How to write 225 words per minute — with a pen and paper

Students in the shorthand class at Broken Bow College, 1903

It’s Gregg shorthand, replacing letters and words with coded versions that look like scribbles. It’s nearly a lost art today. Shorthand made Irishman John Robert Gregg “an American tycoon in the first half of the 20th Century.”

By the time he died, in 1949, Gregg presided over an empire that reached from his headquarters on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan into almost every school, business and courthouse in the country. While he was fundamentally a publishing magnate—Gregg Publishing put out hundreds of textbooks, dictionaries, study guides, magazines, and shorthand versions of classical literature—John Robert Gregg also oversaw a national infrastructure of certification agencies, business schools, and testing facilities that endorsed the skills of all professional shorthand writers. If you wanted to be an executive secretary, you needed a certificate from Gregg saying you qualified at 150 words per minute. If you wanted to be a court reporter, you had to demonstrate you could write an astonishing 225 words per minute with better than 98 percent accuracy. Altogether, millions of people passed through Gregg training and the Gregg certification system.

For nearly a century, Gregg was an essential part of American society. As recently as the 1970s, almost every high school in the country taught Gregg. Certainly, every business school and most colleges offered Gregg-certified shorthand courses. But Gregg’s decline began when McGraw-Hill bought Gregg Publishing, shortly after John Robert Gregg’s death. The rise of stenography machines in the 1940s and 1950s steadily drove shorthand from the courtroom (though there are still a handful of “pen writers” in the federal court system). The Dictaphone and other recording devices made verbatim note taking less and less important in the office. And some people say improvements in women’s rights also played a role in the decline of Gregg. In a time when they were denied careers in fields like the law or medicine, the smartest, most talented women often ended up as secretaries or executive assistants and became gifted shorthand practitioners. In the 1960s and 1970s, as these women began to move on to better opportunities, those left behind never became quite as fast or skilled at the complexities of Gregg.

The real death knell for Gregg, though, was the arrival of the personal computer in the 1980s. Even high-level executives no longer dictated letters to their secretaries; they wrote them themselves on their desktop computers. Companies that used to have scores of skilled shorthand writers eliminated their steno pools entirely. Today, I’m not aware of any high school that teaches Gregg. It’s almost impossible to find it taught in colleges—with two exceptions in Kingsborough and Queensborough community colleges in New York City, where Gregg writers are still prized by some white glove law firms.

How to Write 225 Words Per Minute With a Pen

Journalist Dennis Hollier, who wrote this piece, uses Gregg shorthand with a Sky wifi smartpen, which includes an audio recorder, and camera that records his notes as he goes and uploads the notes to Evernote. The notes are synced to the audio recording, so he just has to touch his pen to a spot in the notebook and hear playback on that spot.

I used to use a high-tech setup to take notes in the field — a stylus to take notes with handwriting into an iPad app. But the app crashed on me, losing interview notes (fortunately it was a short interview, of relatively little importance, that I was able to reconstruct from memory). And I realized that I was constantly worried about something like that happening. So now I take notes the 20th Century way when I’m in the field, with pen and paper. I type notes into my Mac when I’m doing phone interviews at my desk.

So, yeah, the Sky wifi smartpen sounds great, but what if it crashes? Or what if you lose it, or it gets stolen? And it’s yet another thing to have to worry about charging. Whereas I can get a new pen and pad of paper in a minute at any convenience store. (Ask me again in a decade if that’s still true.)

I’m thinking maybe I should learn Gregg shorthand, though.

Gregg used to hold court reporting contests a century ago, where contestants took dictation in categories such as “jury charge” and testimony.” In the last National Speed Contest between pen writers, in 1927, contestants competed at speeds of 280 words per minute. A shorthand stenographer named Martin Dupraw won, using a fountain pen.

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