How to Write 225 Words Per Minute With a Pen

A lesson in the lost technology of shorthand
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Students in the shorthand class at Broken Bow College, 1903. ( Nebraska State Historical Society )

As a journalist, I begin most interviews by holding up my pen and asking, “Have you ever seen one of these?” No one ever has.

It’s not an ordinary pen, of course. It’s a Sky wifi smartpen, a piece of gee-whiz technology from a company called Livescribe. Basically, the smartpen replaces all your standard reporter’s tools. To start with, it’s an old-fashioned pen for old-fashioned paper, so I can still scribble my notes the way I always have. The smartpen is also a high-quality digital recorder, creating an audio file of the interview as we go along. Finally, a tiny camera near the tip of the pen simultaneously takes pictures of my notes as I write.

All of that information is then pulled together by a microprocessor housed in the barrel of the pen. And because the smartpen is really a computer, it’s able to sync up the picture of my handwritten notes with the audio file. That means I can tap the tip of the pen anywhere in my notebook, and the pen will instantly replay the audio of whatever was being said when I took that note. And since it’s WiFi enabled, the whole interview—audio file, notes, and all—is automatically uploaded to my Evernote account. It’s a little like magic.

There’s one other feature I like to point out. It’s possible, I tell people, to get optical character recognition software to go with the pen. If you write like a normal person, the OCR will automatically convert your handwritten notes into a text file that you can then copy and paste into your word processor. For many reporters, this is the best feature, obviating the painful task of transcribing long interviews. But it doesn’t work for me, I explain, because even though I’m recording this interview with the latest model Sky wifi smartpen, I’m taking notes using a 19th Century technology called Gregg shorthand.

In many respects, Gregg is even more ingenious than the smartpen. And, although no electronics or gizmos were involved, it was a tremendously powerful and influential technology for nearly 100 years. Now, it’s become the key to my workflow in the Internet age. 

Gregg is a way of compressing language. You are the machine that does the encoding and decoding. And your brain can do it in real time at very, very high speeds. To understand why, you have to know a little about how it works. 

Gregg is basically a much simpler and more efficient writing system than longhand English. This starts with the letters themselves. The Roman alphabet, which we use to write English, is much more complicated than is strictly necessary to distinguish one letter from another. To print a lower-case “b”, for example, requires a long, downward stroke with a clockwise loop at the base. Then, you have to pick up your pen to move to the next letter, an extraneous step that takes up almost as much time as the writing itself. Cursive (when was the last time you heard that word?) may seem a little faster, but it actually requires additional strokes, short ligatures at the beginning and the end of each letter. That’s a lot of wasted motion, which is why cursive is actually only about 10 percent faster than print.

In contrast, Gregg’s “letters” are much simpler shapes. Here's the first paragraph of this article written in shorthand: 

Dennis Hollier

Consonants are either shallow curves or straight lines; vowels are either loops or small hooks. The Gregg “b”, for example, is an uncomplicated downward stroke of the pen—a long, forward-leaning curve that faces to the right, like an open parenthesis in italics. If you measure the complexity of writing in the number of strokes, the Gregg “b” requires just one stroke compared to the four or five that comprise the Roman “b.” Gregg letters also require no ligatures; each letter blends seamlessly into the others. In the combination “b-r”, for instance, the long, downward curve of a “b” joins the short, horizontal curve of an “r” to form a sort of right-handed fishhook. 

Here, you can see the Gregg letter "b," then "r," and a combination of the two, which would represent "bring" (more on that abbreviation in a minute): 

Dennis Hollier

In Gregg, the simplification of the forms of letters reaches its apogee in a process called “blending”. The individual strokes of many frequently combined letter pairs are written with a single blended stroke. The short, straight, horizontal dash of an “n” and the long, diagonal, upward stroke of the “d” join to become a long, upward curve that represents “nd”. This not only reduces the number of strokes, it eliminates the momentary pause necessary to form an angle between the “n” and the “d”. This simplicity of design—the absence of superfluous strokes—accounts for about 10 percent of the speed of Gregg.

Here's "n," "d," then the "nd" combo:

Dennis Hollier

Another advantage of Gregg is that it’s phonetic. The word “bay”, for example, is written “b-a”—the simple downward curve of the “b”, finished with the large, counter-clockwise loop of an “a”, so that the whole word, three letters in longhand, looks pretty much like a single sloping version of the Roman “b”. Gregg eschews the parade of silent letters, like the “y” in “bay” that make English so difficult to learn as a second language. 

Here a sequence showing "b," "a," then "ba" for "bay:"

Dennis Hollier

Some letters, like “c” and “q”, are completely absent from Gregg; there is no sound for “c” besides those already represented by “k” and “s”. On the other hand, there are common phonemes in English—“sh”, “th”, “ch”—that require a combination of letters in the Roman alphabet, but can each be written with a single letter in Gregg. “Though,” which, in longhand, requires six complex symbols strung together with seven short ligatures, is rendered with two short strokes in Gregg: “th-o.” But Gregg goes even further, eliding unstressed vowels and unvoiced consonants to get to the phonetic nugget of the word: “bed” is written as “b-d”; “act” as “a-k”; “done” as “d-n”.  This economy of spelling saves another 10 percent of the note-taker’s time.

But the biggest impact from Gregg shorthand comes from its systematic approach to abbreviation. For instance, almost every letter in Gregg, written by itself, represents a common word. Some are used for several different words, depending on the context. Our Gregg friend “b” can mean “be”, “by”, or “but”. The Gregg letter “r” can mean “are”, “our”, or “hour.” The Gregg letter “t” can mean “it” or “at.” In this way, nearly 100 of the most common words in English can be rendered in a single stroke. Similarly, most common English words have an abbreviated spelling of one or two strokes. The elegant Gregg version of  “b-r,” for example, is short for “bring” and is written in an instant. Here it is again: 

Dennis Hollier

And, since 60 percent of spoken English is comprised of about 600 of these common words, brief forms play a huge role is speeding up Gregg. “Brief form” is actually a technical term in Gregg. Anyone can learn the Gregg alphabet in an afternoon and probably double their writing speed; but to become truly fast—like the remaining handful of Gregg-powered court reporters in the federal courts who take down testimony at more than 200 words per minute—you have to memorize dozens or hundreds of common abbreviations.

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Dennis Hollier is a writer based in Honolulu. 

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