Adam Fidler explains the difference between speedwriting and shorthand

Two of the biggest questions I get asked by new students who want to learn shorthand is what type of shorthand they should be learning, and what the difference is between speedwriting and shorthand.

It’s quite simple. A system of speedwriting is when someone uses a form of writing that often resembles longhand, to write more quickly. For example, to take down notes at meetings or in lecturers. There are a number of speedwriting systems available for secretaries to learn. But because they are based on the alphabet, and therefore not formal shorthand systems, the speed potential is limited.

More haste, less speed?

Let me explain. An average person can write longhand at a rate of between 25 and 45 words per minute. Some people are slow writers and some are quick. By learning a system of speedwriting you will see how to use shortcuts for words to enable you to write more quickly. But, most systems of speedwriting will only enable you to write up to between 40 and 60 words per minute, hence they are called speedwriting and not shorthand. To confuse matters, there is actually a system of shorthand called ‘Speedwriting’ – notice the capital ‘s’ – but this is a system that was predominately taught in the US.

A system of shorthand, on the other hand, is a way of reducing what you have written into a completely different language, for want of a better word, so that high speeds of writing are possible. Good shorthand will enable the secretary to write at speeds in excess of 80 words per minute and beyond. This means that the shorthand writer can easily take down dictation and continuous spoken matter for long durations, without suffering any fatigue in their writing. The actual amount of writing in shorthand is only a fraction of what you would write if you were taking notes in longhand or using speedwriting.

In a nutshell, speedwriting is more of a notetaking device. Shorthand is a totally different way of writing that enables the student to progress, often to very high speeds, if they so desire. Anyone who embarks on learning shorthand should always aim for a speed of at least 60-80 words per minute, as this is adequate for most business purposes today.

There are many speedwriting systems on the market, but for those of you who want to learn shorthand, there is only one recommended system now widely taught in the UK. This is Teeline shorthand. It replaced Pitmans in the UK over 20 years ago. It is a much easier and more logical system to learn, but still has high speed potential (I achieved 160 wpm in Teeline).

Teeline is also the recognised system for journalists in the UK, who want to receive accreditation by the National Council for the Training of Journalists (NCTJ). They must achieve at least 100 words per minute.

Stand out from the crowd

I would encourage any PA or administrator to learn shorthand. Not only because it’s a valuable skill to have, but also because it has made a comeback and many employers now see it as a way of distinguishing one CV from another. The ability to write fluent shorthand is an art and a skill that takes time to master. It shows dedication and commitment to your career, and also demonstrates a certain level of competence. In today’s tough job market, any additional skill fostered can only be advantageous.

I have used my Teeline every day at work since the age of fourteen. It’s a skill I would never be without and is one the best things I ever learnt. People love to say, ‘No one uses shorthand any more’ but you often find those that make this statement are those that don’t actually write shorthand, and so have never experienced how useful a skill it is.

In the era of the technological office we have to remember one thing: the skilled shorthand writer has logic, a high command of English, and lots of common sense. This, coupled with a notepad and pen, can create a very efficient way of working. PCs don’t yet operate with common sense, or make judgements about what is said (whether that’s actually what the boss meant or not). They lack the ability to listen to several people speaking at once in a meeting and distinguish between what’s important and what isn’t. Until that point, the skilled shorthand writer will always be of value to any business organisation.

Adam Fidler is the Principal and Founder of Adam Fidler Academy, which offers inspirational teaching and learning for PAs, EAs and business support professionals. His most popular courses ‘Get Ahead as an Executive PA’ and ‘The Strategic Executive ... (Read More)

3 comments on “Shorthand and Speedwriting – What’s the Difference?

  1. Balasubramanian NR on

    Shorthand is a vital tool to record any proceedings accurately and fast maintaining confidentiality at all times.
    It provides a lot of opportunity to those who have mastered the script in any field be it in Court, Journalist field etc. I have an experience of more than 4 decades in this field and still guiding the students to learn the art as a skill developer.

  2. Denise on

    Hello Ramu,

    Congratulations on setting yourself such a competitive speed. May I say that any speed anybody achieve is commensurate to the amount of practice you apply. I got to 120 wpm at secretarial college at which point I was comfortable with both speed and vocabulary of outlines. After a couple of years’ rest, I reapplied myself and got further without going to school and simply by practising at home.
    My suggestions are:
    1 Get yourself a stopwatch and record dictation pieces onto an audio tape at the speed to which you are next aspiring. The editorial comments from a good newspaper make great pieces for dictation.
    2 Find another keen student at a similar speed to yours and exchange tapes.
    3 When making tapes, use the 60 minute ones which do not disintegrate as much as the 90 minute.
    4 Get a copy of “Brown’s Short Cuts in Shorthand” and work it over.
    5 Purchase a copy of the full Pitman’s shorthand dictionary (not the pocket one).
    6 Practise from the radio, particularly the Parliamentary debates.
    7 Keep practising and revising.
    8 Obtain past examinations.
    9 Make sure you have a specialized shorthand writing pen.
    I achieved 150 wpm doing the above every day for about two hours. I am also a qualified instructor in Pitman’s Shorthand.
    I hope this is helpful. Somebody as committed as you will certainly achieve rewards.


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