What Money Can’t Buy

Court reporters spend a lot of money before they can even begin working.  They need a reliable machine for starters plus a laptop, software licenses, service contracts, and various ancillary supplies such as business cards, exhibit stickers, batteries, and extension cords.

All these items can be replaced almost immediately should disaster strike, but there is ONE item than cannot be purchased anywhere, in a store or through a vendor.  Without it you are back at square one.  Aside from your skill, it is your most valuable asset as a working court reporter.  What is it?  Your personal dictionary.

There are horror stories out there about court reporters who have lost all their equipment through car accidents or other natural disasters and, along with it, their personal dictionaries which resided only on their laptops.  This has rendered them essentially dead in the water, unable to immediately resume their daily duties and earn the income they are accustomed to.  Sadly, this situation could have easily been prevented if only they had backed up their dictionaries.

The conventional wisdom is to back up your personal dictionaries as often as possible, at least once a month, more often if you are just starting out.  Think of all the entries you make on just one assignment, especially if you are at the beginning of your career.  All that labor needs to be preserved and protected.  For even greater insurance, it would be wise to back up your dictionary in multiple ways, such as in the cloud or on a couple of thumb drives.  Then you can store one of the thumb drives in a location other than your office or home, such as a relative’s house, for safekeeping.  The more times you back up and the more places you can store your backups, the safer you will be.

This advice also applies to backing up your jobs.  I not only back up my jobs before I even leave an assignment, but I also back up after each editing session in case my laptop ever decides not to start up again.  The thought of being unable to retrieve a deposition or hearing for an attorney is frightening, so that alone is worth going the extra mile to protect my files at all costs.

Learn from those who have lost it all.  Save yourself the pain and avoid any serious repercussions and damage to your reputation.  Consider it a vital investment in your professional career.  Stop what you are doing and back up your dictionary right now.  Back up, back up often, and back up in multiple places!

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!

Test Anxiety

We’ve all been there.  The nerves, the shaking, the sweaty palms.

Taking a skills speed test is unlike the usual testing experience.   When you take a written exam, you have the benefit of mulling over an answer and going back to the question at a later time.  If an essay is required, you can take a few minutes to formulate your thoughts so you can respond in an organized manner.  Although there is a time limit, you have flexibility in the way you can use that time.

When you as court reporting students are taking your skills tests, you have no such luxury.  You need to be spot on at that very moment.  You need to write every word, hit the right keys, and keep up the seemingly relentless pace.  You have only so much time to transcribe.  And as if that weren’t stressful enough, the pass rate is not 70%.  It’s 95%!  It’s no wonder that test anxiety is a major issue for so many in this field.

There’s a lot of advice out there on what to do to mitigate test anxiety; for instance, get plenty of rest the night before, eat a healthy breakfast, and engage in deep breathing exercises.  Some believe exercise helps to calm nerves; some believe in meditation.  Positive mental rehearsal is another technique used by many as a means to enhance positive results.  All these suggestions have merit, and they’re worth pursuing.

Unfortunately, there is no foolproof solution to calming those test jitters.  What works for one person may not work for another.  Each of us has to find our own way in this regard.  One thing is for sure:  Anxiety comes with the territory in this profession.  Even when you are out in the working world, there will be times when your anxiety is through the roof.  You must find a way to deal with and overcome what can sometimes be a crippling fear.

On the other hand, I personally find that a little anxiety can actually be a good thing.  It gets the adrenaline going and keeps you on your toes.  The trick is to find that balance where you have just enough anxiety to propel you forward but not so much that your feelings of panic and dread sabotage you before you even get started.

For those of you who are prone to having test anxiety, the best advice I can give is to be prepared.  This means putting in as much meaningful practice time as you can.  Write cleanly, expand your vocabulary, build your dictionary.  Read back everything, examine your errors, and correct them.  Hone your concentration skills so you can eliminate distraction.  Keep a positive attitude and get rid of negative thoughts.  If you are stuck at a certain speed, consider that a temporary situation and resolve to keep on trying.  Even though you may have failed at your last testing attempt doesn’t mean you won’t succeed in the long run.  If you are practicing in an efficient and deliberate manner, even though you may think you are not making progress, you are.  You’ve passed tests before.  You’ve already had success!  You just have to pass some more.

Test anxiety is a part of every student’s learning experience.  It’s normal.  It’s sad that for many of you the anxiety is heightened because you haven’t passed a test for months, because you have no other financial options, or because you can’t run away from your obligations at home.   But don’t give up!  The good news is that there are wonderful job opportunities waiting for you when you graduate and become certified; and once out in the working world, the anxiety you feel today will dissipate as you gain more experience.

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

SPEED IS IMPORTANT BUT…

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.

Google With Care

Back in the day, long before computers became a part of a reporter’s everyday life, whenever I had a tough question, such as a spelling or a word I could not quite decipher from my notes, I would seek the help of my local library reference assistant.  This aide had access to medical dictionaries, technical journals, encyclopedias, and a host of other resources that I did not.  She saved the day for me on more than one occasion.

Today is a different story, especially for the Millennials, Gen Y, born roughly in the late 1970s to the mid-1990s, and the Centennials, Gen Z, born roughly from the mid-1990s to 2012.  Each new generation grows up with even more technology at its fingertips, specifically the Internet and social media; and with such easy access at any time of the day or night, getting instantaneous answers to one’s questions is not only desired but expected.

Court reporters have a constant need for information, and for most reporters Google is their go-to resource.  With Google, you really have the world at your fingertips.  It’s wonderful:  so helpful, convenient, and fast!  There is a danger, however, to blindly relying on what you find on Google.  Doing a search and choosing the first thing that comes up may give you a false sense of security.  You may think that you’ve done your research and found your answer when, in reality, the correct answer is really farther down on Page 2.

So how do you know if the answer you’ve found is the correct one?  It comes down to definition and context.  For example, your doctor witness says what you hear as “abduct.”  You perform a simple Google search and, sure enough, it’s a word!  If you fail to dig a little deeper, however, and look into the word’s meaning, you may not realize that the doctor actually said “adduct,” which has the opposite meaning of “abduct.”  Huge difference!

  • abduct, v.t., to draw away from a position parallel to the median axis. Think of abduction, which means a taking away.
  • adduct, v.t., to draw toward a position near or parallel to the median axis.

Chances are the doctor will be using both terms throughout his testimony.  These words are extremely difficult to distinguish auditorily under the best of circumstances.  If the doctor is a fast speaker or has even the slightest accent, it will be impossible.  This means that you will have to choose the right word each time, relying on definition and context to make the correct choice.  Imagine the implications if you fail to choose the correct word.  Imagine the fallout if you didn’t even know the other word existed!  Ouch.

Abduct/adduct is just one example.  The medical field is replete with similar illustrations.  Consider the following:

  • anuresis, n., A condition of inability to urinate. Total lack of urine.
  • enuresis, n., bedwetting.
  • apophysis, n., a projecting part of a bone.
  • epiphysis, n., the end of a long bone,, usually wider than the long portion of the bone, either composed of cartilage or separated from the shaft by a disk of cartilage.
  • claustrum – the thin layer of gray matter between the white matter of the external capsule and the extreme capsule of the brain.
  • colostrum, n., the thin, milky fluid which is secreted by the mammary glands around the time of parturition.

The lesson here is to Google with care.  Do a complete and thorough search before you decide on what to include in your transcript.  Just because you find your answer quickly doesn’t mean it is the right one.  If you are ever in doubt, don’t hesitate to ask someone for help!

Lastly, here is a useful link you should review from which the above examples were obtained:   http://www.meditec.com/resourcestools/medical-words/sound-alike-words/

P.S.  Google searches helped to make this blog possible.

HELPFUL TIPS FOR COURT REPORTING STUDENTS TO ENSURE SUCCESS

It is disheartening to read student comments on different forums about getting stuck at a speed, their frustration at their inability to move forward, but it is wonderful that we live in an age where students can reach out to a wide supportive audience of mentors who have gone through the same struggles and can offer advice and encouragement through the internet.  If you are a student who checks these various sites for information of this type, you have probably noticed that not all the advice given will resonate with you.  I suggest that you weed through the comments and see if a suggestion hits home with you, something that will spur you on and inspire you to move ahead.  It may be a technique you have overlooked, not tried, been unaware of.  It may be something as simple as practicing in a different location to try to break out of a mental rut (worked for me).  Try to wade through the noise and glean a helpful, concrete nugget or two rather than the simple “press on,” “keep trying,” “don’t give up” advice.

Maybe my tips below will resonate with you:

If you are a beginner, my advice has been and will always be to OWN your theory.  When you go through your daily lessons, write your new words over and over again until you become comfortable with the fingering.  Try writing as cleanly as you can.  Write the words a little faster each time without hesitation.  Memorize your briefs.  Most importantly, make it a habit to REVIEW the material you have already learned.  Your brain and fingers need the constant reinforcement.  Lastly, always read your notes and analyze your errors.  Are you dragging a certain finger?  Are there always shadows in a certain fingering combination?   Are you constantly writing the same word incorrectly?  Failure to analyze your errors is a missed opportunity to improve; and when you can identify and correct your errors on the spot, that is when your practice is most effective.  I recommend at least two solid hours of QUALITY practice a day, more if possible.  Your efforts in the early stages will pay great dividends when you push for speed later on.  You may not realize it, but the way you are practicing now will determine your success, or lack thereof, in the months ahead.

If you are already in speed classes and are not moving ahead, I would recommend dropping your practice speed to where you can write cleanly and build from there.  It will not help you to write messily, with a high untranslate rate, at speeds above your ability day after day.  You are doing more harm than good because your fingers and brain are not making any meaningful writing connections.   It will be time well spent to slow down and regroup.  What I found helpful when I found my fingers thrashing about the keyboard was to write text from a newspaper or magazine.  Just concentrate on writing cleanly what appears on the page before you, punctuation included.  This exercise allows you to concentrate on correct writing form at your own pace in relative quiet.  Aim for perfection.  Write the chosen text as many times as it takes until it is error free.  This is also a great opportunity to add words to your dictionary.  In the end, if you make a commitment to review your past lessons, push yourself to write clean takes, read back everything, and make adjustments where needed, you will eventually see improvement.

I hope you find these tips helpful.  Good luck!