February 1, 2011 8:40 AM   Subscribe

[Stenofilter] I know that stenotypes are useful for the transcription of speech, such as on-the-fly close-captioning, court reporting and similar. But is there any benefit in using a steno-type or other similar chorded keyboard for, say, writing your next novel?

I know that steno-types are useful for the transcription of speech, such as on-the-fly close-captioning, court reporting and similar. But is there any benefit in using a steno-type or other similar chorded keyboards for personal writing? Of course being able to type 180-300wpm must be extremely beneficial when transcribing naturally spoken language, but I imagine past a certain point there are no additional benefits when writing your own prose. Also I imagine most times people don't have access to one outside of work. But then on the other hand, I know there are times that my admittedly crappy typing speed on a conventional keyboard (50 wpm when REALLY thrashing it) is a bit of an artificial bottleneck. Not that I'm planning on learning the steno, just curious...

So I was wondering, as a person who has never seen a steno let alone laid my hands on one, are there any steno-typists out there that use their skills for composing, or have tried using it for this? Or does this sound ridiculous beyond belief?
posted by ultrabuff to Writing & Language (8 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
I know nothing about steno typing, but lots of steno-typists think EVERYONE should be doing it! Like, this guy, for instance.
posted by mskyle at 8:53 AM on February 1, 2011 [1 favorite]

My impression is that there's a lot of going back and adding in things like punctuation and capitalization in steno-ing, though it may be reduced since the advent of better steno software. That's doable if you have no choice but record the words as fast as possible, as in court reporting, but is probably not faster than simply typing at 50wpm and having them there in the first place.

A friend of mine has been studying to be a stenographer via a specialized college program and is only now, after a couple of years of fairly intense practice, getting to be good enough at it to actually steno faster than a reasonably good typist can type. So it's not easy to pick up, either.
posted by jacquilynne at 9:30 AM on February 1, 2011

Just echoing Jacquilynn: the learning curve on a steno is huge, which is probably why it's only used in specialised circumstances.

Plus, without knowing how they actually display your input, I imagine if you're writing a novel and need to revise and edit as you go along, it's much easier in a Word processor.
posted by londonmark at 10:00 AM on February 1, 2011

I do audio checks and proofreading for court reporters, and I've never had a client, no matter how competent, whose work didn't need significant word and punctuation fixes after the fact -- I'm sure near-perfect steno writers exist, but I have never met one.

(The voice writers, who use a sound-dampening mask to repeat the testimony into specialized voice-to-text software, will often produce a relatively readable first draft. This new technology has caused a schism in the field; we'll see whether it replaces steno in the long run.)

I would also think that learning to type phonetically would be a difficult transition for any writer. Theoretically I've learned to read raw steno, but it still blows my mind:

That said, I could see how it could be an interesting composition technique, if the person really had steno down to an instinct, and I bet at least someone has tried it. I would theorize that it'd throw you into a strange state of mind, since you're taking such a radically different approach to the mechanics of language from what the final page will show, but I might be wrong, or that might be good.
posted by thesmallmachine at 12:14 PM on February 1, 2011

Sorry, I should've put that link into actual link form.
posted by thesmallmachine at 12:16 PM on February 1, 2011

As someone who types between 98-100WPM, and who writes for a living, trust me: The time it takes to write a novel is not a function of typing speed.

In fact, the opposite is more often the case. Many writers deliberately slow their roll so that they put more thought into their words. (Neil Gaiman and Neal Stephenson both write longhand. I believe Stephen King writes with a manual typewriter, which won't allow you to bang the keys too quickly.)

Exceptionally slow typists - those who type 10WPM or less - will typically dictate their work, and ship it off to be transcribed.

Theoretically I suppose they could save themselves a step and learn to steno type themselves. But it seems like it would be more useful for them to learn how to Type Properly instead.
posted by ErikaB at 12:55 PM on February 1, 2011

Whoops, I meant to drop some math in there, but I got distracted.

You type 50WPM (that's a very respectable rate, by the way!), and an average novel is between 150,000 and 250,000 words. (There is no Board of Standards on that - it's just kind of a loose guideline.)

Let's say you decide to write a super fat novel which will clock in at 250,000 words. That's 5,000 minutes of typing, or 83 hours. If you dedicated 2 hours per day to your writing, you would finish that first draft in just over a month.

(The biggest reason why most 250,000-word drafts aren't completed in 41.5 days is encoded in that last "if." IF you sit down to write it, and actually DO work at writing it, instead of [e.g.] spending a shocking amount of time on AskMe instead.)
posted by ErikaB at 1:33 PM on February 1, 2011

Best answer: Hey, I'm the one who wrote the "What is Steno Good For" series linked to by the second commenter. Part 2 of WISG is probably the most relevant to this question: Writing and Coding. An excerpt:

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.

There are a lot of common misconceptions about steno. One is that punctuation is added after the fact. That used to be the case back when steno notes were transcribed manually on a typewriter, and unfortunately some steno schools still teach to that model, but I'm a professional realtime stenographer, which means that everything I write comes out fully capitalized and punctuated. Thesmallmachine, I think probably one reason why you think that stenographers never produce perfect transcripts is because the ones who are truly up to a realtime standard -- meaning 99.96% or greater accuracy rates without any editing after the fact -- don't usually require scopists or proofreaders. I'm not a court reporter myself; I'm a CART provider (captioner for the Deaf and hard of hearing), so I don't want to speak too much to that side of the business, but from my own experience I can tell you that steno has transformed my ability to get thoughts from my brain onto a computer screen.

One more excerpt, from Part 2 of WISG, Raw Speed:

I'm willing to bet that the act of qwerty typing slows down the thoughts of many people. When I type on a qwerty keyboard, I feel my mind splitting along four consecutive but overlapping tracks: One, the word I want to write. Two, the way it's spelled. I'm a pretty good speller, but English is weird enough that the process is never completely automatic. Three, the series of five to ten finger motions it takes to type it. Four, the error checking mechanism that iterates over the first three and confirms that the correct word choice, orthography, and letter position have appeared onscreen. Usually I'll have already started typing the next word when I spot a spelling or typing error in the previous one, and by the time I've pressed backspace ten times to correct two transposed letters, my train of thought will have gotten all tangled up and I'll have to pause for a second to remember what I was writing. Even when I try to pace myself and type more slowly than usual, I'll make an error like this every few sentences, and my flow of composition will have been interrupted half a dozen times by end of the paragraph.

Anyone who wants to try it out for themselves can go to All you need is a $45 gaming keyboard like the SideWinder X4 and a machine that runs Linux, and you can use steno in any word processor or text editor you like. Plover is the free, open source steno software I've been helping to develop over the past year, and it's currently able to completely emulate the qwerty keyboard at speeds three to four times faster than even a good qwerty typist. Rates of learning steno tend to vary widely, but I got to 100 WPM or so after about six months of practice. If you find yourself frustrated when you have to type out an essay on your phone's keypad and find yourself longing for a good clacky qwerty keyboard whenever you want to compose something, that's a good approximation of how I feel whenever I'm forced to write with my qwerty keyboard rather than being able to plunk down my thoughts in steno as quickly as they bubble up in my head.
posted by stenoknight at 3:45 PM on February 1, 2011 [6 favorites]

« Older I have lots of pretty, old junk. Some of it needs...   |   Looking for Good, Drawable Discs Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.