In the first of three articles, Doreen Walker, training consultant to the Derby Evening Telegraph, offers some valuable advice to shorthand writers whatever their experience.

Part I, Tips and Tricks

Many people would say today that, since the advent of computers, shorthand has become a worthless skill.

However, for reporters it is anything but dead! It is an essential skill for their job and a pre-requisite of the NCTJ and other awarding bodies for Journalism - in order to become qualified, journalists must hold a speed certificate of 100 wpm. This is not easy for candidates who may be faced with a course of self-study due to lack of tuition locally.

For beginners, it is essential that they approach the course enthusiastically and methodically, prepared to devote some time each day to shorthand practice. Regardless of what system is used (eg Teeline, Pitman 2000 or New Era) the beginner should invest in the following:

* Two good-quality shorthand pens or propelling pencils.
* Good-quality shorthand notebooks.
* Relevant text books together with any supplementary drill books.
* Tapes relating to the course of study they are following.
* Enrolment at college, if possible, for a regular course of study.

From Day 1, get into the habit of positive thinking, good posture and tips for speed, ie:

* Open the shorthand notebook keeping it flat on the desk - never fold a page over the spiral and back on itself.
* Bend back the corner at bottom left if you are right-handed and bottom right if you are left-handed.
* Draw a margin of at least three-quarters of an inch down the left-hand side (this is used in examinations for putting corrected outlines down and at work for adding additional notes at given points). Never be tempted to rule straight down the middle of the page and write on only one half - this modern idiom does not assist speed by making lines shorter, it actually hinders speed because the wrist action is working twice as hard and this takes time which is better spent on writing outlines.

Remember posture:

1. Keep your feet flat on the floor and do not cross your legs - this avoids backache and rigidity of the spine.

2. Place your left forearm on the desk with your left hand ready to flick the bent-over corner of the page - do not rest your left elbow on the desk and your chin on your left hand, as this causes the neck, face muscles, right arm and hand to go rigid. The aim is freedom of movement.

3. Hold your pen or pencil lightly and do not press on the paper - gripping your pen hinders speed development. If you are doing it correctly, it should almost seem like you are "doodling".

4. Exercise your fingers and wrists regularly and especially before taking shorthand - rub hands together to ensure warmth and circulation, then wriggle your fingers and rotate the wrists. Remember, an athlete always warms up before a race and you have a lot of small muscles in your fingers which are entitled to the same consideration!

5. Smile and breathe! Silly but true - if you smile, you relax all your face muscles and avoid gritting your teeth. Likewise, if you take a deep breath before commencing shorthand, it relieves any tension.

6. Finally - think positively: "I can do this".

Do make a positive commitment to "homework". Even if attending a full-time course where shorthand is part of the daily curriculum, you should undertake a little extra work at home - re-reading the unit(s) covered and practising the outlines. If possible, set a regular time each day, eg 7-7.30pm. Failing that, make it your bedtime reading! If you are only attending classes once a week, you should spend more time (up to an hour a day for five days) on homework and practice.

If at any time during the course you do not fully understand an aspect of theory, ask for more clarification and keep doing so until you fully comprehend each rule. Bear in mind that your shorthand notes must be capable of being read by others, perhaps even in a court of law, so your application of theory must be good.

Should you be faced with having to undertake a course of self-study, consider the following:

* Join up with a colleague and study regularly together.
* Seek assistance for clarification of theory rules from colleagues who are already qualified.
* Obtain dictation tapes from awarding bodies to assist speed development.
* Enquire if other local newspapers have in-house training on shorthand and if they are prepared to accept you in their classes.

All students should try to apply their knowledge of shorthand as soon as possible. Don't wait until you have covered all the theory. Right from the start - each time you are sure of a word or phrase, use it in the working environment.

Finally, be patient with yourself and never give up. If others can do it so can you! It is a challenge, it is worthwhile and it is rewarding.