Short-Hand Writing

—A paragraph in the Contributors’ Club for March, in regard to shortening the work of writing by omitting words and sometimes letters, leads me to mention what certain noted newspaper experts have done in that direction. I remember a conversation I once had with Henry J. Raymond, in which he spoke of the weary nights he had known when working on the old Courier and Inquirer. On his journeys from Albany to New York he toiled all night long, writing out the speeches of great orators. He had taken them, as the technical phrase is, with the common written alphabet, and modestly mentioned his skill in doing this as if it were not remarkable. I first heard the expression key-words from Mr. Raymond. He revealed to me his method by saying that he wrote the key-words of the sentences, and was able from these to reproduce the orations of Daniel Webster, Edward Everett, and various speakers of less celebrity.

I have known two other distinguished editors, who could take verbatim reports — so called — of speeches by the use of the common alphabet. Conversing with them, I learned that their method was substantially the same as that of Mr. Raymond. One of them, however, dwelt upon the omission of letters (all the vowels) as an important feature in brief writing ; the other emphasized the desirability of writing out full copy from the notes immediately after the speech was taken.

I think it is plain just how these men worked. In the first place, they omitted about half the words, as shown in the March number of the Atlantic Monthly, to which I have alluded. In the second place, they omitted nearly half the letters in the remaining words. Thus they got rid of about three parts out of four, in the work of writing. Take into account the well-known fact that men habitually speak, extemporaneously, about four times as fast as they write, and the miracle performed by these experts is explained.

It would seem that a few points, already indicated, should be observed in using the method as above described. The writer should have a fair knowledge of the subject talked about. Mr. Raymond used to seek for a conversation with the orator about his subject before he delivered his speech.

It is desirable, also, to write out the full speech while the orator’s sentences still ring in the ears of the one who restores them. But this is not essential. The merely constructive part, which has been omitted and has to be supplied, need not be in the form habitual to the speaker. Although the construction is varied, if the key-words are properly placed, the spoken and written forms will seem identical. I recall an instance which illustrates this. A member of the New York State Senate, making an important speech, was taken by one of the expert editors I have alluded to. A few days later the speech appeared in full in a leading newspaper, much to the gratification of the Senator, who publicly complimented its accuracy. Arrangements for taking full reports were not then common, as they are now ; but it so happened that an actual verbatim report of the same speech was made by a thoroughly skilled stenographer, who came into the senate - chamber without the knowledge of the editor. It fell to my lot to compare the two renderings. They were alike in meaning and in the keywords, but were unlike in the connective words, and varied widely in the construction of sentences. The editor, in studying to give a verbatim air to his work, had expanded rather than contracted the volume of the hour’s speech as it was delivered. If he had failed in a few places to reproduce the glow and fire and the grand periods of the impassioned orator, he had upon the whole improved the Senator’s eloquence. It was fortunate, so far as the distinguished debater’s reputation with his constituents and the world was concerned, that an accomplished editor, rather than a mere photographer of words, had taken him in hand and presented him to the reading public.

In these days of multitudinous wordtakers, editorial reporting is becoming a lost art. But to it, as it formerly existed, is to be credited not a little of the excellence of some of the speeches which have come down to us as models of eloquence. It was a rare triumph to the youthful Raymond when Daniel Webster, returning a manuscript report submitted to be revised, said, “ Sir, it needs no revision.” That could hardly have been said of an offhand address, if it had been literally rendered. There is a chance for art in an editorial report, just as there is in a painted likeness. Said an artist to me recently, commenting upon a portrait by one whom he thought far above him in ability, " I know the subject of the portrait personally, and the picture is excellent beyond all I can express. It not only is more like the man than he is like himself, but, beyond all that, it looks much better than he does, and as he ought to look, and would look if he were more himself than he is.” There is something of this in the editorial reports (claiming to be verbatim) which have been made by the pens of great writers.

I cannot omit the mention of a curious manuscript which once came into my possession, and which had a relation to the matter now in hand. The document was written by one of the best known orators America has produced. I do not mention his name, because I have to describe a peculiarity in his handwriting which is hardly a public matter. He was to speak on a great occasion, soon after the war. The victorious Grant and several of his greatest generals were to be (and were) upon the platform. Of course the press of the city where the celebration was to take place must have the oration. The manuscript was applied for in advance, and was very kindly furnished. The entire editorial and printing forces of a large office (including experts in abbreviation) were baffled by that manuscript. It had to be given up as indecipherable. Yet it was the most beautiful and philosophical exemplification of what can be done with our common written alphabet that I have ever known. The man who produced it was tossed on the waves and billows of the tempests of that time, and composed his orations under the pressure of labors which only great strength could endure. It was doubtless severe necessity which caused him to originate the method he used. Let me describe the work of his pen : —

A square blank-book, containing about a hundred and fifty leaves, had, apparently, been grabbed up at some stationer’s, and the cover torn off. The threads and the glue adhering to the back held the papers together. On the first page, in a round, clear hand, as distinct as that of a schoolboy, were written those solemn, weighty words, arranged in majestic sentences, which were soon to impress the great men of the nation and thousands of citizens by their fitness and dignity. On the second page the writing was fairly good, and there was the same stately march, which reminded one, when the oration was delivered, of the tread of an elephant. On the third page the pace quickened, the style was more sprightly, and the work of the pen became decidedly obscure. On the fourth page it was evident that the mind driving the pen was beginning to move much faster, and that the climax of that first introductory phase of the subject was in sight. The words were all there, but were so condensed by the omission of letters, and often by making a prominent syllable do duty as a word, that it was very difficult to decipher the writing. It was especially noticeable that a key-word, used only once, was always plainly written; but if it occurred again half of it would be omitted, and on its third appearance it would be still further reduced; and so the process continued, until the clear form first given was worn down to little more than a scratch. On the fifth page it was evident that the impulses which moved this massive mind were thoroughly aroused, and the impetuous rush began. The first climax was near. Words seemed to have disappeared from the page, and a series of characters which must have been vestiges became visible. These characters were brief, rarely containing marks enough to seem like a written word. Here and there, however, ingenuity succeeded in identifying several letters, and two or three disconnected phrases were “ suspected.” The united forces of the office could do no more. On the sixth page, all sight of the elephant was lost in the wilderness. A series of brief marks resembling the German short-hand, which is formed mainly of strokes sloping all in one direction, like our common penmanship, confronted the eye of the anxious inquirer. Little could be determined in regard to it except that it was composed of vestiges ; and it was seen that a great deal must be written upon the page, because it contained so many of these brief remnants. On this page the orator’s treatment of the first phase of his subject culminated. It could be perceived that his mind paused. He ended his long paragraph, which had been without a break from the beginning, and started a new one. There was a blank space and an indented line. The new phase began with the same round, delightfully clear handwriting with which he had opened his former one. Every letter was carefully made, and the new set of key-words which applied to this view of his theme were as well written as those before described. But he quickened his step sooner now. He passed into the unknown before he had completed three pages.

Thus it was throughout the manuscript. The working of the man’s mind was pictured in his writing. He had developed a method ranging all the way from ordinary penmanship to an efficient system of stenography. I recall one of his contractions. A long keyword ending in ment was, upon its repetition, represented by that syllable. This was subsequently still further reduced by making it a mere line, ending with an upward flirt, which was crossed to identify it as the final letter. As it was a word of several syllables, there was little chance of making out this skyrocket in the midst of a crowd of similar brevities. So long as letters appeared, the writing could be read by the experts, though much abbreviated, but when the alphabet melted, the clue was lost. The heat of composition had fused the written language into forms which I venture to term unique and remarkable.

It is, perhaps, needless to say that the manuscript was “ returned with thanks,” and when the great day came, the Press had a short-hand writer on the platform.