Five Tips for a Successful CSR Experience

May 1979

Laptops don’t exist. Smartphones are a Star Trek fantasy. Social media? Ha.

I miss the qualifier by 7 points.

57 errors? Way too many!

As I sit in class with my fellow students, correcting one another’s transcripts, the familiar heat rises in the back of my neck and slowly spreads across my cheeks in embarrassment.

The school director looks at me with kindness, but I can’t — won’t — accept it.

So many STUPID mistakes!

It sticks in my craw.

My mind races:

  • Now my next opportunity won’t be until November in Los Angeles.
  • Now I will need to cough up some major dough for an airline ticket, hotel, meals.

Like a racehorse at the gate, I am chomping at the bit to fly like the wind!

Be DONE.

Out there.

Doing what I’ve been studying to do for 3.5 years while working full time:

Earning a living being Miss Reporter, capturing a verbatim record. Protecting the sanctity of the record.

sacred duty.

From the first week at Oakland College of Court Reporting, I was in love with stenography. What an amazing skill – learning a complex, technical, unique language only a small percentage of people in the world understand AND how to write on a quirky-looking machine without any letters on the keys or the familiar Qwerty keyboard!

I rarely miss attending school three nights a week, from 6:00 to 9:00. Then I go home after a full day of work and school and practice two more hours. Every day.

I can visualize myself being THE REPORTER in court, hanging on every word.

Like the gentleman in a suit writing on a little iron machine sitting on a small table in Perry Mason, my favorite show.

For three-and-a-half years, I have been diligently following my personally designed program:

1)  Writing cleanly, dropping, and picking up the very next word as quickly as possible. My notes are clean, and transcribing is a breeze.

2)  Punctuating as I write, which makes it easier to transcribe later. The times that I dropped the punctuation, I couldn’t figure out where to put a period. That cost me. No more.

3)  Doing my finger drills religiously before class, during breaks, while chatting with fellow classmates. And, most importantly, for 30 minutes every night with my metronome. I read somewhere that what you do and think about just before bed will stay with you throughout the night, working on your subconscious mind, reinforcing what you want to create.

4)  Writing at much lower speeds to achieve perfection has allowed me to get past plateaus and notice patterns that were keeping me from advancing. There is no bigger high than getting every word – without shadowing or stacking – and nailing read-back!

Also, I have been interning in municipal court. Hearing stories of criminals and their victims in preliminary hearings provided an eye-opening experience of the real world and the challenges of working reporters capturing the record in a noisy courtroom with lawyers, court staff, and observers entering and leaving, sneezing, coughing, and myriad other distractions and sounds at times obliterating everyone’s speech.

But I still failed the qualifier. Maybe I need something more.

A few days later, I see a flyer on the school bulletin board:  A new Certificate of Merit class (now RMR*) is being offered for working reporters by my favorite teacher and mentor, David Heranney. He’s the one who taught me how to write cleanly. He encourages us with a huge smile and twinkle in his eye, and you can hear his belly laugh down the hall during breaks.

They will be reading at speeds up to 300 WPM.

In a flash of insight, I see myself nailing the CSR in six months, with a cushion of at least 25 words. No more failing a qualifier or passing by the skin of my teeth. Now my goal is ZERO errors.

I knock at David’s door, always slightly ajar. An invitation. He motions for me to enter, his toothy grin ever present. I swallow and step into the room.

“David, I’d like to take your CM class.”

His face fogs over, only slightly. He opens his mouth.

But I cut him off. Words tumble out before he can respond:

“I know it’s for CSRs, but I’m really bummed about missing the qualifier. I think this could be the kick in the pants I need to give me a cushion for the CSR in November. I don’t want to go there hanging on by my fingertips.”

My air supply exhausted, I wait. He nods.

“I was going to say that I don’t want you to get discouraged. 300 is a huge push from 200. You’ll have to attend regularly to get the most benefit.”

Spontaneously, I leap forward and give him a huge bear hug, then rush from the room in embarrassment, tossing back, “You can count on me. See you in class!”

Thus, I added one more practice to my regimen:

5)  Writing beyond my current speed in the CM class and while watching the 11:00 p.m. news to push me beyond my comfort zone. Insanity. Do they ever take a breath? Words spew from their mouths as if in competition with one another.

At first, sitting in the CM class is like a child athlete swimmer climbing up the ladder for the high dive the first time, walking out onto the diving board, looking down at the tiny swimming pool below, and gasping. How can I (a) maintain perfect form on the way down, (b) land in the water, and (c) not break my neck?

Words fly over my head like bullets, and I have no clue how or when to jump in.

Now?
Now?
NOW?

Eventually, I dive in and hang on for my life, write a few words, and drop. By the end of the class, I am utterly exhausted. But I keep up my practice regimen and keep showing up.

Two weeks later, I am able to write two sentences before dropping. David calls on me to read. Ordinarily, I would have said, “I’ll pass,” but I read what I have.

His response is a huge smile. Perfect.”

This time my cheeks flush with excitement. That was all the encouragement I needed.

The next six months, I double down on all my practices. Now I’m even more focused than before. I have a goal – to pass the CSR by a wide margin. The first time.

November 1979

Thankfully, the hotel is located near the airport. I arrive Friday evening. My exam time is 8:00 a.m., so I’ll be turning in early.

After registering at the hotel and checking in with the CSR staff, I wander into the bar. There’s a buzz of excitement in the air.

And nerves.

Approaching the bartender to order a glass of wine, I walk around a bunch of students milling around in a group. They’re talking at breakneck speed. I can feel their anxiety.

Do you want to practice together?”

“God, yeah. I’m so NERVOUS!”

“Let’s meet in your room!”

“Are you ready?”

“Hell, no! Is anyone?”

“I seriously need a drink right now!”

Silently, I realize that I am ready, and I don’t want to be in the energy of anxiety. I decide to go up to my room, order room service and a funny movie, and relax. Perhaps I’ll even do some finger drills.

Upstairs, my meal arrives with a glass of red wine, and soon I am laughing out loud at the antics of Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder in Silver Streak. I laugh so hard, my belly hurts. It feels good. This was just what I needed.

While brushing my teeth, I look at my machine sitting on its tripod next to a little table.

Nope. I’m good.

I sleep soundly and awaken at 6:00 a.m. As I get dressed, once again I glance at my machine.

Again: Nope. I’m good.

I pick it up, snap the tripod legs shut, and go down to get some breakfast.

Later, standing third in line for the skills exam, I look at the long line of students behind me and feel an anxious buzz underlying nervous whispered conversations.

This is it. I have arrived. What I do this weekend will determine my future.

The pressure is enormous. Like a concert pianist, I must execute my finger strokes perfectly to avoid discord and an embarrassing failure. The only difference here is that I will be the only person to “hear” my failure, and I am my own worst critic.

A wave of anxiety washes over me, and I begin to feel uneasy. I had learned to meditate while watching Lilias Folan in her TV show Lilias, Yoga and You. Breathing is an integral part of yoga and meditation.

I close my eyes and focus on my breath going in and out of my nostrils, down into my belly and out again. I become aware of a knot in my belly and butterflies in my stomach. Bringing my conscious awareness to the truth of what I am feeling in the moment loosens the knot, and the nerves dissipate.

When I open my eyes, I feel centered, calm, and grounded.

It’s time.

We walk into a huge room. I take a chair about three rows from the back, center stage to the raised speaker platform, barely noticing the students sitting beside me.

There appear to be 200 exam takers. It’s a big crowd. I continue to use my breath to stay calm and do my finger drills, focusing on a spot on the carpet. Shutting out everyone and everything else.

One of the readers announces the test is about to begin. There will be a warm-up for a few minutes, and at the conclusion of the dictation we will be told where to start transcribing.

A silent gun announces the start of the race.

The room reverberates with the sound of horses charging down a track. I stay focused on getting the next word, and the next.

A thought occasionally pops up – “What was that? You didn’t get that. Come on, Costa. That didn’t sound right.” 

But I shut it down like slamming a steel curtain and charge ahead. I will not allow my own mind to stand in the way of my goal.

I close my eyes to eliminate distractions from anything but the four voices at the front of the room.

Suddenly, there’s a sound to my left that I can’t quite figure out. I open my eyes and look quickly.

The man sitting next to me has just fainted and slumped forward onto the carpeted floor.

My heart beats faster, but I stay focused on getting the next word. I feel sorry for the guy, but I’ve been working for four years to get here!

Continuing to write, not knowing how far into warm-up we are or whether it’s the actual exam part, but still wanting to help somehow, I look down to see if he’s breathing. Hopefully it’s not a heart attack!

Keeping my laser focus, I see his chest rising and falling, thank God. I raise my left hand to get the attention of a proctor and point down to my left, then quickly jump back into writing.

Two people come to see to the gentleman’s needs, and I breathe a sigh of relief. Now I can give the speakers my undivided attention.

The rest of the exam is unremarkable. Typing up the transcript goes well. Despite the stress, I am able to produce a useable transcript.

Two months later, my hands shake as I tear open the envelope with the Court Reporters Board of California logo. Tears of joy prevent me from reading anything beyond “Congratulations,…” That night, I read the entire letter over and over, savoring my achievement.

After the RPR and CSR (Nov 1979)
After the RPR and CSR (Nov 1979)

Five Tips for a Successful CSR Experience:

  1. Stay focused. Don’t let your own mind or anyone in the room distract you from your goal.
  2. BREATHE consciously. In order to think clearly, respond quickly, and have the energy to overcome stress, you need life-giving oxygen in your body.
  3. Drop your shoulders. This will help you breathe easier and write better.
  4. If you hit a rough spot, write what you think you heard and keep going. Trust your ears. Don’t keep thinking about what it could have been. Let it go!
  5. If you reach a sloppy patch when transcribing, READ AHEAD. They often repeat words and phrases.

After using the above practice regimen in school, I took all legs of the RPR and CSR six days apart in November 1979 and passed both the first time. My practices are included in Part 2 of my ebook, 0-225: Your Guide to Writing Mastery (see my Steno Mastery eBook page). You can find more information about my background and work experience on my Apprenticeships, Mock Events, and Career and Publications pages.

* RMR = Registered Merit Reporter

Copyright Ana Fatima Costa. All Rights Reserved.