How I became a scribe

How I became a scribe was a long and winding road with a bumpy start in high school…

Typewriters and Pitman’s Shorthand

It was the early eighties. At Year 11 at St Mary’s College, Bendigo, Victoria, our Shorthand/Typing teacher rapped students over the knuckles with a ruler if they looked at the typewriter keys instead of up at the blackboard. Nobody likes getting rapped over the knuckles. We all learned to touch-type.

Learning to use the squiggly, phonetic language of Pitman’s Shorthand fascinated me in a way that learning French never had. I don’t think I told my friends at the time how much I loved shorthand because it wouldn’t have been cool but I really did love it, and so found it pretty easy to learn.

Although I assumed I’d never need to use my typing or shorthand knowledge and after Year 11, hoped to never set eyes on a typewriter again, those shorthand/typing skills came in very handy later on.

My first job as a scribe

After a few years of working in different unskilled jobs (kitchen-hand, fruit-picker, waitress), I fell into a six-month shorthand-typist job with Broome Shire Council in the Kimberley, Western Australia who needed an extra admin person in their shire office and someone to scribe their council and committee meetings. Although I’d never worked as a scribe or typist before and had almost entirely forgotten everything I’d learned at school, I said I was confident I could brush up my skills and they gave me a chance.

Back then, of course, it was all handwritten shorthand and electric typewriters. My typing speed had never been very good at school; it was about 20 words a minute. But luckily, I could touch-type so with a bit of practice I soon picked up speed and caught up to the others.

My shorthand was very rusty as I hadn’t used it since school and had never actually taken the minutes of a meeting before. I got hold of an old Pitman’s shorthand book and started relearning shorthand on the job. At the meetings, when the councillors started bouncing back and forth in heated conversation, it was a steep learning curve to make sure I got down all the information I needed for the minutes. But I rode that curve and by the time I’d scribed two or three meetings I was proficient in minute-taking and producing well-written, accurate minutes.

How I became a better scribe

During the mid-late eighties I travelled around in Australia and overseas. My job path was wide and varied and included roles such as aged carer, fish factory hand, typist, cold larder cook, waitress, au pair.

I’d been to Darwin in the Northern Territory before and went back to settle there in the late eighties. I worked as executive officer for Certified Practising Accountants. I scribed minutes of meetings, took dictation in Pitmans’ Shorthand, wrote and typed correspondence, and managed the CPA’s tiny office within a local accountant’s suite. I used an electric typewriter; although computers had been invented they weren’t yet common. Then the accountant got a computer and taught me how to use it. I never used a typewriter again.

I went travelling again and returned to Darwin in 1994. I became good friends with people in Darwin’s Timorese community. I learned a bit of Indonesian and went to Timor Leste; wherever I travelled, people asked me to publish their stories in Australia. Using my limited Portuguese and Indonesian and with the help of villagers who knew a smattering of English, I scribed (in Pitman’s shorhand) the stories of men, women and youths from the east to the west of Timor Leste. Upon my return to Darwin, I bought a second-hand laptop and wrote a collection of non-fiction stories based on the stories I had heard and what I had seen in Timor Leste, then worked with my colleagues in Darwin to publish a little book.

How I became a good scribe

Around 1997, I started scribing what people said straight into my laptop. I learned to not stop when I stumbled or missed a word and to use hotkeys (or autocorrects) to speed up my scribing. Once I got used to it, I found scribing directly into the computer far easier than writing in shorthand. I scribed meetings and discussions. I scribed what people said as they translated Tetun testimonies and documents into English.

I spent a couple of years scribing, editing and compiling publications of oral histories in English. On 30 August 1999, Timor held her referendum and the Timorese people won self-determination. I then worked in Timor Leste in 2000 and 2001, scribing new material and editing and compiling a publication of oral histories, this time in Tetun.

I worked voluntarily all those years because those stories about the situation in Timor Leste needed to be told and published. I didn’t have any kids or anyone to support and could live on the smell of an oily rag; I didn’t mind being poor. And I didn’t realise at the time that the scribing, writing and editing skills I was developing would be put to good use after my time in Timor Leste was over.

In late 2001, my work in Timor Leste over, I settled down in Darwin again. I started working as a ‘temp’ in offices around town, scribing and editing interview reports. People kept telling me I was really good at it.

What should I do next? It was a no-brainer.

How I started a scribing and editing business

Within six months of finishing my work in Timor Leste, I had obtained an ABN and established On Time Typing in Darwin, specialising in scribing Government selection reports and minutes of committee meetings. If you’d like to read more about how I started my business in 2002, go to: How I started up my online business

On Time Typing has since evolved into an online scribing, editing and transcription business providing services all over Australia. Nowadays, On Time Typing is based in Gippsland. I scribe selection and referees’ reports via telephone. Our Darwin scribe/typist scribes on site in the Darwin area and our Bendigo scribe/typist scribes on site in Central Victoria. We edit and proofread policies, manuals and publications, and have a team of transcriptionists producing transcripts.

What will I do next?

10 years from now, I hope I’m still scribing and editing although maybe with more of a focus on producing my own and others’ publications. But then, I might be doing something entirely different.

Update June 2019: while I still scribe and edit reports etc., over the last two years I have, in fact, been spending more of my time providing self-publishing services: editing, designing, proofreading and producing publications.

Sally-Anne Watson Kane has over 20 years’ experience scribing interviews, meetings, discussions, seminars, testimonies and oral histories. She scribes selection reports and referees’ reports, submissions and applications via telephone, and scribes meetings on site in Gippsland and Melbourne (Vic). On Time Typing also has on-site scribes in Darwin (NT), Cairns (Qld) and Bendigo (Vic).

Sally-Anne has also been editing for over 20 years; for a detailed list of her publications go to: On Time Typing publications.

Image: Pixabay Creative commons licence (no attribution required).

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