ARE YOU READY TO READ BACK?

It will happen to you.  You will be reporting a difficult deposition, struggling with the accent, the speed, or the subject matter, and the lawyer will say, “Miss Reporter, can you read that back.”  The attorney assumes that you heard it, understood it, and wrote it all down.  But what if you didn’t?

There are three scenarios on readback:

  • You hit it out of the park.  You got every word and are reading back confidently, loudly, and clearly.  It is so satisfying to successfully deliver on a specific request.
  • You will have the majority of the requested question or answer, but there are some messy outlines or maybe a dropped word or two.  You are unsure it will hang together when you read it aloud.  If you are called upon to read back under this type of circumstance, my advice would be to take a few seconds to scan your screen quickly and read the passage to yourself.  Sometimes you just missed a small word that makes all the difference, or perhaps you misheard a word but it suddenly becomes clear.  In any case, read back what you have and let the chips fall where they may.  If your readback of a question indeed fell a little short, the attorney may choose to repeat, rephrase, or strike it altogether.  If you were asked to read back an answer, it is possible that the attorney didn’t understand it either and will ask the witness to repeat it.
  • You missed so much of the requested question or answer that it is impossible to reconstruct it in a few seconds.  You were going to interrupt to ask for it to be repeated, but you were asked to read back before you got a chance.  In cases like this, you can say, “I’m sorry.  I didn’t get that.  I was just going to ask you to repeat it.”  They will most likely oblige.

Readback isn’t restricted to Q&A.  As reporters we are often asked to read back colloquy.  Sometimes these exchanges are quite heated, and readback can be challenging.  They are just as vital as the questions and answers, however, as the attorneys are stating their objections and are preserving their positions for the future.  You have to be prepared to read back colloquy, too, and sometimes the exchanges can be quite lengthy.

Keep in mind that all reporters have had trouble reading back at some point.  There are so many variables that make our job difficult.  Some attorneys understand what we are up against, and some don’t.  Some care and some don’t.  You will be forgiven if it is a rare occurrence.  If you continue having difficulty, however, it will not go unnoticed.  Your agency may receive a call requesting a different reporter the next time, or you may be dismissed and replaced with another reporter that very same day.

Sometimes the reason for the readback is simply to satisfy the attorney that he has a reporter with the requisite skills.  If an attorney suspects he is dealing with a newbie, he may ask the reporter to read back random questions or answers early on to gauge whether or not the reporter is equipped to handle his case.  He would prefer not to wait until receipt of the transcript to determine if there is a problem.

So how can you increase your chances of reading back successfully?  Don’t be a mindless writer.  It only makes sense that if you pay attention and try to follow the testimony, you will have some context and point of reference from which to draw upon, and your chances will increase that you will be able to read back without error.   Also, if you make a habit of looking at your screen while you are writing realtime, you will be able to identify your misstrokes and make mental notes of what words those misstrokes should be.  Lastly, not to be overlooked is the obvious:  speed.  It is a given that the faster you can write the less you will drop and the cleaner your notes will be.

As a student, the more you read back, the better off you will be!  Practice reading back aloud everything you take.  Pretend you are at an actual deposition and see if your readback will make the grade.  Not only will it force you to confront your writing issues and improve your skill, but it will be a good exercise in learning how to keep your composure under pressure.  This will pay off in the long run.  Reading back is one of the benchmarks upon which attorneys will judge you.  Make it your moment to shine.

THE FIVE MAJOR TYPES OF MISTAKES MADE IN TRANSCRIPTS

The following are five areas where mistakes can occur in your transcripts.  A court reporter must be cognizant of every area to be successful.  It is not enough to write down every word on your machine.  Putting a verbatim transcript together takes careful thought and attention and at times can be very challenging.  You only get one chance to get it right.  Let your transcripts reflect the very best your professional self has to offer!

Spelling errors

There is really no excuse for this type of embarrassing error.  Utmost care must be taken to ensure that the correct spellings are inputted into your dictionary at the outset so that misspellings do not automatically appear in every transcript going forward.  Take the time to look up spellings if you have the slightest doubt.  Even if a witness spells a name or word for you, do a little research to confirm the spelling, especially medical or technical terminology.

Tip to improve:  For starters, input the list of commonly misspelled words into your dictionary.  Here is the link:  http://grammar.yourdictionary.com/spelling-and-word-lists/misspelled.html

Misused words

There are so many words that can trip you up:  affect/effect, accept/except, compliment/complement, to name a few.  You not only need to know the differences in meaning between these words in each pairing but also how to write them differently.  Beware of spell-checking software!  It wouldn’t flag any of the misused words in this sentence:  Ewe due knot no how two sow close.

Tip to improve:  Study the 50 most commonly confused homophones in the following link and input them into your dictionary; and at the very least, read a daily newspaper and look up words you are unfamiliar with. http://www.spelling-words-well.com/support-files/50-homophone-sets.pdf

Improper punctuation

Punctuation helps make sense of the words in a transcript.  Attorneys should not have to read and reread your transcript to decipher the meaning of what was said due to poor or incorrect punctuation.  When reading your transcript, they should be able to concentrate on content alone.  Improper punctuation interrupts reading flow, is distracting, and, in the worst case, can change the meaning of what was intended.  My favorite example:  “Let’s eat, Grandma” versus “Let’s eat Grandma.”

Tip to improve:  Reviewing the types of punctuation on a regular basis and their usage is always time well spent.

Factual errors

These errors will mostly appear on title pages where critical information resides:   the caption, civil action number, witness name, day and date, start time, appearances, etc.   It only takes one incorrect digit in a ZIP code or phone number or one incorrect letter in an e-mail address to render the information useless.  Examples of factual errors in the body of a transcript include misidentifying speakers and incorrectly marking and identifying exhibits.

Tip to improve:  When you start working on your transcript, work on the title page first.  This will help you remember the assignment and who the participants were.  Do not rush when creating this important first page.  Then proofread it at least twice.  You may also use a checklist to make sure you have covered all the details.

Incorrect capturing of testimony

A mumbled answer can sound like either “I think so” or “could be so.”  Which is it?   “September” and “December” are often hard to distinguish.  I’ve run across attorneys who swallow the first word of a question; for example, did he say “did you” or “do you”?  Even the little words, “a” or “the,” can be a huge problem.  Do you know the difference between the two?  Hint:  One is an indefinite article and the other is a definite article.

Tip to improve:  While on the job, you should pay attention to the story line and be alert to things that may not make sense.  If you are following the testimony, you will be more apt to know when it is appropriate to interrupt and ask for clarification.

Putting together a perfect transcript takes enormous care, even for seasoned reporters.  This is not the time to be lazy or complacent.  Do the necessary work.  Make a commitment to continually educate yourself.  Enlist the help of an experienced proofreader who can catch your mistakes before the transcript goes to final print.  After all, it is your name and reputation that is on the line.

ROOTS AND WINGS

I recently heard this phrase at a life celebration of a beloved teacher of young children.  She opened a nursery school years ago where it was her mission to provide her students with roots and wings, and I thought it was a wonderful expression of her life’s work.

The same philosophy applies to all of you pursuing a career in court reporting.  Think of your education as forming the foundation, or roots, for your future success.  All the courses you are taking are preparing you for what lies ahead.  They are the tools you will call upon every day when you are on the job writing and then editing your work.

Your primary responsibility as a reporter is to produce a timely verbatim transcript using your best judgment and experience.  This skill set is constantly evolving.  A good reporter will learn something new with every assignment.  A good reporter, ever present and mindful, will be enriched from each experience.  Over time, these experiences will become part of an ever expanding repertoire from which you can draw.  The young root system that began in school, if nurtured, will mature and grow stronger.   It will be the foundation upon which to build an enduring and rewarding career.

Once in the working world, good reporters have the potential to spread their wings and become great reporters.  It doesn’t happen overnight — it is a deliberate process years in the making — but if you are willing to step out of your comfort zone and trust the solid roots beneath you, the rewards in store are many.

Great reporters constantly try to “up” their game, outdo their personal bests.  They have a strong work ethic which means that they meet their deadlines without fail.  Because of the deference they hold for the process, every matter is treated with respect and held in confidence.  They accommodate every client request to the best of their ability, paying attention to the smallest of details.  They take on the most arduous of assignments, even volunteer for them.  In short, they are the accomplished peers we all respect and the sought-after professionals whom lawyers can trust.

So make the most of your time in school.  Take this opportunity to challenge yourself to the max.  Set high expectations for yourself.  Cultivate your root system!  The roots you are putting in place now will allow you to spread your wings and become the very best reporter you can be.

OH, CHUTE!

I thought you would enjoy this story that happened to an esteemed colleague of mine, Ralph Simpson, when he competed in his third Massachusetts Speed Contest.

As a bit of background, the Massachusetts speed contests were instituted for the first time in 1975 and ran through 1979.  Ed Varallo prepared all five contests and dictated all of them.  The requirement for entering was that you had to have your Certificate of Merit.  The three legs were Literary at 210 wpm, Legal Opinion at 220 wpm, and Q&A at 270 wpm.  Back in those days, contestants had to manually type their takes, and there was a time limit for typing each leg.

Ralph still vividly remembers the tension he felt in anticipation of the start of the contests.  “I had the feeling that words were being fired at me like a machine gun and any hesitation could be fatal.  It required all the concentration I could bring.  Each five-minute take seemed to go on forever, and you just had to hang on.”

Ralph won the contest in 1975 with an average overall score of 99.59 and won again in 1976 with an average overall score of 98.15.  Incidentally, in 1976 he was the only reporter who qualified on the Q&A; in other words, he was the only reporter to score with 95% accuracy or better on that leg.  Two trophies in two years!

In his third contest in 1977, Ralph came in first on the Literary leg with a 99.52 score.  He also came in first on the Legal Opinion leg with a 99.27 score.  Although he came in with a fantastic score of 99.33 on the Q&A leg, with an overall test score average of 99.37, he came in second overall.  The trophy went to Jonathan Young that year, another Boston great.

So what tripped Ralph up on the Q&A leg that year?   He transcribed “chute” when it should have been “shoot.”  He only made nine total errors on the Q&A leg, but he made this particular error six times, which cost him his third trophy.  In retrospect, he said that “chute” didn’t even jump out at him as being an error during his transcription.

Being the good sport that he is, Ralph still finds it “amusing” that this happened to him, and he has taken some ribbing for his blunder over the years.  Nevertheless, it doesn’t take away from his great accomplishments as a speed contest champion or as a reporter of over four decades.

Ralph went on to compete in the remaining two contests, in 1978 and 1979, and had an honorable third-place showing in each.  He remains a wealth of information and a sought-after resource when we need advice and wisdom, which is just about every day.  Ralph has been with this firm for 46 years!

Thank you, Ralph, for this walk down memory lane!

Tips for Passing the Q&A

I think it is safe to say that the Q&A leg is the nemesis of all court reporting students. Students learn early on that it is a long and grueling road trying to reach the 225 wpm goal required to pass the RPR.  I’ve mentioned in previous blogs how consistent and mindful practice will imbed the correct brain-to-finger connections essential to gaining speed and accuracy; but that aside, I thought I’d share with you three tips to help you on testing day that you may not have considered.

First of all, it may seem contrary to everything we are trained to do, but it may be a good idea to actually DROP during testing.  Sometimes you just can’t hold on.  If you cut your losses and immediately move on, you won’t dig yourself into a bigger hole trying to catch up, all the while writing unintelligible strokes.  The errors will add up quickly.  The “dropping” is easy; it’s the resumption that’s difficult to do, as it may be hard to get your rhythm back.  However, if you can stay calm and execute this strategy as the words are flying by, it may work in your favor.  Of course, if you do this throughout the Q&A take, you are not quite there yet and it’s time to regroup and practice some more.  This advice regarding dropping does not apply to your practice sessions, however.  Ultimately you will not gain speed if you don’t push yourself to the max when you practice.

My second thought would be to brief on the fly.  I still remember my first attempt at the CSR.  The street name “Furnace Brook Parkway” came up a few times.  This was long before briefs were even talked about – we wrote everything out back then – but if I’d had the benefit of this knowledge and had come up with a brief on the fly, I would have turned five strokes into one, sparing myself much anxiety and energy.  Briefing on the fly may not come easily to you, but try it during your practice sessions so you become accustomed to doing it.  If you can come up with a brief one or two times during a test, it might just be enough to get you a passing grade.

As an example, try the OIG brief.  I use this as a suffix on my right hand and use an initial sound or letter on my left hand.  So for “Furnace Brook Parkway,” a great brief would be FOIG.  The trick with any brief, though, is remembering what it stands for, which is especially challenging during a testing situation.  A word of caution:   Sometimes you will come up with a brief for “Norwegian Cruise Line” — NOIG, for instance — but the dictation may also include “Norwegian Cruise Lines” or “Norwegian Cruises.” Alternatively, you could just stick to NOIG for “Norwegian,” which would be a big timesaver in itself.

My last tip would be to transcribe your take even if you think you may not have passed.  You may have gotten more than you think you did!  For a 95% pass rate on the RPR exam, you are allowed 57 errors on the Q&A leg at 225 wpm.  It’s always useful to know what your score was, if you missed a passing grade by ten errors or 20.  Unless you think you absolutely blew it, it’s worth the effort and always good practice to transcribe.

Hopefully you will have enough time to carefully proofread your take.  Familiarize yourself with NCRA’s Grading Guidelines and what constitutes an error.  It is also important to pay attention to the content/story line when you are proofreading because doing so may provide clues that will aid you when transcribing.

It is not uncommon to be stuck at a certain speed for a long time and for months to go by before you pass another test.  Everyone hits a wall at some point and discouragement sets in.  You can’t break through, though, if you don’t keep trying.   “Never give up, for that is just the place and time that the tide will turn.”  –  Harriet Beecher Stowe

Tips for Passing the Jury Charge

Most reporters agree that the jury charge is the easiest of the legs to pass. The reason is because it is the one take that is made up of dozens of phrases that are common to that leg and are repeated throughout the dictation. So at the outset you are at somewhat of an advantage because you can already anticipate some of the language that you will hear. Furthermore, since jury charges are basically the same format-wise, that is, a judge reading instructions to the jury, the dictation is narrower in scope which I have always found to be less intimidating.

The key to passing a jury charge is to use one-stroke briefs for the common phrases found in jury charge dictation. There are several briefs out there for “preponderance of the evidence,” for example, but choose a brief that immediately makes sense to you, one that you can adopt and remember easily. If it conflicts too much with your theory or if it causes you to hesitate when the words are flying by, that will defeat the purpose of using it!

What is also tricky about jury charge briefs is, as always, the little words.  Take this sequence:

*beyond a reasonable doubt

*beyond all reasonable doubt

*beyond any reasonable doubt

*beyond every reasonable doubt

There is a one-stroke brief for each of these phrases, but you will have to commit each specific brief to memory to avoid being charged an error for writing the wrong one. You cannot afford to be tripped up during test time. They may be “little” words, but they carry the same weight as every other word on test day. Not to be overlooked is the big difference in meaning between the four phrases.

Of course the great benefit of jury charge briefs is that they can buy you valuable time. Just when you think you can’t hang on any longer, you will hear “beyond every reasonable doubt.” You can hit it in one stroke, and you’ll be back in the game. Briefs can give you breathing room, a chance to catch your breath if only for a valuable second. Briefs can really make the difference between a pass or fail.

Check out the links below. I found them after doing a Google search. Pick out the briefs that you like and practice them until you own them. If you don’t like a suggested brief on the list, don’t use it. Look for another one or create one of your own. A brief has to make sense to you for you to retain it. The third link contains common words and phrases relating to jury service which you may find helpful.

https://quizlet.com/24505773/jury-charge-briefs-and-phrases-flash-cards/

http://www.flashcardmachine.com/jury-charge-phrasesbasic.html

http://www.txnd.uscourts.gov/jurors/common-words-and-phrases

If you frequent Facebook, check out these sites:  STENO BRIEFS, The Brief Exchange, Steno Briefs for court reporters, and A BRIEF a day keeps the doctor away. Fellow court reporters are more than eager to share their briefs with you.

Additionally, your software can help you.  For example, Stenograph’s Case CATalyst has Brief It.  You write a phrase often enough, and Case CATalyst will suggest a brief for you.  http://www.stenograph.com/HelpDeskDocs/Cat4V8/Using%20Brief%20It%20In%20Case%20CATalyst%209.05.htm

NCRA’s website also has a section called “Jury Charge Dictation Materials” which you can use as practice material.  Here is the link:

http://www.ncra.org/Membership/content.cfm?ItemNumber=11963&navItemNumber=11945

Incorporating jury charge briefs in your practice regimen will be your ticket to a pass on your next test, but you will have to know them inside and out so you can write them correctly without thought or effort.

Tips for Passing Literary Tests

Between literary, jury charge, and Q&A dictation, the literary was always my favorite leg in school.  I loved the challenge of tackling dense material.  And since it was favored by me, I tended to do well on my literary tests.

I remember consciously making an effort to include literary practice from a book.  Sometimes taking a break from dictation on tape is a welcomed change.  I had a medical textbook put out by NCRA back then which included chapters on each system in the body:  skeletal, nervous, respiratory, digestive, muscular, cardiovascular, etc.  I would write from each chapter, concentrating on correct fingering, not on speed.  If I had trouble with a certain word or group of words, I would practice them until I could write them without error.  I would read my notes to see if there were any flaws or mistakes.  As time went on, I could write the chapter quite comfortably.  Because of this, when I was presented with nontechnical literary for testing purposes, it did not seem as difficult.

If you do not have such a book, there is plenty of material on line for you to use.  Just print up a few articles and write away.  Besides medical material, choose material in other subjects as well, such as chemical, engineering, or environmental.  The supply is endless!  If you can concentrate on one full article a month in a different subject area, think of all the new vocabulary words you will be able to add to your dictionary, not to mention the exposure you will have to the many disciplines you will most likely encounter in your court reporting career.

As an example, I found the article “Wiping Out Gut Bugs Stops Obesity” by Kerry Grens in the November 16, 2015, issue of The Scientist from a simple Google search and found this sentence:  “Inhibition of this signaling impairs antibiotic-induced subcutaneous-fat browning, and it suppresses the glucose phenotype of the microbiota-depleted mice.”  This is obviously a difficult passage.  If it is way beyond your abilities, look for material that is less dense and more manageable.  The main point is that there is great free practice material out there for whatever level you are at.

To get you started, email me at cpsaros@doriswong.com, and I will send you some medical chapters from the NCRA textbook, now sadly out of print, for you to practice.  They are not as difficult as the example above, but you will still find them challenging and very interesting.

Another hint:  You can also carry the articles with you so that if you have spare time – in a doctor’s waiting room, for example, or on the commuter train – you can practice the fingering without your machine.  Though not as effective, it is still a good way to forge new pathways between your brain and fingers, new pathways that will soon become part of your everyday writing arsenal.

Try including this method of practice in your routine and see if it brings you success.  In any event, it is far better to test your writing abilities during your quiet study sessions than when you come face to face with an expert witness some day.