Your Steno Machine

As students, every day is consumed with practice with the goal of passing your next speed test.  You have so much to do:  practice your briefs, tackle tricky passages, read back, correct your errors, work on finger exercises.  But have you given any thought to your writer?

Your writer is your means of making a living.  It will always be just you and your machine on assignment, working together as one unit.  You may be using an old machine in school – the machine I used was a verifiable antique – but when you are out in the working world and purchase your very own new model, special care will be necessary to keep your machine in top working condition.  Machine neglect leads to machine failure.  Machine failure leads to expensive repairs and lost income.  If you are lucky, you will have a hint that your machine needs service; but more often than not, you will be given no advance notice that your machine is about to fail.  You will discover that it does not work when you are on assignment and attempt to turn it on.  Bad timing indeed.

I know reporters who send their writers in every year for a checkup, usually when they go on vacation.  Yes, these machines are workhorses, but they also have delicate electronics that can benefit from examination by certified technicians.  There are so many moving parts.  Needless to say, if all are in top working order, you will write with greater ease and with less effort.  If your keys are sticking and out of alignment, it will slow you down and affect your writing accuracy, efficiency, and lengthen your editing time.  Reporters notice a big difference after their machines have been serviced.

“Machine neglect leads to machine failure. 
Machine failure leads to expensive repairs and lost income.”

You may want to purchase a Writer Protection Plan along with your new writer as our machines take a lot of abuse on a daily basis.  Yes, it is expensive, but the cost of parts and labor can easily exceed the cost of a protection plan.  Repair of the main PC board, for example, is around $2,000.  In my opinion, the peace of mind is worth it.  There are different options depending on your price point that you should investigate, such as whether or not you want a loaner provided while your machine is being repaired so you can continue working.  These plans basically cover labor, parts, shipping, and updates.  Discounts are offered for STAR members and students.  You should also consider an insurance rider for your machine.  That will include breakage and equipment replacement from accidents, theft, vandalism, fire, and natural disasters.

The condition of your machine reflects on you.  I’ve heard machines so loud as to be distracting.  I’ve seen machines covered in pet hair.  I’ve also seen reporters throw their machines in their cases without care or adequate protection.  I find all of these scenarios unsettling!  Take care of your machine, and it will take care of you.

NOTE:  Buyer beware!  If you can’t afford a new writer, consider purchasing a certified, pre-owned writer from a reputable source like Stenograph.  Don’t waste your money buying obsolete legacy writers that are no longer in production and are no longer supported for lack of parts.

Court Reporting Myths

All court reporters are the same.

We may all seem the same at first glance, sitting at our machines with our fingers flying, but we all know that among our members there is a wide range of abilities and experience.  So how does one know that a reporter has the core competencies required to produce a timely verbatim transcript, or how does one know if the court reporter can provide realtime?   The standard determinant in our business has always been the credentials earned through NCRA:  RPR, RMR, RDR, CRR, and CRC.  It may not be the only factor — and there are some members who consistently perform at a high level without the top credentials — but it is the one that carries significant weight among its members.

Court reporting is easy.  All you have to do is push a button to get a transcript.

Were it so!  True, there are gifted reporters out there who can consistently produce very clean transcripts by the end of the day, but they are in the minority.  Among NCRA’s membership of 11,495, only 1,864 hold the RMR; 486 hold the RDR; and 2,478 hold the CRR (as of February 2018).  Court reporting is stressful and difficult, but they make it LOOK easy. 

Longer words are harder to write than short words. 

With the emphasis on writing “short,” this does not hold true anymore.  Multisyllabic words used to be the nemesis of reporters, but savvy reporters have changed their writing styles to incorporate shortcuts for long words, word groupings, common phrases, and numbers.  In addition, they have learned to come up with creative briefs on the fly.  Carol Kusinitz, a reporter extraordinaire who routinely does this, came up with the brief CRUPL* for “cryptococcal meningitis.”  This practice not only cuts down dramatically on misstrokes but saves wear and tear on your hands and fingers which is crucial when considering a career that can last decades.

I can earn $100K at the completion of just a two-year court reporting program!

Earnings for beginning reporters do not even approach $100K.  This is certainly attainable but only after years of experience in the field.  The higher the credentials one has usually correlates with the more lucrative assignments, so it certainly is an incentive to improve your skills.  Secondly, many students do not graduate in two years.  To think that you will definitely finish in two years and then start immediately earning $100K is a fairy tale.

Court reporting is a boring job.

Yes, there are times when you are bored to tears, but court reporting can also be very exciting.  You will be privy to private and confidential matters, contentious and controversial matters, sometimes matters covered by the local and national media, and you will be exposed to topics from every field imaginable.  It is a “free” education, there for the taking. You will meet people from all walks of life and gain perspective on human nature.  Reporting also offers you the opportunity to travel nationally and around the world!  Reporters from this office have reported in Italy, Cyprus, Sweden, and Mongolia, to name a few.

Court reporters can make their own hours.

If only this were true.  Freelancers may have more flexibility, but all reporters are at the mercy of their backlogs and their clients’ wishes.  When a transcript is needed on an expedited basis, it needs to get delivered on time.  Everyone has a million stories.  I remember attorneys ordered an expedited transcript from me on Christmas Eve.

I have audio, so I can just sit back and enjoy the ride.

I don’t know of one professional reporter who subscribes to this.  There is always the possibility that your audio could fail, often at the absolute worst time.  If you didn’t hear it to begin with, it’s possible it won’t be picked up by the audio.  You are there to safeguard the record and must do everything in your power to prepare the best transcript you can.  Interrupt for clarification if necessary, and always work on improving your skill and speed so you don’t need your audio backup as a crutch.

A tape recorder can do your job.  You probably hear this one a lot.  I don’t even want to go there.  We all know the truth.

Do You Punctuate As You Write?

I hope you are putting in punctuation as you write.  If you train yourself to do so, it will become automatic and you won’t even give it a second thought.  If you hear the end of a sentence, put in your period.  If the witness is mentioning items in a series, you know that calls for commas, so put them in.  You may think you will be able to write faster by omitting the punctuation, but it really is counterproductive.  You will be spending valuable time after the fact, especially in a testing situation, figuring out where the proper punctuation should go.  Further, you may not think it is important, but sometimes it can prove to be critical. 

Consider the following excerpt from NCRA President’s July 2018 message.  I removed the punctuation.  How would you punctuate this passage?

“Approximately one year ago when the lights went out during the premier session in Las Vegas I quietly wondered if it was some sort of sign I had no idea what the ensuing year would hold I’ll be honest it’s been a bit of a roller coaster thankfully I have always enjoyed the thrill of a good roller-coaster ride throughout the year my President’s columns have addressed giving back gratitude adapting to change vision celebrating success moving our industry forward and living in the reality of our profession as it has evolved I am proud of our accomplishments this year they have been significant I would like to provide you some highlights.”

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If you don’t punctuate as you write, you will be faced with long run-on sentences that will be hard to decipher.  More importantly, there is the danger that you will punctuate incorrectly, thus changing the meaning of what was intended to be said.

The above passage may not have been so difficult to punctuate, but there will be a time when you are faced with a technical witness who speaks his own language of which you haven’t a clue.  I found the following abstract from the September 2018 issue of the Insurance:  Mathematics and Economics journal, an article titled, “Minimizing the probability of ruin:  Optimal per-loss reinsurance” by Liang and Young.  It sounds like testimony from witnesses I’ve had at the Division of Insurance.  It’s a huge challenge just getting the words down; punctuating it correctly is another story.  I’ve removed the punctuation.  Try punctuating this:

“We compute the optimal investment and reinsurance strategy for an insurance company that wishes to minimize its probability of ruin when the risk process follows a compound Poisson process (CPP) and reinsurance is priced via the expected-value premium principle we consider per-loss optimal reinsurance for the CPP after first determining optimal reinsurance for the diffusion that approximates this CPP for both the CPP claim process and its diffusion approximation the financial market in which the insurer invests follows the Black–Scholes model namely a single riskless asset that earns interest at a constant rate and a single risky asset whose price process follows a geometric Brownian motion under minimal assumptions about admissible forms of reinsurance we show that optimal per-loss reinsurance is excess-of-loss therefore our result extends the work of the optimality of excess-of-loss reinsurance to the problem of minimizing the probability of ruin.”

Have your eyes glazed over yet?

Testimony like this can go on for a full day, so it is very possible you could end up with 200 pages of wall-to-wall testimony to transcribe.  Imagine having 200 pages of run-on sentences to deal with.   Even ten pages is too much!  It is almost guaranteed that in this instance you will fail to correctly punctuate, and the testimony will prove to be nonsensical and therefore useless, causing major problems for the parties involved and YOU. 

As a reporter, you are tasked with creating a readable and accurate record.  Punctuation marks are the tools you need to do so.  If you write the punctuation as you hear it, using the inflection of the tone or pitch of the speaker’s voice as a helpful guide, you at least have a shot at correctly capturing what the witness said and meant.  Sometimes, if you don’t, as in the example above, you don’t stand a chance.

Energize your Practice Sessions

I think most of you would agree that getting motivated to practice every day is one of the most difficult daily struggles court reporting students face.  Not only does practicing take hours out of your day, but it requires deep concentration, endurance, and, oh, yes, accuracy.

It all comes down to self-discipline.  It means resisting the temptation to shorten your practice session or skipping practice altogether.  It means a willingness to forgo things you’d rather be doing for a payoff in the end.  When you are out in the working world, self-discipline will mean working overtime to meet a deadline, missing out on social events, and working nights, weekends, and holidays to keep up with your backlog.  As one of my colleagues, Ken DiFraia, RPR, said, “If you’re not into it from the get-go, this profession is not for you.”

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I always practiced alone.  It’s the only way I could focus.  Ken, however, mentioned that he used to practice with another student, so it’s something you may want to consider.  He said there were many benefits:

  • it broke up the monotony of practicing alone
  • it allowed you to share ideas, briefs, tips, etc.
  • it provided for friendly competition for readback and speed
  • it provided much needed support from a peer

This option may not be for everyone, and it shouldn’t replace time practicing alone.  It may be worth trying a couple of times a week to see if it helps improve your skill and your spirits.  Choose a partner carefully and set up a plan for each practice session.  This will keep you on task and avoid wasted time.  It is interesting to note that Ken and his fellow student practiced together from the outset, and both passed their first 225 in the beginning of the summer session after their second year.

Sometimes shaking things up a little can prove beneficial.  It may be worth a try.  Good luck! 

Shadowing a Reporter Too Soon is Counterproductive

There are two schools of thought on this issue.  Some believe that sitting out with a working reporter at any speed is helpful.  I personally feel that you shouldn’t shadow a reporter until you have passed your 200 Q&A. 

The purpose of shadowing a court reporter is to familiarize yourself with the job, but it also should serve as a gauge of where you currently are and where you have yet to go.  If you sit out after you’ve passed your 200s, it will be a more realistic test of your abilities. You still have to pass your 225s to earn your RPR, and those extra 25 wpm are the hardest to attain!  Further, any reporter will tell you that even 225 wpm just doesn’t cut it on many days.  The gap between 180 and 225 is a big one, and sitting out at that speed would be discouraging.  Your time would be better spent practicing.

When you are ready to sit in with a reporter, you should have the mindset of putting yourself in the reporter’s place and envisioning that YOU are the reporter of record.  Learning how to swear in witnesses, mark exhibits, note stipulations, etc., is the easy part.  The hard part is creating a record.  Pretend that you are there alone.  Can you keep up?  Would you have to interrupt often?  How are you handling colloquy, the arguing, the frequent readback?  In short, would you be able to prepare a quality transcript of the entire proceedings?

Working reporters enjoy taking students out and sharing their knowledge.  This is a perfect setting to learn what you don’t in the classroom:  the reporter’s routine, tricks of the trade, use of technology.  Maybe your reporter is writing realtime for the attorneys and has provided iPads to all counsel.  You will be amazed and inspired to witness this live!  Take advantage of this special opportunity to ask your questions and get tips on what you need to do to improve.

I still remember vividly sitting out as a student.  The attorneys were always gracious, allowing me to sit in on what are always considered confidential matters.  I was grateful; they could have refused my attendance, but it was never an issue.  I was allowed a front-row seat, but I tried to be as unobtrusive and respectful as possible.  What I most remember was trying to keep up.  My fingers were still moving long after the reporter’s fingers had stopped.  I soaked it all in and took something away from every session.  Lastly, I always took a moment to thank the reporter and the attorneys for the opportunity.

Shadowing a reporter is a great experience, but it should be saved for when you are close to approaching the finish line.  At that point you’ll have more practice time under your belt and a better chance of success.  If you are not quite there yet, keep putting in as much quality practice time as you can.  Your turn to shadow a reporter will come.  I wish you all a productive learning experience out in the “real world”!

STUDENT COURT REPORTER: SETTING ACHIEVABLE GOALS

Have you been stuck at the same speed for way too long?  Perhaps you should give some thought to setting goals.  Those who set goals have greater success than those who don’t.  The process helps you focus.  If you set attainable goals, you will experience success more often which will help you stay more motivated over the long term.  Setting goals should be a part of your daily mindset.  Implementing them will help you get to the finish line faster.

There are two goals you should be working on each day:  a speedbuilding goal and a goal for addressing your problem areas.

Regarding speedbuilding, of course your main goal, which is a constant, is to pass your next speed test, but this entails increasing your speed by a whopping 20 wpm at each level.  That is a steep hill to climb.  Instead of practicing a full five-minute take at 20 wpm over your comfortable writing speed, try breaking it down into five one-minute segments.  Make it your goal to tackle a single one-minute segment per day.  Try to write it as perfectly as possible.  Spend time on the words or sections

Hard Work

that are tripping you up.  Don’t accept drops or misstrokes.  Don’t give up.  Read back every take.

After you master the second minute, try writing the two-minute take perfectly.  Then after you master the third minute, try writing the three-minute take perfectly.  Make it your goal to write the entire five-minute take without error by the end of the week.  Practicing in one-minute increments is less daunting, and success is more readily achievable.  Correct muscle memory training comes with this kind of deliberate and consistent practice.  Your writing will flow more smoothly from your brain to your fingers, leading to less hesitation and more speed.  Be sure to get in as much practice time as possible, two hours a day at a minimum outside of class.

Improving your speed is a must, but you won’t get there if you do not address your problem areas.  When you critically examine your writing, your weaknesses will become apparent, and you can develop a game plan to improve.  If you don’t read back, you are wasting your time.

Choose a problem area that needs your immediate attention.  After that problem is solved, pick another one to work on.  Maybe you are having difficulty with numbers (dollars, cents, time, dates); maybe you can’t remember briefs; or maybe homonyms are your nemesis.  Whatever the issue, break it down into manageable parts and build from there.  Write hints on stickies and put them on your machine for easy reference.  This should be an ongoing exercise over the course of your career.  Good reporters are constantly looking for ways to fine-tune their skill so they can reduce their untranslate rate.  If you are proactive in this area, it will reap huge dividends over time.

If you set achievable goals for speedbuilding and goals for addressing problem areas, you will have a roadmap to success.  Setting goals gives purpose to your practice sessions so they will not weigh as heavily on your mind or, more importantly, your spirit.  Good luck!

 

Practicing in Dive Bars

Having a son in the music business, and watching his career grow from the sidelines, has been an enlightening experience.  Unlike the court reporting profession, where court reporters are a rarity, musicians abound.  Despite this disparity, musicians and court reporters share a common challenge:  both have a high mountain to climb to achieve success.  I thought I’d share my son’s experience.  Perhaps it will inspire you in your court reporting journey.

Jay got his lucky break working at the famed Medieval Manor dinner theater in Boston as one of two minstrels.  He spent countless hours learning the script and practicing the accompanying music.  With the Medieval Manor gig as his mainstay on weekends, Jay continued writing songs and honing his guitar skills during the week.  He made dozens JayPsarosof calls a month to get gigs around town.  Night after night he would lug his equipment from one dive bar to the next for meager pay and hopefully a meal.  He would sit in a dark corner and play his heart out until closing time.  Sometimes people would listen; many times they would not.

Over the years, the dive bar gigs took their toll.  He grew impatient and discouraged.  Despite his exasperation, Jay pressed on, all the while increasing his repertoire and improving his skill.  Slowly he started to find his own voice in the crowded field of musicians.  His fan base started to grow as did his confidence.  He made some good connections which led to better paying gigs in nicer venues, more recognition, and some critical acclaim.

Incredibly, amazing opportunities started coming his way.  He was asked to co-host the first ever Levitate Music Festival featuring the Original Wailers and has since opened for Ziggy Marley, Boz Scaggs, the Mavericks, Daughtry, Los Lonely Boys, Lisa Loeb, and others at beautiful venues.  These are the gigs he always dreamed of and the gigs he lives for.

Jay’s modest success didn’t happen overnight.  It was ten years in the making.  I remember the night he opened for Ziggy Marley, psyched beyond words, only to play the next night in a dive bar for less than a handful of people.  The difference couldn’t have been more glaring.  What he realized, however, was that his Ziggy Marley gig, and all the other notable ones, would not have been possible without the grind of playing in those dive bars night after night after endless night.  It is where he honed his act.  In hindsight, it was valuable practice time, an opportunity to improvise, make his errors, learn from them, improve, and try out new material.  Jay still grinds it out every night, as the thrilling opening gigs don’t come along every day.  He is never satisfied, always pushing through the drudgery and preparing for the next unknown opportunity.

So how does Jay’s experience mirror yours, the court reporting student’s?  Practicing days on end is your dive bar experience.  Embrace it all, the ups and the downs!  This is the foundation on which your future success will depend.  Continue to work through the inevitable disappointments and set your goals.  Practice, make your mistakes, evaluate them, adjust, and improve.  The dividends will come if you continue to hone your act.  You can’t hit the “big time” as a Registered Professional Reporter without paying your dues.