My Shorthand for Notes and Other Writing

When I wrote recently about print vs. cursive, I said the following:

I tend to use a lot of shorthand in my journals. I rarely spell out names of my immediate family, resorting instead to first letters. I have dozens of shorthand codes for words and phrases I use commonly.

I was surprised by the number of people who reached out to ask me more about my shorthand. So I thought I’d take this opportunity to present peek into my shorthand and how it evolved. The latter is important because I can’t claim to originate all of it. I learn from the example of others in some cases.

First, a little background. When I was in 7th or 8th grade, I was fascinated by the concept of shorthand. I remember walking to the local library and pouring through books on Gregg’s Shorthand. 7th grade was right around the time I had to start taking notes and I was looking for ways to make it easier. Gregg’s shorthand never took, but the idea behind it stayed with me. Between my sophomore and junior years I found a book which in part, taught me how to take better notes. I wish I could remember the name of that book, because it has shaped the way I take notes ever since, but alas, it is lost to me.

Over the years since, I have refined the way I take notes, looking for shortcuts and adapting along the way. Eventually, it became second name to write longhand this way, and I turned it to all my longhand writing that I do for myself. (Although, admittedly, sometimes my shorthand creeps into longhand writing I do where someone else is the intended audience.) Here I’ll cover four that I use most frequently.

Examples of my shorthand in handwritten notes.

Shortcut, courtesy of the Ultima video games

When I was a teenager, I loved the Ultima games by Richard Garriott, a.k.a Lord British. I loved the detail in the games, to say nothing of the cloth maps. I also enjoyed how the game made use of Germanic runes for the language. There was a time that I could read those runes almost as well as I could read English.

One of the characters in the Ultima alphabet was a verticle line connected to a triangle (see the first item in the image above). This represented the letters “th” and I quickly adopted this as my shorthand for the word “the”. This is so ingrained in my today that I’ve lost track of how often I’ve used it in writing I’ve given to others. “The” isn’t used much in notes, but in other writing that I longhand, especially fiction, it comes up quite frequently and my shortcut saves time. I also use this to preface words that begin with “th”, like “there”, “then”, “theory,” etc.

The word “very” is very unnecessary

In a creative writing class in college, there was a discussion of the use of the word “very.” The general consensus was that the word is overused and should be avoided. Of course, it can’t always be avoided, espcially if I am taking notes that capture a quote or something someone is saying. But I did take it to heart in my notes and longhand writing. Instead of writing out the word “very” I draw a horizontal line over the word that “very” modifies. (See the second item in the image above.) So if I’m jotting down the phrase, “it was very hot today,” what I actually write is, “it was hot today” with a line over the word “hot.”

Shortcuts from the story of civilization

One of my favorite pieces of history writing is Will and Ariel Durant’s 11-volume Story of Civilization series. While some of the history is dated, the writing remains a real work of art to me. A few years back, I read their Dual Autobiography. One passage really struck me as practical:

We discovered an excellent typist, Mrs. Edith Digate, who soon learned to understand Will’s handwriting and abbreviations (d=ed, g=ing,…, etc.)

Ever since reading that, I’ve taken to using “g” at the end of a word instead of “ing” when I am writing longhand. (See the third item in the image above.) So in writing out words like,”writing” I write “writg”. I also write “runng”, “talkg”, “sleepg”, etc.

I never adopted the “d” for “ed”. I don’t know why. Maybe because it was not as efficient.

Taking a page from the British Secret Service

Anyone who has seen a James Bond film knows that many of the characters within the secret service are known only by a letter: Q and M being the most famous examples. For the most common names I use in piece of writing, I typically will resort to using just the first letter. (See the fourth item in the image above.) In my journals, I use the first letters of the names of my immediate family members instead of the full names. Fortunately there is no overlap. In fiction, I do this for main characters so long as the shortcut will cause no confusion.

Of course, I abbreviate many words for convenience and speed as well. I have grown used to my shortcuts, but I still often lust for being able to take notes using real shorthand. I remember attending a meeting early in my career in which an administrative assistant took notes in shorthand. She was able to reproduce verbatim, everything said in the meeting. The pages looked like gibberish, but I was impressed.

I’m always looking for ways to improve and refine my own shorthand, so if anyone has tips or suggests, drop them in the comments. I’d love to see how others do this.


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