StenoKnight CART Services: Realtime Captioning
		for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing
This article was originally written in April, 2007. It has been slightly revised for this page.

How I Got Out of Steno School

Several of the places I frequent (Cheap and Sleazy, Depoman, Court Reporting Students) are constantly throwing around theories on the best way to get out of steno school, so I figured I'd offer up my own version, for exactly as much as it's worth. I graduated from the New York Career Institute (formerly Stenotype Academy, formerly The School for Stenotype Exclusively) on Monday, March 26, 2007, a year and six months to the day from my first day of theory (September 26th, 2005), and 362 days after I was allowed to take my first speed test (March 29th, 2006). Because I'm obsessive, a graph of all my tests charted against time can be found below. (Please note that tests passed on the same day are represented by flat lines. "Plateaus", as they're commonly called in steno school, are represented by steep lines, because a lot of time went by between successful tests. It's a little counter-intuitive.)

I worked from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. during the week and attended steno classes on Monday and Wednesday nights. I also took an academic course in all but the last trimester. My job, I'm convinced, is what got me through school this quickly, and if there's a single thing I can recommend to other students in my place, it's to try and find a similar one. It basically covers rent and food without too much left over, but it's offered me a tremendous opportunity to build speed and hone my realtime technique until the time I'm proficient enough to become a CART provider, my ultimate goal. So what kind of job actually pays me to practice? I'm an offline captioning transcriptionist; I type up television shows from video tape (or digital files) to be closed captioned before broadcast. Once I've prepared the transcript, it goes upstairs to my friends the captioners, who break, place, time, and review the captions before encoding. We do a lot of how-to shows -- cooking, decorating, carpentry, that kind of thing -- and I've picked up a little in that line along the way; but mostly what my job has taught me is how to match my fingers to the rhythm of speech and how to avoid the infinite homonym and word boundary conflicts any phonetic shorthand system is subject to.

I was hired originally as a qwerty transcriber three months before I started steno school, and I wasn't actually able to start stenoing full time at work until I hit my 180s; 'til then, it was actually faster to produce a transcript on the regular keyboard. But as soon as I finished theory I started to take work home, to be transcribed on my own time and paid on a per-tape basis on my steno machine. At first they took me all weekend to finish. Now I can bang one out in about 35 minutes. The transcript always had to look the same, with 100% accuracy in spelling, punctuation, and formatting. Except for in class and the night before my last 180 Lit (it had been a while since I'd passed a test and I was frustrated, so I figured I'd try anything) I've never practiced speed drills. I practiced get everything down. When I fell behind (every 15 seconds or so at the beginning; every couple minutes or so these days) I stopped the recording, rewound, and started again.

I've read a lot of opinions about what students should do to get through school quickly, and everyone agrees that the more time spent on the machine, the better. After that, they all seem to differ. Practice at 40 WPM over your comfort speed and write as sloppily as you have to; practice only at the speed you need next and only drop, never slop; brief as much as you can and the speed will come that way; don't worry about realtime, but just barrel ahead with whatever strokes come to mind. I have no idea which of these precepts work and which don't. I have only my own experience to offer. My goal was never to get through court reporting school quickly; It was to be near enough to realtime-ready once I had the speed to be able to go directly into CART, by-passing deposition reporting altogether. Having a full-time job meant I could take as long as I needed, and I wouldn't have to dash headlong into freelancing while my student loans breathed down my neck. To that end, even though some people say it would just confuse me or distract me, I started on CAT software two months before I started theory, learning the keyboard from Wikipedia and practicing finger drills downloaded from Court Reporting Help (now defunct).

I knew that I had a tendency to slack in open-ended practice sessions (I'd recently been accepted into an M.A. Literature program but decided to go to steno school instead, partly because of the dicey job market, but also because I didn't trust myself to do the necessary work in such a relatively unstructured environment) so as soon as I'd learned all my theory I started practicing by the show instead of by the hour. It felt like beating the levels of a video game. I started out slow, but kept track of how long it took me each time, and little by little I could see myself getting better at it. Once I finished my show (and earned my freelance fee) I could put the machine away and go to bed, but until then I made myself keep going, even if it meant getting to bed at 3:00 in the morning. That happened more than I'd like to admit, but eventually it started paying off.

When I wasn't transcribing shows, I would steno along to audiobooks, podcasts, movies, or songs, dropping and slopping indiscriminately. I never actually popped a speed tape. If I had stalled at some point along the way, I'd probably have changed my tactics, but I mostly seemed to be making pretty steady progress. Twice I went 35 days between passing tests (though both of those included two-week school vacations), and it took me 37 days before I passed my first 225, but other than that I could count on passing a test every week or two, so I just kept on doing what seemed to work.

I also wrote a program to help me build my dictionary (15,993 words added to NYCI's stock dictionary and counting!) and I spent a lot of time adapting my school's theory to be truly realtime-compatible. NYCI is very courtroom and deposition-focused, with practically no CART or captioning instruction given, and several of my teachers offered lots of their own legal briefs to the students. I ignored most of the legal stuff, though the advice they gave about finding jobs and bearing up under pressure, keeping wrists from hurting, figuring out how to stroke more cleanly, and reading through one's notes made a huge difference. Their friendly encouragement and enthusiastic dictation was even more helpful in keeping me going. If I had another recommendation besides getting a steno-related job, I'd say find a school -- whether brick and mortar or online -- with a faculty of actual court reporters, not just timed readers. I learned a lot from my steno teachers, and I'm grateful to have studied under them.

I got a lot of help with speedbuilding, but I was more or less on my own when it came to working on my realtime. All but one of my teachers were court reporters. One was a realtime writer for quick-turnaround sports interviews. None of them had done any CART or captioning. Using KUP for "can you please" might be a lifesaver in deposition work, but how was I going to get through a cooking show without the word "cup"? Instead of memorizing my school's legal briefs, I made up my own briefs as they came to my fingers, like VAOEF for "extra virgin olive oil". It might not have made sense to anyone else, but I was the one who had to recall it at 225 WPM, and it's what my brain offered up in the heat of the ratatouille (RAT/TWAOE) recipe, so I've had no problem remembering it since. Other people's briefs, on the other hand, never seemed to stick, and I had to spend a lot of time playing steno-compatible typing games (like Typestriker) in order to learn them at all.

NYCI's theory is closely related to StenEd, which has been accused of being stroke-intensive. I thought about looking into one of the brief-intensive theories out there, but I realized that one of the most satisfying aspects of steno, to me, is constructing my own idiosyncratic system of strokes and correspondences. It's as much a matter of self-knowledge -- knowing what it's easy for my mind to remember and my fingers to stroke -- as it is knowledge of the theory itself. Also, not every three-syllable word is going to be briefable, and if I can't write three strokes in the time it takes an average person to speak three syllables, I'm not writing fast enough. All the briefs in the world won't save me.

As words come up again and again in my work and I get sick of stroking them out, a brief comes to me and I start using it. I don't see any reason to front-load the process, especially since CART requires a far broader vocabulary than legal reporting. It'll do me no good to learn briefs for every variation of "at the time of the accident" if I'm not able to stroke out "in the prime of the Occident" during a history class. Because of this my jury charge tests, which everybody else seemed to fly through, were every bit as hard as my lits. But I knew if I had time to write "the preponderance of the evidence" in four strokes rather than one and could still catch what came next I was doing all right. I didn't just want to pass tests at any cost; I used the tests to figure out my upper speed limits with different sorts of material.

So now I've passed my last 225. What will be different for me? Not too much right away. I'm interning with a CART provider as often as I can. I'm now stenoing full time at work. I'm still expanding my dictionary and refining my theory. My goal is to be ready to start CARTing in August and to pass the CCP in November. But if not then, however long it takes. I love this stuff, and I want to be good at it.

Postscript: As I had hoped, my mentor determined that I was ready to start providing CART for relatively straightforward classes starting in August, 2007, so I quit my captioning job and began to work full-time at CART and theater captioning. I kept building my speed, working on my realtime technique, and building my steno dictionary, and took on incrementally more challenging classes every semester. After a year of subcontracting under my mentor's supervision, I set off on my own to start StenoKnight CART Services. I passed the CCP in May, 2009.