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, 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.

What we can learn from Tom Brady

All football fans know about Tom Brady’s incredible story.  He played football at the University of Michigan, became drafted by the New England Patriots in the sixth round of the 2000 NFL draft, and the rest is history.  He has four Super Bowl rings and almost every other accolade that can be bestowed on players in the league, most notably recipient of the Super Bowl MVP award three times and the NFL MVP award two times. At 38 years old, he remains at the top of his game, still racking up impressive statistics for passing yards and touchdown passes every time he goes on the field.

Tom Brady
Tom Brady, NE Patriots QB

To me what is most impressive about Tom Terrific is his obsession with improving his game.  He could rest on his laurels and his stellar resume, but instead he is always aware of things he can improve upon and tailors a plan to do so.   Toward this end he is self-critical, analytical, driven to be better.  His work ethic is legendary, as is his passion for the game.

Brady is a champion, not unlike the heroes in our profession.  We need look no further than this year’s winners of our national speed and realtime contests — Julianne LaBadia and Douglas Zweizig, respectively — or Boston’s own Ed Varallo, six-time National Speed Champion, winning the trophy in 1974, 1975, 1976, and then again in 1986, 1996, and 2006, an unfathomable accomplishment.  These elite writers are the crème de la crème of our profession, our superstars, whose names will be immortalized in our very own court reporting Hall of Fame.

Just as Tom Brady labored to achieve his status on the gridiron, so did our speed champions labor to reach the pinnacle of the court reporting world.  Peak performance at this level doesn’t come easily or happen overnight.  Even qualifying in any leg of the contest is reason to celebrate.  It is a continuous and mindful effort that involves years of practice, experimentation, failure, fine-tuning, and sacrifice.  Unlike Brady, who competes against his peers, we compete against ourselves, so to speak, in working to bring down our untranslate rate, clean up our conflicts, and write ever faster.

To my mind, every working reporter and student out there who is continually striving to improve their writing skills deserves recognition as well.  There is always something to work on, something to improve upon, another certification to obtain.  This work ethic and dedication not only reflects well upon you but on the profession as a whole.  Brady leaves it all on the field when he plays; he lets his record speak for itself.  The same can be said about us.  At the end of the day, our verbatim transcripts, produced by certified professionals, can stand on their own too.


With all the talk these days about finding a happy work/life balance, I began thinking about you, court reporting students, and how you must be struggling to find a study/life balance and how you might best achieve some semblance of harmony in your pursuit of becoming working reporters one day.

I fear that the many challenges you are facing are truly daunting, and I empathize.  In an ideal world, you would be unencumbered with pressing obligations so you can practice as often as you like without distraction.  The real world is another story.  With only so many hours in a day, the tug from all sides can be overwhelming.  So how can you make time on your machine yet have time for other things in your life?

The key is great time management skills.  If you possess this trait, you are ahead of the game.  If you do not, you should take deliberate steps to foster it.  Lack of time management skills will hinder your progress on your machine and the deleterious effects will plague you throughout your career.  Successful reporters have learned the value of managing their time well.  They prioritize their work, avoid procrastination, and meet their deadlines.  This is a constant.

No matter how hectic your schedule, you must carve out at least two hours of quality practice time each day.  If you have children, if you work, or if you are caring for an elderly loved one, for example, it will certainly be challenging.  Finishing school in a timely manner, however, rests on a commitment to a regular practice regimen.  Your steady progress depends on it.

It doesn’t matter when you practice during the day as long as you find the time.  Ideally, you should practice when you feel at your best.  If you feel most alert in the morning, put in your two hours of uninterrupted practice before you take on your other responsibilities; or if you have a block of time available every day, devote that time to practice and nothing else.  Make it a habit, a nonnegotiable part of your day.  Don’t let excuses sabotage your goal.  Organize your schedule so that your practice time is prioritized.

Designate a quiet place free of distraction where you can practice, an environment you can more or less control.  When you sit in your chair in that space, you can get right down to business, bear down and sweat out whatever the goal is for that particular session:  reviewing briefs, tackling tricky fingering phrases, or mastering a two-minute take.

Once your practice time is met, then you can concentrate on the other things in your life that need your attention, and you can do so with a clear conscience.  You won’t have the stress of your practice “requirement” hanging over your head.  You can put it on the back burner for the time being, knowing that you’ve put maximum effort into your full two-hour session.

If you learn to balance your study/life balance, you will reap the benefits as a reporter in finding your work/life balance.  There will always be obstacles and hurdles in life, and sometimes they will make it difficult to do your job; but if you have a healthy dose of self-discipline in conjunction with a strong work ethic, you will prevail.  This is why it is so important to master your theory, push for speed, read back, and correct your mistakes.  The untold hours you spend honing your writing skills now as a student, and later in the working world, will mean less time editing and more time for other obligations and maybe even some fun.  Imagine that!

If you keep your eye on the prize — graduation, certification, and a full-time job — it will keep you motivated to stick to a daily practice regimen; and if you can practice more than two hours a day, your goal may be within reach sooner.  Be one hundred percent “present” during your practice sessions, and you will see better results.


We all know there is a court reporter shortage. Many court reporters are aging, nearing retirement, and there are not enough graduates in line to replace them. To compound the situation, the number of accredited schools has diminished considerably around the country due to low graduation rates and decreased enrollment.

Needless to say, NCRA is pushing to rectify this situation through their Court Reporting, Take Note campaign, which can be found at NCRA is heavily promoting court reporting as a career that offers flexible hours, job security, character building, and an average starting salary of $45,000.

So when I see ads or news reports touting $100,000 salaries, I cringe. Court reporting can be a lucrative career, especially if you are a top-tier professional, but luring potential students into this vocation thinking that $100,000 salaries are the norm I think is irresponsible. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics figures for May of 2012, the top ten percent of reporters earned $90,530, the bottom ten percent earned $24,790, and the mean salary was $48,160.

If you are contemplating becoming a court reporter, it is important that you not base your decision on potential earnings alone. Before one dime is invested in your education, you should honestly evaluate how you stack up in terms of temperament, skill set, and work ethic, all qualities addressed in a previous blog. With that in mind, there are other things to consider: How much time will you realistically have to devote to your studies? Do you work full time? Do you have challenges in your personal life, such as child/elder care or your own health issues? All these factors could prove distracting and could potentially delay or even derail your goal of graduating in a timely fashion.

Yes, $100,000 salaries are certainly attainable, but the reporters earning those incomes by and large have NCRA’s RMR, RDR, and CRR certifications. These designations have been earned over the course of their careers, not upon graduation.


The major focus of court reporting school is to write faster.  As a student, this process becomes ingrained in your psyche.  It is your quest.  You practice for months on end, pass a test, and the seemingly never-ending cycle continues.

Why does speed matter?  For one, it allows you to write comfortably.  Nothing is worse on an assignment, or more exhausting mentally and physically, than struggling to get every word and playing catch-up all day.  Having speed also allows you to write more cleanly, which will translate into better read-back on the job and less editing time afterward; and when you get more experience under your belt, you will be able to provide clean realtime feeds to counsel, a skill which is becoming more in demand with each passing day.  Lastly, speed matters because you will be in a better position to actually listen to the testimony that is unfolding before you and to learn what the lawsuit is about.  You will produce a better transcript if you understand the reason for the lawsuit and the parties’ positions on the issues.

Having adequate speed is one thing; having a speed cushion is even better.  A cushion will help you hang on during the fast spurts, endure very long-winded technical answers, and accurately record heated arguments between counsel in colloquy.

In a nutshell, having speed puts you in control.  You will be able to report all day with less stress and with confidence knowing you are getting the job done.  The truth is, and working reporters will tell you, that you can never write fast enough.  There are some witnesses that challenge even the most experienced reporters, which is why many continue to practice long after they have graduated from school.

So it may surprise you to learn that, as crucial as speed is, it isn’t everything!  What good does it do if you can write at 225 wpm but you don’t know how to punctuate or if you have inadequate word knowledge and choose the wrong word in context?  Your work product is being examined by intelligent and discerning people.  You wouldn’t want your reputation tarnished by errors, in black and white, for all to see.

Court reporting is part science and part art.  The science is the technical aspect of writing the words on your machine.  The art is using every tool at your disposal, along with your judgment and experience, to produce a transcript that accurately reflects what transpired.  This is your core responsibility.  A reporter must be competent in both areas, the science and the art, to be successful.

So while you are pushing for speed, remember not to overlook the other components that will make you a better reporter.  All accomplished reporters I know care about every word, its spelling, and usage.  They think about, sometimes agonize over, punctuation.  They know enough to research what they don’t know.  They read newspapers and magazines to improve their word knowledge and to keep abreast of current events and the world around them.  They are members of NCRA, and they attend its seminars.  They are organized, have excellent time management skills, and pay attention to detail.  These attributes are just as important as speed.  Being proficient in both areas will make you a reporter in high demand.


Court reporting students, probably more than students in any other field, fail their tests almost weekly.  As a student, you press on day after day, week after week, and beyond, only to see “FAIL” on your graded paper.  You can fail because of one missed word.  One.  And just when you finally pass a test, the process begins anew and you will most certainly meet with failure again the very next week.  The cycle can be downright demoralizing.

But take heart.

Every reporter before you has failed, repeatedly, and has come out the other side to a career they love, and you can too.  As students you’re expected to fail.  You’re learning.  You’re not there yet.  Probably no one has told you, though, that failure has value, and breakthroughs can come as a result.  The key is analyzing why you are failing and doing what you can to move ahead and face your next speed hurdle with renewed enthusiasm and sense of purpose.

This is why reading back and examining your writing is so important to your progress.  Read back everything.  Be self-critical.  Why are you failing?  What mistakes are you making?  Are you making the same mistakes repeatedly?  Try to be as specific in your analysis as possible.  There could be several reasons:  the same fingering errors; unreadable notes; hesitation; dropping; problems with numbers, synonyms, punctuation; lack of concentration; poor practice habits; time constraints.

Having this information is valuable!  Now that you know what is holding you back or giving you trouble, you can address those areas and form a strategy to mitigate or eliminate them.  There may be several areas that need your attention, which is common.  Don’t get overwhelmed or be too hard on yourself.  You are a work in progress.  The good news is that there are workable solutions to any issue you may have.  Ask for help in overcoming your particular problem area.  Reach out to your teacher or a working professional for advice, or ask NCRA for a virtual mentor. You’ll be surprised at how helpful they can be.

Court reporting school is all about the journey.  Only those who have gone before you know what you are going through now.  The journey will have more failures than successes for sure; but if you heed the lessons that your failures offer, and make a deliberate and steadfast effort during your daily practice sessions, you will become a better writer and PASS that certification test one day!

So the next time you see “FAIL” on your test paper, add the word “FORWARD” to remind yourself to learn from the mistakes made and forge ahead.

The following is the quote from Charles F. Kettering that inspired these comments.  May it inspire you too.  “Failures, repeated failures, are finger posts on the road to achievement.  One fails forward toward success.”


As a student you are probably in the throes of speedbuilding, pushing hard to pass your next test.  Maybe the more immediate goal of graduation seems a way down the road; and perhaps even further in the distance is the goal of attaining a certification, such as your RPR.  Be that as it may, it is not too early to incorporate the goal of certification into your current mindset.  It may seem a reach, unattainable at this point in your studies, but as Tony Robbins said, “Setting goals is the first step in turning the invisible into the visible.” 

Why should credentials matter to you?  The first reason that comes to mind is job security.  The more credentials you have, the more valuable you will be to your employer and the more attractive you will be to potential employers.  NCRA’s credentials are useful benchmarks upon which others can judge your skills.  From an employer’s standpoint, there is a certain level of trust and comfort knowing that the reporter on the case has the skill necessary to get the job done.  For this reason there will always be a higher demand for Registered Merit Reporters, Registered Diplomate Reporters, and Certified Realtime Reporters.

Along with job security comes better income potential.  Those with the higher credentials will be given the more technical assignments.  This usually translates into higher page rates and requests for expedited delivery and realtime services, work that not all reporters are capable of.  Reporters with the higher credentials actually enjoy the more difficult cases and thrive on the sometimes complex challenges they present.  They have shown that they are not averse to pushing their abilities and keeping abreast of the latest developments in the field.

Of course there are assignments that can tax even the most seasoned professionals, but I think most would agree that having an RDR designation beside your name shields you from any claim of incompetency. What a confidence boost, knowing that you have proven your skills and knowledge through testing and have earned the endorsement of your professional organization.

But back to you, the student.  The message is to resolve to earn as many credentials as you can throughout your career, beginning with the RPR.  You are making a huge effort in time, money, heart, and soul.  Why not strive to be a GREAT reporter as opposed to an average one?  It may take years, but a commitment to your professional growth and development is one investment that will bring you job security, a comfortable income, and the respect of your colleagues and clients.

“You don’t have to be great to start, but you have to start to be great.”  – Zig Zigler