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Old-School Tools For Today's Writers: Save Time and Earn More Using These Three Near-Extinct Skills
by Tiffany Jansen

Return to Writing Tools & Technology Issues · Print/Mobile-Friendly Version

As a freelance writer, you've no doubt been urged to start a blog, learn to code, or become proficient in Wordpress. You've probably heard that you need to be active on social media, invest in high-tech gadgets, or download any one of the thousands of apps that are supposed to make writing easier. Faster. More efficient.

Those are all great pieces of advice, to be sure. But in our technology-obsessed, uber-connected, high-tech world, we have come to overlook the skills that the freelancers of yesteryear swore by. Skills like shorthand, touch typing, and transcription may seem old-fashioned, but they can save writers a lot of time. And, as we all know, time equals money.

Let's take a look at each tool and the powerful impact it can have on your freelance writing career:


Shorthand is a method of writing that uses symbols instead of letters to increase speed. Also known as stenography, it was a staple of secretarial training. Using shorthand, it's possible to record speech in real time.

When you hear the word 'shorthand,' it most likely brings to mind images of plump secretaries with beehive hairdos and cat-eye glasses scribbling furiously in their stenopads. However, before the advent of recording devices, journalists got a lot of value from shorthand too. Though it may seem a bit outdated, today's freelancers also stand to benefit from adding shorthand to their skill set.

Take freelance powerhouse Carol Tice, a six-figure earner and author of the blog "Make A Living Writing." She learned early on the value of taking shorthand.

Toward the beginning of her writing career, Carol got an assignment to cover a local event. While there, she ran into an LA Times metro section writer she greatly admired. The man had shown up with nothing more than a small notepad. When asked why he didn't have a recording device, he responded that he didn't have time to do transcriptions.

That's when Carol realized that the skill she'd picked up in her previous job as a secretary was one she needed to capitalize on as a freelance writer. She estimates that her ability to record information quickly has cut her workload by half.

She also firmly believes that writers should never rely on recording devices. "They can malfunction and then you'd have nothing." Instead, Carol simply transfers her shorthand notes to the piece she's writing.

With hours of practice dictating letters and meetings under her belt, Carol is able to jot down responses word-for-word during an interview. "Sources see me scribbling madly and often ask me if that really says what they just said," Carol said in an email interview. "[They] are always blown away when I can read back exactly what they just said."

There are numerous shorthand approaches to choose from. The most popular are Pitman, Gregg, and Teeline, with Teeline being the newest. Shop around until you find a method that works best for you. Or you can take a page from Carol's book: "I sort of developed my own system mostly based on letter abbreviations, which I like to call 'Fakehand.'"

Free training is available online or you can follow a paid course via internet or at a local institution.

Touch Typing

"The first thing I did when I decided that I wanted to write - before I bought any books on writing or subscribed to any newsletters, or even searched online for resources on freelancing - was that I downloaded a free practice software, and learned how to touch type," freelance journalist Mridu Khullar Relph wrote in a November 2009 post on her blog.

Touch typing is a technique that focuses on the memorization of the placement of the keys on the keyboard. It allows writers to keep their focus on the screen by eliminating the need to look down at the keyboard.

What can touch typing do for your freelance writing career?

"[An increase in] speed is the obvious one," Mridu says. "Hunting and pecking would be such a huge timesuck, not only because touch typing is instinctive and so much faster, but because editing is a lot easier and faster."

When Mridu began her career as a freelancer, assignments were few and far between, so there was no real need for typing speed. But she plugged away even so, figuring this down-time was the best time to work on skills that would come in handy as she built her writing business. Within a month, she was clocking in at around 80 words per minute (wpm).

Since then, her work has appeared in The New York Times, Time, The International Herald Tribune, The Independent, Global Post, and the Christian Science Monitor, among others. Her typing speed has increased to more than 100 wpm.

"These seem like tiny things, but they add up over the course of days, weeks, months, and years," she says.

Mridu taught herself to touch-type using free downloadable software. Though the program she used is no longer available, there are countless software, free courses, and games online that will help you learn touch typing. Paid courses are also available both online and off.

"You can figure out the keys and their placement within a week or two, then it's all about putting in the practice and increasing your speed," she says. "It was annoying initially," Mridu recalls on her blog. "I could type faster looking at the keys than I could touch typing... boy am I grateful for it now!"


Let's say you've tried shorthand and it's just not working out for you. Are you doomed to waste hour after hour going between the rewind and play buttons on your recording device to get the content from your interviews on paper?

Not if you build your transcription skills.

Like the other old-school skills covered here, this one takes some time and practice, but is well worth it in the end in terms of the time it will save you in the long run.

While there are classes, courses, and programs available to help you hone the skill, you can teach yourself by simply playing speeches, videos, and conversations and typing what you hear. It may be more time-consuming than shorthand, but as you become more efficient at transcribing, you'll have more time to take on other projects or to devote to other aspects of your freelance business.

The Renegade Writer's Linda Formichelli offers another option: find someone else to transcribe your interviews for you.

"I figured that with the time I saved by not transcribing myself, I could pitch and write enough articles to make up for the money I was paying," says Linda, a freelance writer, author, teacher, and speaker.

When asked for a rough guess, Linda says that hiring a transcriptionist saves her about 1-2 hours per article. "But for me, it was more about saving my sanity than saving time," she adds.

To find a transcriptionist, Linda recommends asking other writers for recommendations or approaching a local journalism school for students who may be interested.

No matter how you do it, be sure to proofread the resulting transcript for any errors. Linda has spotted misspellings of health and fitness terms in some of her transcribed interviews. "Once I spotted an error that, if I had let it slip by, would have made me look pretty bad to my editor," she cautions.

The only downside to hiring someone is, of course, cost. "If you're only getting $100 per article, it may not be worth it for you," Linda says. "But if you're earning in the range of $500 per article and up, it could be worth the money."

When you're putting together your freelance toolbox, by all means, throw in your Evernote, your Scrivener, your Livescribe, and whatever other gadgets you swear by. But don't forget these three old school tools to help you become the fastest, most efficient writer you can be.

Find Out More...

New Technology or Old-Fashioned Ways? - Dawn Copeman

Old School Tech for Today's Writers - Dawn Copeman

Helpful Sites:

Carol Tice & Make A Living Writing

Mridu Khullar Relph

Linda Formichelli & The Renegade Writer

Copyright © 2014 Tiffany Jansen
This article is not available for reprint without the author's written permission.

Tiffany Jansen is an American freelance writer and translator in the Netherlands. Her work has appeared in Wow Women On Writing, Make A Living Writing, Funds For Writers, and The Renegade Writer. Nab her free eguide, "The Surefire, Can't Screw It Up, Completely Kosher, Super Fun Trick That'll Make Your Competition Totally Irrelevant... And Six Ways To Do It." http://www.tiffanyrjansen.com/make-your-competition-totally-irrelevant/


Copyright © 2018 by Moira Allen. All rights reserved.
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