Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Success Stories from Steno Autodidacts

Back when I started Plover in 2010, I had the idea that it could be a useful method of text composition. I wrote about it a little in What Is Steno Good For: Writing and Coding. I found the ease and fluency of steno incredibly freeing when I used it to write a novel. But I'd received my stenographic training in a formal school, and was already working as a professional stenographer. The real question was whether steno as a means of text input could be useful in an amateur context. Back in the early to mid-20th century, when steno machines were fairly common and machine shorthand could be taken as an elective in most high schools, people wouldn't tend to use it for text composition because the steno notes had to be tediously retranscribed on a typewriter, and it was more efficient just to skip the middleman and use the typewriter directly. From the 1980s through to 2010, only professional stenographers had access to computerized steno machines and translation software, and most of that software didn't interface easily with most operating systems, so without a fair amount of fiddling it couldn't be used to write emails, text chats, or other texts that weren't legal transcripts. Steno was for professionals, not amateurs. Steno was for transcription, not composition. There didn't seem to be many counterexamples, so these two principles somehow took on the force of dogma.

Now that Plover exists, though, just about anyone can learn steno and immediately start using it as a qwerty keyboard replacement. When I explain to people that there's a huge potential user base of people who want to use steno to compose text, I get all sorts of objections:

"Steno is too hard and tedious and takes most people years to learn."

"No one will want to invest the time necessary to become proficient unless they're hoping to get paid for it, and without professional-level proficiency, steno is useless."

"Steno is designed for transcribing external speech, not internal thought."

None of those arguments have ever held much water with me, and slowly but surely my hypothesis is being borne out. People are teaching themselves steno with our free online materials -- not in years, but months. Even though they start out slow, they gradually gain speed while using steno for basic tasks like chatting, writing blog posts, and working at their jobs. Here are a few accounts from people who've successfully incorporated Plover into their daily lives.

Harvey writes:

I got my Stentura 400 SRT off eBay intending to learn steno/Plover as a hobby, and I thought it would be cool if I got up to professional speeds, especially for my transcription work.

I started on the twelfth of May. At about five weeks I completed all the lessons in Learn Plover, picking up on little patterns as I went along. It was somehow easy to memorize the different strokes that make up all the sounds on the keyboard. Honestly, it feels like I breezed through it all. I'd go through a lesson and then I'd do an accompanying drill from Plover, Learn a few times. Then I'd just go through the previous drills to keep fresh. When I felt I was able to, I would try writing new single and multi-stroke words to get a feel for it. That's all there is to it.

I can now write at about 30 to 50 wpm, though the latter is only in bursts. It took me only two months to reach this point, and now I'm mostly just building speed and committing new words to muscle memory. I've enjoyed it a whole lot, too. It's really cool to write in a system that's so different than typing on a keyboard.

I've heard that some people insist that it's impossible to learn steno in two months or that it can't be self-taught. I feel I've proven that wrong; I learned the system to pretty good proficiency in eight weeks. I think anyone can self-teach steno, but the hard part is building up speed. On that I can't comment yet, but I'm sure it'll come with time and practice.

By the way, I wrote all of that using my steno machine.

Ted (who started learning steno nine months ago, though his update at one month is also pretty illuminating) writes:

I’m a learner of Plover on an ErgoDox, I type a little over 100 words per minute, similar to my QWERTY and Norman layout speeds, but the comfort is unmatched and the endurance that I can get out of typing this way is unbelievable. Not to mention that most spelling typos are impossible. (But the typos can be really funny. Like a valid typo for “awesome” is “awful” — just a one key difference. And “goal” can accidentally come out “grade school” if you don’t use the phonetic rules properly) So far the only big problem I’ve had with stenography is that I end up typing huge walls of text for no reason, because my hands don’t get tired and the speed doesn’t discourage my brain from continuing.

Charles writes:

I'm coming up on two years and I'm very comfortable now with steno. I use it for everything now, and have been for at least the past year. I think it took me about three months to be able to write anything I wanted. It really got good when I started to make my own briefs. I have a lot of little things to help with the unix command line and programming in Forth. I haven't really measured my speed either way, but I believe I'm equal to my old speed and getting faster and smoother all the time. More importantly, it's a lot less work now. My fingers don't have to do much! I love the way it feels. I think it's good for my brain too.

Clearly steno isn't just useful for professionals, and isn't just useful for transcription. It's possible to learn it fairly quickly and then to build speed naturally over time while putting it to use. We've just got to get the word out.

If you've had a similar experience to Harvey, Ted, or Charles, will you write me with a brief summary of how long it took you to learn steno and how you tend to use it over the course of your day? I'd like to compile a large collection of these stories that we can show to any naysayers who think that amateurs have no place in modern stenography.

1 comment:

skwropb said...

I've been using Plover since December 2013. I now type more than twice as fast as I ever did on QWERTY. I do all of my normal typing with Plover and also use it to control i3 Window Manager, Pentadactyl, Weechat, and various other programs. I rarely have to take my hands off my steno machine to do anything.

Learn Plover wasn't complete when I started, but it wasn't hard to figure out the parts that were missing. I didn't do much to record my progress*, but I would say it was about a month before I was comfortable enough to use Plover for normal typing and three months before I was more comfortable typing in steno than QWERTY. I didn't spend much time doing drills. I practiced by transcribing books and playing Cargo Crisis and TypeRacer. For the first month or so, I must have practiced more than three hours a day. I was really addicted.

*I couldn't think of a meaningful way to benchmark my speed, so I didn't bother, but I did put together a crummy video to show people on TypeRacer that I wasn't cheating. It gives a general idea of where I was after using Plover for about a year. https://goblinrefuge.com/mediagoblin/u/skwropb/m/typeracing-with-plover/