goes into machine shorthand and asks me if I’ve ever heard of pen shorthand.¬† I don’t think she expected me to know what it was much less witness me whip out my notebook covered in Gregg and boast I could spit it out at 110 WPM after a couple months of self-study.¬† She told me what she’s doing is just like Gregg and from that point on, I wanted to know more. I researched and found Glen’s website and Plover, a free, open-source stenography software that lets you steno using a gaming keyboard created by a brilliant team consisting of my stenographer friend and colleague in NYC, Mirabai Knight and software developers, Joshua Lifton and Hesky Fisher. As soon as I learned enough to get a few words up on the screen, it was all downhill from there (or “uphill?”) and I kept practicing on the gaming keyboard for fun and looking up any words I didn’t know how to steno in Mirabai’s stock dictionary.

Acquiring Professional Equipment and Software

I soon got my own Gemini machine from eBay for about 100 bucks and started practicing. I used it for everything Рtaking notes in class (yes, I lugged it around with me) to just playing around, listening to the TV, getting down as much as I could.  At that point, I had downloaded DigitalCAT, a proprietary CR software whose company, Stenovations, offers freely for use by students of stenography.  I would divide my time between ling classes and trying to incorporate steno into my routine as much as possible (writing essays, emails, etc.).

Steno Theory

Stenovations has a variety of starter dictionaries for download on their download page.¬† I started with StenED as it was a theory I had seen mentioned online all the time, but quickly learned how stroke intensive it was. I switched to Phoenix, characterized by its vowel omission principle, the fact that all schwas were written with “U,” and its overall strict adherence to phonetic rules because in my mind, it seemed logical and facilitated “less thinking and more doing.”¬† Well, that did turn out to be the case but not necessarily in a positive way. It was way too clunky and laborious for me. Having to write everything out in 3-4 strokes gets old fast. Granted, I could’ve just refined and modified Phoenix like some of my colleagues have to make it more efficient and usable (Jade King being a notable example), but in the end, I personally didn’t like it.¬† And since I’m the only one who will be writing whatever theory I learn for the length of my career, to hell with it. So I scrapped it altogether.


  • Vowel omission principle: You omit vowels in sequential multi-stroke words, the idea being that it’s one less thing to worry about.¬† So a word like “inhospitable” would be written something like TPH/HOS/P-T/-BL instead of TPH/HOS/PEUT/*ABL or something.
  • Schwas written as U: Vowels that are unstressed are typically pronounced as an indistinct schwa sound in English. If you have to stop for a second to remember the spelling of a word, it might cause you to hesitate. By writing ALL schwas as U, you no longer have to worry about the exact identities of the vowels on the fly as in other more commonly orthography-based theories.

I finally switched to Philly Clinic Theory ’cause I heard it’s what Mark K. wrote before he, through his interpretation of it, made it into Magnum. Now, I write a combo of both Philly and Magnum but they draw on each other because Magnum is basically the principles of Philly modified somewhat and cracked out on briefs. Since I learned Philly, I often find that when I think of a brief for something and check Mark’s Magnum dictionary to see what he uses, I find we come up with the same answer independently all the time.¬† But a lot of people tell me I “think” like Mark so it could be that. But based on my own introspect, I know I can memorize arbitrary sound combos (and movements as is the case when I started learning ASL) with ease and assign them meaning.¬† I very seldom need a mnemonic or memory trick to make it stick. I say a lot of my being able to subconsciously remember thousands of briefs with little effort comes from my experience in being/trying to maintain (my status as) a polyglot having honed my brain to that kind of thinking for practically my entire life.

As far as Phoenix goes, I don’t like it.¬† I like very short, efficient theories like Philly Clinic, or Magnum.¬† I don’t know how your brain works, but like I said, I know how mine does.¬† I can make random briefs here and there, do them once or twice during a job, and remember them all correctly at speeds upwards of 280 words per minute a year later.¬† There’s no secret to that, either; it just happens for me.¬† If it doesn’t for you, then you should consider maybe learning a longer theory with less of a memory load.¬† I’m saying this with the assumption in mind that you don’t want to take forever before you start working.

A linguistic background may help you in that you were probably taught to be more descriptive and not as prescriptive like 99.99% of CRs are.¬† I feel I spend less time agonizing over why somebody keeps using this verb wrong or doesn’t use the subjunctive than most other reporters because I don’t care.¬† As such, I do not correct speakers when I write their speech.¬† I only care about accurately portraying their utterances in text form, not whether or not it is correct prescriptive American English.¬† I think being a polyglot or bilingual would help much more, especially for when you hear random words that are not English.¬† A ling background also helps when I hear “post-alveolar affricate” in a ling class, but I know that wasn’t your question.¬† It might also help you find patterns in how theories smoosh words, or syllables rather, into the rather small phonetic/phonemic template you have to work with on the steno machine.

As far as equipment all you really need is a machine that can output to a computer, either by serial connection, USB, or some other protocol.¬† I mostly input my steno via Bluetooth at all times currently.¬† Also, you will need some CAT software.¬† CAT stands for computer-aided translation.¬† It’s the program you run on your computer that takes the the steno input, compares it against your dictionary(ies), and outputs the text on the screen.¬† You can use Plover as you’re starting out.¬† Though, it’s grown to become quite powerful now, and I actually use it on some jobs where Eclipse would be too slow, or somehow otherwise unsuitable for the task.¬† I foresee it becoming sophisticated enough to be used professionally all the time in the near future.¬† There’s a job for which I’ve used Plover exclusively because their captioning system is not very good and requires the user to input the text directly into a box in a web browser and to press the enter key every line or so. Eclipse tends to be very slow at outputting to Windows and also formats things in strange, unpredictable ways when using its text output feature so I always go with Plover. In the future, I’ll probably be using Plover exclusively as professional software once it gains a couple key features.

Advice For Teaching Oneself Steno

The only advice that I can really give you is find as many ways to incorporate steno into what you do every day.¬† People often ask me how I learned so fast, and how I was able to do it even though there are hundreds of steno students still in school for years and years while I step up to an invite to attempt the Guinness at the NCRA Convention after having only three years of experience from start to present learning/practicing stenography.¬† I never took theory so basically I looked under “Stenotype” on Wikipedia and taught myself the substitution combos from their list and just found the stock dictionary off of DigitalCAT’s website and one-by-one went, “How do you write ‘rabbit’ in steno?” Or “couch,” or “chair,” or, “girder,” or “cell,” or, “chapel.”¬† I kept doing that until I saw patterns and it all fell together in place.¬† Also, I did quite a bit of poking around in my CAT software, just to see, “Ooh, what does this button do?”¬† After that, it’s all about meticulous homing in on what your weaknesses are, and practicing the shit out of them, going through your dictionary and adding entries that you’re unsure if you have have or not.¬† But most important is to keep practicing, practicing, practicing, and never giving up.¬† Getting angry that something in a passage tripped you up, practicing it and/or briefing it, and coming back and killing it.¬† Do that enough and you get good very fast.¬† The biggest fault I see in today’s court reporting education is its seemingly complete inability to equip their students with the tools necessary to evaluate their own progress.¬† CR students constantly ask others what they’re doing wrong, asking whether what they’re doing is right, when the answers lie right there in their steno notes.¬† You just have to rifle through and find for yourself what you’re doing right and what you’re screwing up.¬† Yeah, it sucks to have to go back and figure out what exactly you got wrong, compare your transcript to what it’s supposed to be, and rote drill the living crap out of whatever it was you got wrong.¬† But it’s the only way.¬† Again, there is no secret.¬† Or maybe it’s the students themselves, I don’t know.¬† But what I do know is far too many bash away at the machine doing the same thing over and over thinking that they’re going to get far through sheer amount of time racked up behind the machine.¬† Not true.

Some instrumentalists end up playing in Carnegie Hall, while most of them either don’t have the discipline necessary, don’t want to put in the effort, or don’t have the right innate talent.¬† Even for those who truly, truly WANT to do steno or play an instrument professionally, they may not possess the willpower that matches their desire to cross the finish line, however burning it may be.¬† Some may put in the same amount of hours but never achieve the level of refinement of Mr. Carnegie Concert Cellist over here simply because he/she is not naturally suited for music.¬† Life isn’t fair.¬† Moreover, it could be any combination of the reasons I mentioned above that bar most players from attaining concert status (or in our case, from becoming professional, realtime stenographers) plus a myriad of other possible just “life” circumstances so it’s hard to answer the question why certain people progress faster than others.

So many people ask me, “What was your secret?”¬† “What was your regimen?”¬† “How did you practice?”¬† “How many times a day did you practice?” ” How many hours did you practice?”¬† I say, “2-4 hours a day maybe?¬† Sometimes up to 12 hours?”¬† “I don’t know, sometimes less.”¬† “Sometimes, I didn’t practice at all.”¬† “Most of the time I practiced to random shit I found on the Internet.”¬† Then they’re confused ’cause to them it doesn’t make sense that someone who, in their eyes has achieved a great deal can be so unstructured and la-de-da.¬† It’s because I’ve learned to find the exact things I need to work on, and work on them.¬† If I’m already writing pretty cleanly at 180, why the hell would I keep doing takes at 180 for “accuracy?”¬† I’m going to take that 190, 200, 225 head-on and kick it in the shins as hard as I can even though I’m still a foot too short.¬† My time is limited.¬† There are too many EDM festivals to go to, too many cities and lights to see, too many people to meet out there for me to sit here and waste away my numbered mortal hours being pre-employable.

But what if I have a husband?  Or a Dog?  Or children?  Or a fulltime job?

Also, I remind people that they have to take into account that I’m not married, I don’t have children, I lived at home with my parents while I was practicing to become certified, and had no other job besides to practice.¬† I believe that contributed greatly to the speed with which I went pro.¬† People ask me what I would have done if I had children, or a job, or a house mortgage to pay, or whatever.¬† I say, I don’t know because right now, I live in a studio apartment in the middle of the city by myself, and am living a pretty 20s sort of lifestyle.

I’ve never had that lifestyle, and I probably won’t have it for a long time.¬† I knew going in that I had the time and the resources to be able to do this both intellectually and materially.¬† Some people go in, and complain that they don’t have enough time to get in their practice because of husband, familial obligations, and “stuff.”¬† So many students are begging for any help they can get, lamenting that they’ve tried everything and are either progressively slipping further and further into debt or are already so broke, they don’t know if they can afford yet another semester.¬† This will sound harsh but at a certain point, one needs to make a judgment call, cut one’s losses, and realize it’s time to move on.

To me it was an easy answer.¬† I knew could get certified without the structure of school because I know I naturally find steno fun, so I didn’t really need something or someone bearing down on me in order to practice.¬† I would gladly do it on my own accord.¬† I had my experience of learning Gregg to a usable speed very quickly.¬† I already knew that I had the mental “arsenal,” so to speak, to tackle this kind of simultaneous translation sort of task.¬† I used to want to become a pharmacist before I discovered steno.¬† But at one point in university I made that judgment call – that, no matter how hard I work, I was just not suited mentally for the “lecture, review book, memorize random shit as fast as you can, knowledge-vom on test, rinse and repeat” cycle that a hard science field like pharmacy requires. I also suck royal balls at math, so yeah, no use killing myself trying to work against my programming when I have other talents I could harness.¬† Like any other trade skill, not everybody has the “machinery” to do steno.¬† It is why we are able to charge such a pretty fee for our services.¬† It’s mentally taxing and requires a certain kind of wiring to be able to concentrate that hard for that long, parse speech that quickly, and by drawing from both declarative and procedural memory, convert it into a code that you execute with your hands.¬† You need to be honest with yourself whether you can really go at this on your own because while it might sound great in principle, once you get to the 120 rut and the 180 rut, you might not have the wherewithal and focus to be able to fight through the discouragement.

So what now?

But my biggest take-away from all of this is just that there’s no secret.¬† There is really no secret.¬† There is nothing that I did differently than anyone else to get to where I am, other than maybe being much more critical about my abilities, finding creative ways to eliminate personal deficits by acquiring information on my own, and using the Internet as my resource to learn how to do everything.¬† Or if there was no direct answer somewhere, deducing it by putting two and two together after researching related topics.

But that’s all I think I have to say for now.

If you want to be a steno autodidact (is that a word?) it pretty much comes down to thinking for yourself and self-motivation.¬† If some shit ain’t workin’, Google that shit and figure out how to make it work.¬† It’s really not that hard.¬† Don’t go looking for the “secret” to gaining speed; you won’t find it.¬† If you really want something, you’ll find a way.

Good luck!


7 Words that Came About from People Getting Them Wrong

1. PEA

Originally the word was “pease,” and it was singular. (“The Scottish or tufted a good white Pease fit to be eaten.”) The sound on the end was reanalyzed as a plural ‘s’ marker, and at the end of the 17th Century people started talking about one “pea.” The older form lives on in the nursery rhyme “Pease-porridge hot, pease-porridge cold‚Ķ”


The same thing happened to “cherise” or “cheris,” which came from Old French “cherise” and was reanalyzed as a plural. So the singular “cherry” was born.


“Apron” also came into English from Old French and was originally “napron” (“With hir napron feir..She wypid sofft hir eyen.”) But “a napron” was misheard often enough as “an apron” that by the 1600s the “n” was dropped.


Umpire lost its ‘n’ from the same sort of confusion. It came to English from the Middle French “nonper,” meaning “without peer; peerless” (“Maked I not a louedaye bytwene god and mankynde, and chese a mayde to be nompere, to put the quarel at ende?”) A nompere or an ompere? The n-less form won out.


The confusion about which word the ‘n’ belonged to could end up swinging the other way too. A newt was originally an “ewt” (“The carcases of snakes, ewts, and other serpents.”), but “an ewt” could easily be misheard as “a newt,” and in this case, the ‘n’ left the “an” and stuck to the the “newt.”


The ‘n’ also traveled over from the “an” to stick to “nickname,” which was originally “ekename,” meaning “added name.”


Alligator came to English from the Spanish explorers who first encountered “el lagarto” (lizard) in the New World. While the big lizards were for a time referred to as “lagartos,” the “el” accompanied often enough that it became an inseparable part of the English word.

All example quotes come from the Oxford English Dictionary.


A Review of Text-On-Top/Una Review del sistema Text-On-Top

What is Text-On-Top?

Text-On-Top is a solution for live-captioning presentations, lectures, conferences, and other events where the speaker may use visual media. It is manufactured by the Dutch company Velotype that also produces the Velotype keyboard, a syllabic-orthographic method of text entry. It is used to caption live broadcasts in the Netherlands.

Often in presentation situations, it is cumbersome for individuals who use CART to constantly have to look back and forth between two different screens – one containing the speaker’s PowerPoint presentation, for example, and the one that displays the realtime captioning. Text-On-Top solves this problem by overlaying realtime captioning on the presenter’s visual media so that the text appears at the bottom of the same screen just like closed captioning would on your TV so you don’t need to lug in your own projector or worry about having another display device available.

What’s included in the system?

Text-On-Top includes two USB devices that resemble the form and function of USB flash drives. You plug one into the captioner’s computer and the other into the presenter’s computer and the communicate automatically and wirelessly. Each device consists of 2 GB of internal memory which holds the connection software and the antenna through which the connection is made. As a result, you won’t have to worry about loading the software in advance on the presenter’s laptop as it is built in. A cool thing is each device has a USB port on the other end so that using the device doesn’t deprive you of a precious USB port.

When you plug it in, your computer will recognize it just like a regular ol’ USB disk and so finding and launching the software is pretty straightforward and “plug-and-play” in all respects. It works with both Windows and Mac.

Text-On-Top device on the host computer

Text-On-Top device on the host computer


Text-On-Top device on client computer

Text-On-Top device on client computer


After you open the software on both computers, the rest is pretty much automatic. If you don’t see text coming out on the presenter’s end, make sure your devices are both operating on the same channel. But other than optional settings like text color, position, and size I really had to do nothing else to get them working.

Text-On-Top controls (host)

Text-On-Top controls (host)

It’s not absolutely necessary that you be a stenographer in order to use Text-On-Top. You can just write the text as you normally would on a regular keyboard if you can type fast enough or if the captions don’t need to be 100% verbatim. The software also lets you define keyboard shortcuts for common words and phrases that will expand out to their full forms before being sent out as captions.

Captioner screen

Captioner screen

If you are a stenocaptioner, set your CAT software to output the text to any program and make sure the Text-On-Top program is the active window when you are writing.

Text-On-Top full setup

Text-On-Top full setup

How much is it?

A set of two devices costs¬†‚ā¨199.00 which for me amounted to $299.00 plus $40.00 for shipping.


I haven’t had a chance to use it on a job yet but as far as I can tell, it looks like a great extra you can offer your clients for group CART situations. I will update you guys as I gain more experience.


¬ŅQu√© es Text-On-Top?

Text-On-Top es una solución que te permite mostrar subtítulos durante presentaciones, discursos, u otros escenarios en una manera parecida a Closed Captioning. Está fabricado por la empresa holandesa Velotype que también produce el Velotype, un teclado silábico que se utiliza en los Países Bajos para realizar Closed Captioning en vivo.

La ventaja que te ofrece es el poder mostrar los subt√≠tulos en la misma pantalla que una presentaci√≥n PowerPoint. En situaciones con m√ļltiples participantes que necesitan CART (transcripci√≥n simult√°nea) ya no hay que traer otro proyector u otro dispositivo de pantalla para el capcionista. Adem√°s, los usuarios del servicio ya no tienen que ver saltando entre los subt√≠tulos y la pantalla que contiene los medios visuales del orador. Toda la informaci√≥n audiovisual aparece en una sola ubicaci√≥n para que todos la accedan f√°cilmente.

¬ŅEn qu√© consiste el sistema?

El sistema Text-On-Top consiste en dos dispositivos parecidos a memorias USB y se utilizan en casi la misma manera. Se enchufa uno a una puerta USB de la computadora del estenotipista y el otro a la computadora del presentador. Se comunican a trav√©s de una conexi√≥n inal√°mbrica. Cada dispositivo est√° compuesto de la antena transmisora y tambi√©n 2 GB de memoria interna en la cual reside el software requerido as√≠ que no tendr√°s que cargar el software de antemano en ninguna de las dos computadoras. Al enchufarlo, la computadora lo reconoce como una memoria USB para que accedas el software — es verdaderamente “plug-and-play” y compatible con Windows y Mac.

Text-On-Top enchufado a la computadora del estenotipista

Text-On-Top enchufado a la computadora del estenotipista


Text-On-Top enchufado a la computadora del orador

Text-On-Top enchufado a la computadora del orador

La Operación

Despu√©s de abrir el programa en ambas computadoras, el resto se ocurre autom√°ticamente. Si no te sale el texto en la computadora del presentador, asegur√°te de que los dos dispositivos est√°n transmitiendo en el mismo canal. Menos los ajustes opcionales como el tama√Īo, el color y la posici√≥n del texto, no hay que hacer nada m√°s.



No es necesario que escribas los subtítulos mediante la estenotipia. Podés ingresar el texto como normal vía un teclado convencional si podés teclear tan rápido para seguir el ritmo del orador o si los subtítulos no necesitan ser textuales. Hay incluso una función que lo hace posible definir atajos del teclado para los términos y frases más frecuentes en un discurso.

Si realizás los subtítulos mediante la estenotipia, tendrás que configurar tu software CAT para que de salida al texto a otros programas y Text-On-Top debe ser la ventana activa.

¬ŅCu√°nto cuesta?

Un par de dispositivos cuesta ‚ā¨199,00. Yo los compr√© por $299,00 + $40,00 por el env√≠o.


Aunque todavía no he utilizado Text-On-Top en una tarea, por lo que me doy cuenta creo que es una buena prestación adicional que podés ofrecer a tus clientes en las situaciones susodichas. Les doy actualizaciónes en cuanto obtenga más experiencia.

Yay, another arbitrarily-decided week to honor something/someone!

Thanks to Melinda Walker for sharing Representative Ron Kind’s remarks made in the Congressional Record yesterday:
Extensions of Remarks E143



Thursday, February 14, 2013

Mr. KIND. Mr. Speaker, today I rise to acknowledge the hard work of court reporters and broadcast captioners nationwide, as well as the recognition of the National Court Reporting and Captioning Week from February 17‚Äď23, 2013.

Court reporters and broadcast captioners have the unique skill of translating the spoken word into text to record history, preserve judicial
proceedings, assist individuals who are deaf and hard-of-hearing with access to audio communications, and even capture the work of Congress in committees and on the floor of the House and Senate. They are truly the
guardians of the record.

The profession of court reporting is thousands of years old; its roots can be traced back to 63 B.C., when Marcus Tullius Tiro created shorthand reporting to service the Roman philosopher, lawyer, and orator Cicero.

Since the dawn of civilization, the desire to capture the spoken word and record our history has been the responsibility of the scribe, known
today as the court reporter.

The scribe has been an essential part of history from times in Ancient Egypt, to the drafting of the Declaration of Independence, Bill of Rights, the Emancipation Proclamation and the recording of our entire American history.

Since the advent of shorthand machines, these scribes are now known as court reporters and have played a prominent and invaluable role in courtrooms, state legislatures, and in Congress preserving Members’ words and actions.

Court reporters and captioners are also responsible for the closed captioning seen scrolling across television screens, at sporting stadiums and in other community and educational settings, bringing information to almost
40 million deaf and hard-of-hearing Americans every day.

Congress has continuously worked with the National Court Reporters Association to make increasing this access a reality and to ensure
that every American has access to the spoken word.

Whether called the scribes of yesterday or the court reporters and captioners of today, the individuals who preserve our Nation’s history
are truly the guardians of our national record. They have a tough profession but continue to excel through their dedication and expertise.

With that, it is my honor to acknowledge February 17‚Äď23 as National Court Reporting and Captioning Week across the country.


Guardians of the (muthafuckin’) record!