How to become a stenographer

Interested in becoming a stenographer and a court reporter? It’s not as easy as it looks. Here’s what can make stenography challenging.
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Photo of a steno keyboard connected to a computer.
Steno machine photo: Shutterstock.

If you’ve ever watched a courtroom drama, you might have wondered, “Who’s that person writing on a tiny keyboard, and how on earth does that work?” You may have even thought, “How do I get that job?” For starters, that “tiny keyboard” is called a stenography machine (not a stenography keyboard). And the person using said machine is called a stenographer. A stenography machine (or steno machine) is used by stenographic court reporters and captioners to write an average of 225 words per minute or faster with exceptional accuracy. For comparison, The average time to complete a court reporting program and get ready to test for certification is three to four years, although some students finish in two years.

I’ve studied stenography and court reporting for a number of years. I am also proficient in Case CATalyst and other stenography software. For those unsure of what stenography is or who might be interested in pursuing it as a potential career, here’s what you need to know about becoming a stenographer…in 5 minutes. 

What’s a steno machine, and how does it work?

A sample of what a stenography keyboard, or steno keyboard, looks like with the screen turned on.
Credit: Sarah B. Kessler

That “little keyboard” a court reporter uses is actually a complex machine called a steno machine. And it doesn’t function much like a keyboard at all.  A steno machine is made up of 22 unmarked keys, laid out like this:

STPH * FPLTD

SKWR * RBGSZ

AO EU

A stenographer uses these keys to create words, writing them out phonetically by syllable. Rather than stroking one key at a time, a stenographer writes in “chords.” They depress keys on the left side, middle, and right side, all at once. Each syllable has a beginning sound on the left side, a vowel in the middle, and an ending sound on the right. 

You might notice that some letters aren’t represented on the machine. Those letters are written using same-sounding letters (like K or S for the letter ‘C’) or combinations of letters (like TK for the letter ‘D’).  Combinations can create full words or even phrases. For example, a stenographer might use the combination “HRAEUPBLG” to write “ladies and gentlemen” with just one stroke.

How fast can a stenographer write?

A professional stenographer writes at least 225 words per minute with average accuracy or 180 words per minute with nearly perfect accuracy. Many working stenographers can write much faster than that. 

The top speed for a keyboard typist (and this is the world record!) is just 212 words per minute. 

How do you learn stenography?

Technically, you can learn stenography on your own and test for your certification. But learning stenography and the related skills of the trade is easier (and usually faster) with the guidance of a professional program. 

A screenshot of what a stenography software looks like.
A screenshot of some typing using a stenography software.

You can learn stenography through a number of independent programs or through a college. A college has the benefit of giving you an associate’s or bachelor’s degree when you’re done. They’re also more likely to be approved by the NCRA  (National Court Reporters Association). Employers, like court reporting firms, courthouses, and captioning companies, like to see an NCRA-approved program on your resume. 

How long does it take?

The average time to complete a court reporting program and get ready to test for certification is two to three years, depending on how much work you put in. Most successful graduates practice an average of two to three hours per day to build speed on the machine.

Is a court reporter the same as a stenographer?

Court reporting is almost synonymous with stenography. Whether you go into official reporting, freelance reporting, or captioning and CART, you’ll be classified as a “court reporter,” because that’s your skillset. And most stenographers, including captioners, learn their stenographic skills through a court reporting program. 

So, in addition to steno, they also understand the complex procedures of the courtroom and how to act as the “guardian of the record.” 

What high-paying jobs can you get as a stenographer?

An advertisement for LaSalle University’s Extension program, circa 1956.

For those thinking about becoming a stenographer, here are the main types of high-paying careers you can go into as a skilled stenographer: 

  • Official court reporter: You’re the court reporter in the courtroom during trials and hearings. 
  • Freelance court reporter: You work for independent lawyers and attorneys at depositions, usually through a court reporting firm.
  • Broadcast captioner: You write stenographically in realtime for live television events and shows. 
  • CART (Communication Access Realtime Translation) captioner: You write stenographically in realtime for deaf and hard-of-hearing children and adults, often in schools or at events.
  • Firm owner: Many successful court reporters start their own court reporting or captioning firms. 

…And if you know your steno theory but can’t get up to high writing speeds, you can work as a scopist. A scopist is a person who works with a court reporter to create a perfect transcript by reading and interpreting the reporter’s steno output. You can also work as a steno transcriptionist, using your steno machine to transcribe recorded material.

What certifications do you need to work as a stenographer or court reporter?

The requirements to work as a court reporter vary by state. Most reporters earn an RPR (Registered Professional Reporter) certification through the NCRA to improve their employment prospects. To determine what the requirements are in your state, visit this list by the NCRA

Captioners and CART reporters work towards this certification, too. But they also try to achieve “realtime” certification, such as the CRR (Certified Realtime Reporter) or CRC (Certified Realtime Captioner).

Is Artificial Intelligence going to replace human stenographers?

Despite what critics might say about AI voice-to-text potentially replacing stenographers, AI can’t understand the specific context of detailed conversations. One popular example of how context and syntax are vital is this:

“Woman without her man is a savage,” he said.
“Woman–without her, man is a savage,” he said.

That’s just an alteration in punctuation, but there are many instances of soundalike words that could result in similar, drastic differences. Even if AI were perfect (which current technology certainly is not), a court reporter or captioner would still be an essential part of the equation. The court reporter is the official guardian of the record, so he or she would be the one operating the AI and proofreading it for errors.

Currently, it’s still faster and more accurate for a court reporter to use stenography than AI, and that’s not likely to change soon.

What other skills do you need to work as a stenographer?

Writing on a steno machine is just one of the steps required to work as a stenographer. You’ll also need to intensively study: 

  • Software and technology
  • English grammar
  • Court reporting and/or captioning and CART procedures
  • Legal, medical, and technical terminology
  • Court reporting and captioning ethics

A court reporter or captioner with a limited vocabulary just won’t be able to do the job. You have to know what every word means, how it’s spelled, common mispronunciation of the word, and how it relates to similar-sounding words in order to write quickly and accurately. Your brain has to recall those things immediately, within a split-second, without hesitation, or else you’ll fall behind the speakers.

Final Minute

At first glance, stenography might seem like an easy job field that anyone can get into. After all, it’s just typing, right? But once you delve into the details, you realize that stenography looks very little like “typing.” And it’s a high-paying trade for a reason: it’s a field that requires dedication that is not for everyone. 

But if you’re up to the challenge, you could join the ranks of an elite group of stenographers, who all play an imperative role for a number of different industries.

This article was written by:

Sarah is an Oregon-based writer and court reporting student. Since starting her content-writing and transcription business, Hansa Scribe, in 2015, she’s had the privilege of delving into numerous, varied subjects. Today, she mainly focuses on education, finance, and cultures around the world.

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