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This article was originally written for The Plover Blog.

What is Steno Good For?

Part One: How to Speak With Your Fingers

Part Two: Writing and Coding

Part Three: The Ergonomic Argument
Part Four: Mobile and Wearable Computing
Part Five: Raw Speed
Part Six: CART, Court, and Captioning

In Part one, I talked about how steno could be used by people who speak with voice synthesizers, making it easy to communicate in English at true conversational speeds using only their fingers.

In this part I want to talk about the benefit of steno in prose composition. I'm currently writing this on a qwerty keyboard on a subway train (the A down to Hoyt-Schirmerhorn in Brooklyn, if you're interested) because there isn't room to use my steno machine and my laptop's keyboard isn't antighosting, so I can't use Plover (which also needs a file output option before it will be anything more than a demo. Planning to get on that very soon.) I'm typing out every letter of every word I want to write, plus spaces between each word. Though I make my living writing in steno, I still use qwerty for a lot of things, because my $4,000 proprietary steno software isn't much good as a keyboard replacement and because my steno machine isn't always immediately to hand. I'm pretty used to it; before I learned steno, I worked for several years as a qwerty transcriptionist, and I can type at around 110 words per minute.

Even so, whenever I switch to qwerty, it feels so clumsy and plodding. It's not all that great for my wrists either, but I'll write more about that later, in the section on using steno to avoid repetitive stress injuries. Mainly it's just such an inefficient input mechanism. I already know the word I want to write when I type the first letter, but instead of moving on to the next word, I have to spend however many more fractions of a second typing out the rest of the letters, then pressing space, then starting on the second word. It artificially slows down my thinking and forces a staccato note into whatever I'm writing.

Steno, by contrast, is quick, clean, and smooth. Many famous writers composed their works in pen shorthand, including Samuel Pepys, Astrid Lindgren (author of the Pippi Longstocking books), and Charles Dickens, whose work as a London court reporter probably had a lot to do with his matchless ear for dialogue. The trouble with pen shorthand, though, is that it needs to be transcribed manually, which few modern writers have the patience for. Machine steno, on the other hand, can produce digital text three times more efficiently than the best qwerty typist can type; but I don't know of any authors who use a steno machine in their work. This is almost certainly due to the high cost of the equipment and software, coupled with a general lack of knowledge about the benefits of steno.

Steno is an unparalleled method of text input, especially for high-volume work, where fluency of thought is vitally important. Writers and programmers would seem to profit the most from it, considering the amount of time they spend putting words up on a screen. If you're only interested in programming, skip down three paragraphs. If you're a writer, keep reading. I think this applies equally to essayists, bloggers, science writers, business writers, and the rest of the gamut, but most of my experience has been as an intermittent writer of amateur fiction, so I'll use that as a template to extrapolate from. I'm sorry to say that I don't get the chance to do much writing for most of the year, but I'm a longtime participant in National Novel Writing Month, the yearly ordeal in which otherwise sane people try to write 50,000 words of fiction in 30 days, just for the fun of it. I've attempted it four times and won it twice. The first time I won, I was living with my parents after college and working the graveyard shift in a group home, where my duties involved about three hours of actual work and five hours of sitting on a couch keeping watch over a house full of peacefully sleeping people.

I wiped my November clean of social engagements and devoted nearly every waking hour in November to my novel. It was a terrible piece of writing, but after sweating and moaning and suffering untold tortures, I wrote the last of my 50,000 words and declared victory just shy of the December 1st deadline. Six years later, I won again, but my circumstances had changed. In that time, I had moved to New York City, learned steno, and found my own apartment. I was supporting myself and my partner with my CART business, plus working weekends as a theater captioner and picking up a bit of transcription on the side. I didn't have the luxury to sweat and moan over a novel; if I wanted to write, I had to do it between CART gigs. There's no way I could have done it without steno.

Every day, between one job and another, I'd haul my gear to the Square Root Cafe and bang out a couple of chapters between bites of grilled cheese sandwich. It wasn't great writing by a long shot, but it flowed in a way that I'd never experienced before. Every word my characters said to me came up on the screen as quickly as they could have spoken them. Before, in the time it took me to type out the six or seven letters that made up each word, my brain would cloud over and I would start second-guessing myself so much it was a mighty battle even to get to the end of a sentence. With steno, most words came in a single stroke, so my text was able to keep ahead of my doubts and excuses and just keep going. I could write for half an hour on the subway going home, or pull out my gear and do a quick 10 minutes in the park before schlepping onward to my next gig. Before, I would have told myself that I didn't have time to get anything substantial done in those few scattered intervals, that I needed several solid hours to get into the flow and mood of writing. After learning steno, I couldn't get away with that ploy. Before I knew it, my 10 minutes were over, but I'd managed to fill half a dozen pages. It wasn't even the speed that helped me do it, primarily; it was the fluency that steno gave to my thinking.

The cover of my 2008 NaNovel.

Switching suddenly from fiction to programming might make for a weird transition, but it's one I've made myself over the past year, so it bears mentioning. This November, instead of attempting NaNo again, I decided to find a Python tutor to help me develop this idea for an open source steno program that had been fighting to get out of my head for several years already. Part of the frustration was that, try as I might, I was never able to make my steno software work effectively with Vim, my favorite text editor. Even when writing fiction, the 1.5-second time delay built into Eclipse's buffer drove me crazy. In the program itself, it lets me see my words instantly (in a sort of distorted "preview mode" that I have to turn off when I'm CARTing, because it's too distracting to my clients), but when I piped its output to other programs, the delay was there not only when I tried to write using steno, but when I tried to edit or navigate around the document as well. I still haven't managed to find a good solution to programming using the steno keyboard, but I can see so clearly what it might be like, if only the software were properly designed.

Programming is especially suited for steno, because there's so much boilerplate to write again and again, even in an eloquent language like Python. If I want to define a function, I have to type:

def someFunction(arg): stuff.

That's eight strokes just to get started, plus 20 more strokes to write "someFunction", "arg", and "stuff". In steno, on the other hand, you could write something like D*FD in a single stroke, and it would put in the def, the space, the parentheses, the colon and the carriage return automatically, then jump you up to the space after the def to write your function name and arguments, then then drop you back down to the body of the function, all in four strokes. Best of all, once you defined that function name in your steno dictionary, you wouldn't need to worry about remembering to write out the name in camel case each time. Just use a single stroke like SPHU*PBGS (pronounced "smunction"), for instance, and start thinking of it as just another word, instead of two words mashed together in a lexically unnatural way.

I love the way Vim has mapped a useful command to each key of the qwerty keyboard. It's immensely powerful once you get used to it. But it's only got 26 keys to choose from, and it takes a long time to learn which key does what, since the correlation between "move one word forward" and the "w" key is pretty abstract and arbitrary. In steno, you could certainly keep using just the w key, if it's what you're used to, but you could also, say, map the "move one word forward" command to a single stroke like "WOFRD" (pronounced "woffered"). That's mnemonically much more useful than just "w", and an even bigger advantage is that the number of possible one-stroke commands is almost infinite. Instead of one stroke equalling one letter, steno lets one stroke equal one syllable, which is about five times more efficient quantitatively. As a qualitative improvement, the advantage is inestimable.

Mark Twain, one of the first professional authors to buy a typewriter, said:

"The machine has several virtues. I believe it will print faster than I can write. One may lean back in his chair and work it. It piles an awful stack of words on one page. It don't muss things or scatter ink blots around."

Mr. Clemens was a forward-thinking man, and qwerty was a remarkable innovation for its time. It's been responsible for over a century of great prose and programming. But everything he says there goes for steno too -- plus a whole lot more besides.