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What Is Speedwriting?

By Cindy Quarters
Updated May 23, 2024
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Speedwriting is a technique for writing very quickly and is considered particularly useful for taking notes. A woman named Emma Dearborn developed speedwriting in the early 1920s. Her method uses a combination of letters, punctuation marks and special techniques to rapidly capture words on paper. It is not as fast as shorthand, but is generally considered to be easier to learn and use.

One of the advantages of speedwriting is that it uses standard characters from the alphabet together with common symbols such as commas, periods and dashes. It was developed with the idea that it could be used with handwritten notes or typed into a typewriter. The use of familiar letters and symbols makes it relatively easy for people to read and comprehend quickly, especially when compared to other methods. Gregg shorthand, for example, uses many different unique symbols and each one must be learned before a student can benefit from the system.

In addition to using various symbols and signs for abbreviations, speedwriting has a number of different rules that allow a person to indicate various word endings without having to write them. The letters “-ing” are represented by underlining the last letter of a word, and the suffix “-ed” is indicated by placing a line over the last letter of a word. Other word endings are represented in similar ways.

Spelling is handled phonetically, so silent letters are dropped and words are written with only long vowels used. The “e” at the end of a word is dropped, for example, and a word such as “dial” would be written as “dil.” Common words such as and, the and it all have single letter or symbols for abbreviations. Specific sounds and short words are also represented by single letters. In total, there are approximately 100 symbols used in speedwriting in addition to the spelling simplification rules.

An individual learning to use speedwriting can usually write about 60 to 80 words per minute at first, and should be able to progress to over 100 words per minute after using the system over time. This is relatively slow when compared to various shorthand systems. These can be as much as 10 times faster than conventional longhand, but for many people speedwriting is fast enough. The ease of learning the system also makes it very attractive. Speedwriting is not limited to English and is adapted for use in other languages such as German and Italian as well.

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Discussion Comments
By anon990920 — On May 16, 2015

I took a class with this in HS (more than 30 years ago). I still use some of the abbreviations, as I like to take notes at staff meetings or if I am taking a class myself. I have forgotten much of it, but it sure comes in helpful.

I am very grateful to have learned and remembered some of the system as It sure helped me get through college in an age where we did not have computers or smartphones; I also use it to write myself notes or if I am jotting down info from a book or article.

I am trying to find a book with this as I would love to remember more of the abbreviations. It was well worth the time I put in to learning it. Thanks for reading.

By golf07 — On Apr 10, 2012

Are there business situations where speedwriting and shorthand are still used? It has been a long time since I heard of anyone using anything like this for a job.

I was never able to get the hang of shorthand when I took business classes. I ended up making some of my own abbreviations for common words that I would use when I was taking notes for something.

Maybe I would have had better luck using speedwriting than trying to learn shorthand. I don't remember there being any options, and always thought speedwriting and shorthand were the same thing.

By myharley — On Apr 09, 2012

Speedwriting is something I have never done, but it sounds interesting. There would be times it might be advantageous to know some of those shortcuts when you were taking notes.

It would be much faster to underline the last letter of the word instead of writing out "ing". I don't see how this would help much with typing though.

I took shorthand when I was in high school and was very fast at it. I was able to transcribe at 120 words a minute. That is much faster than speedwriting.

I never did use that skill in a job setting. When I was taking notes in college I would use many of the symbols to abbreviate words. If somebody else asked to look at my notes, they had a hard time figuring them out.

By stl156 — On Apr 09, 2012

One of the other things that wasn't covered that I am really wondering about is what happens with homophones or words that only have short vowel sounds.

I don't know how often words like this would get mixed up, but what if you needed to write a word like "meat?" If I understand the system correctly, "meat" would be transformed into "met." Then what if you needed to say "meet?" Wouldn't it also be "met?" Obviously, context would help you decide between those two most of the time, but then what about if you really needed to say "met?" What is the difference between "meet" and "met" in speedwriting? I am guessing there might be a symbol for short vowels or something, but by adding a symbol, the speedwriting word will have taken just as long to write as the original word.

You would run into the same problem with a lot of words that end in a silent "e." For example, cute and cut seem like they would both be spelled "cut."

Needless to say, I don't think I'll be using speedwriting anytime soon.

By jcraig — On Apr 08, 2012

The article mentions speedwriting as being relatively easy to learn without having to know a lot of special symbols, but it definitely sounds like it would take a lot of practice to get it down. After all, it says there are over 100 different symbols that have to be learned. Granted, I'm sure a lot of them are only used in special situations, but it would still take a lot of work.

I think the hardest problem I would have with it is remembering to only leave the long vowels. At first, I'm sure people would spend more time trying to keep track of what vowels and symbols to use than they would save using those techniques.

Like someone else mentioned, though, if you had a job where you had to take a lot of notes, I guess it would be worth the learning curve to understand the speedwriting. The only other problem you might run into is other people not understanding what you wrote.

By matthewc23 — On Apr 07, 2012

@jmc88 - I remember actually watching some type of documentary about Woodrow Wilson in my high school history class, and they talked about him inventing his own form of speedwriting or shorthand or something while he was at Princeton, I believe. They showed a sample of it. It was impossible to tell what any of it mean. It was basically a series of lines and shapes that were supposed to be substitutes for different words.

What I am really most curious about is how Emma Dearborn's system of speedwriting caught on. I am guessing that she probably wasn't just some random secretary sitting in an office somewhere. If that were the case, I doubt very many people would have seen the system in the first place. I am betting she had to be something like a professor who actually had the means to promote her new system.

That being said, I don't think I have ever seen anyone use speedwriting, but maybe that is just because I don't really know anyone who has to take a lot of notes quickly.

By jmc88 — On Apr 06, 2012

@summing - My family had the same problem as I was growing up. We always keep a marker board on the refrigerator for people to leave notes to each other or as reminders. Since my mom is a nurse, though, she tends to use a lot of medical abbreviations and shorthand. By this point, I have figured out what all of them mean, and I have actually started using some of them when I am taking my own notes.

Whether you learn a specific type of shorthand or speedwriting or come up with your own, I think everyone has their own way of abbreviating notes. I know I started doing it in college. Like I said, I learned some things from my mom like using a Greek delta to mean change and an "a" with a line over it to mean before. Besides that though, I started using a lot of arrows and abbreviations to mean different things.

By shell4life — On Apr 06, 2012

@summing - That is funny! I bet it took awhile for everyone to learn all the symbols.

I wish that my mom knew speedwriting. She scribbles things down with her own brand of abbreviations and symbols that mean something to her, but I can't decipher it. She doesn't stick to a certain method, so I may never know what she means without asking her.

It certainly is handy to have a system that many people can learn and follow. I would imagine that a sick student who needed to borrow someone's notes to copy would be grateful for speedwriting and the ability to translate it.

By wavy58 — On Apr 05, 2012

I wouldn't think that speedwriting would be as popular now as it used to be. I probably could have made use of it when I was in college ten years ago, but now, many students just take their laptops with them to class and type their notes.

I wonder if a typed version of speedwriting would work well for people who type slowly? Personally, I can type very quickly and have no need for a shortcut, but many of my friends are much slower. If they knew exactly where to find the “underline” key quickly, then maybe they could benefit by speedtyping.

By summing — On Apr 04, 2012

My mom was a secretary for just two years before she got married and became a housewife but she never wrote in anything except speed writing for the rest of her life. Everyone else in the house ended up learning it just so they could understand mom's notes.

She didn't have to write that way but she found it so practical that she saw no reason to stop. And all of us kids still know how to do it and some of us even use it. It ended up being a really useful quirk.

By nextcorrea — On Apr 04, 2012
I have never heard of speed writing before but I am very intrigued. I take a lot of notes but I have always been put off by short hand. When you look down at a page of notes written that way it is like looking at hieroglyphics. I want to be able to scan over my notes in a format that is at least a little familiar.

But I know that I need to speed up my note taking. I often read back through my notes and realize that I have missed crucial details. If I could take down information faster I could also spend more time focusing on the speaker.

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