BLEEDING EDGE August 02, 2012
There are times when only a notebook and pencil will do.
The dying art of shorthand has a champion online.
ONE of the most important projects we are engaged in at the Bleeding Edge Institute for Preserving the Past is the maintenance of the ability of the human hand to form meaningful shapes, using unfashionable implements called ''pens'' and ''pencils''.
This skill, which is known as ''writing'' - in our opinion a much warmer word than, say, ''texting'' or ''typing'' - was long considered, with ''reading'', an essential element in one's education, vital for the transmission and preservation of knowledge and the literary arts.
Alas, the pen, for so long considered a superior weapon to the sword, has proved to be little match for the keyboard and other electronic recording devices. The beauty of copperplate script, and indeed the very idea of penmanship, survives only among determined hobbyists. The modern hand seems to have suffered from sheer lack of exercise.
It tends to cramp after producing a few paragraphs of comparatively crude and not terribly clear shapes.
The situation is even worse when it comes to shorthand writing. The classic form of the phonetic symbols, developed by Sir Isaac Pitman and refined over more than a century, have all but disappeared, along with the concept of taking dictation.
It might have been expected to survive among journalists, who are forced to record what others tell them.
But a profession that once demanded the study of Pitman's New Era, or its slightly slower relative, Pitman 2000, these days seems happy enough with Teeline, which is simpler to learn but less capable of recording verbatim transcripts of the spoken word. And there is little in Teeline to delight the eye.
There is little logic in this. Relatively few people can type quickly enough to take adequate notes, while recordings have serious limitations.
There are far too many situations when the best choice is a pen or pencil and a notebook.
Given that, and given the modern hand is so easily fatigued by the demands of forming words, the economy of shorthand surely ought to make it even more popular than in the past.
Indeed, Sir Isaac first developed the system as a medium for the recording of personal notes and it won immediate popularity for precisely that purpose.
Ironically, Pitman's - in particular New Era - and the fountain pens and pencils of manual writing have a great friend in another form of modern technology, the internet, thanks to an English woman named Beryl Pratt.
Beryl's Long Live Pitman's Shorthand! website (bit.ly/MmNYsu) and its associated blog are more than a showcase for the efficiency and sheer delight of Pitman's system; they are an indispensable aid for students.
A highly proficient shorthand typist with considerable artistic skill, Beryl was determined to do her bit in ensuring the system she learnt as a young woman survived. The site includes PDFs for ''origami'' booklets of the ''short forms'' (which allow common words to be written with a stroke, curve or circle or two), self-printed practice pads and dictionaries of the most used words in English with shorthand forms. She even offers a shorthand calendar.
On the blog she provides passages for revision, with her bewitching shorthand ''translations''.
If you are a lover of practical writing implements, her recommendations for fountain pens are also worth reading. She uses Noodler's ''flex'' pens, which can be ordered from the Goulet Pen Company (gouletpens.com).
She designs her pages with Serif PagePlus X4. She uses Serif MoviePlus to produce YouTube videos of shorthand writing demos (bit.ly/SUQslg).
She says the idea that New Era shorthand is more difficult to learn is absurd. ''I am sometimes amused, but more often dismayed, by the comments I see that shorthand is difficult and takes a long time to learn,'' she says.
''It has been taught over the past century to countless office workers as the 'easy' option for those not gifted academically, i.e. leaving school at 16 or earlier.''
The main difficulty these days is that, generally, one has to learn online or by correspondence. Swinburne offers a course in Pitman 2000 but for New Era you'll have to check out Brisbane-based Tanya Battel's correspondence course (eliteeas.com.au). Customers for her 22-week course include cadet journalists at The West Australian.