What is a Stenographer?

Malcolm Tatum

A stenographer is a trained professional whose work involves accurately transcribing verbal communications, such as trials or business meetings, in real time. Written transcripts are important as a means of recalling exactly what was said and by whom, and are often much easier to scan and search than an audio or video recording. Most stenographers learn a series of shorthand notations to make transcriptions more efficient. Special stenography machines known as stenotypes make this task easier, and also help stenographers turn their notations into readable text.

A court reporter is a stenographer.
A court reporter is a stenographer.

Court Reporters

Some of the most well known stenographers are court reporters. Court reporters act as silent witnesses to many sorts of trials and jury inquests. They record witness testimony, lawyer questioning, and judge instructions. If ever there is a dispute about what was said, the stenographer can simply refer to his or her transcripts, and instantly set the record straight.

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Testimony provided in a trial is transcribed by a stenographer.
Testimony provided in a trial is transcribed by a stenographer.

Court reporters’ transcripts are usually very important parts of trial records. Lawyers refer to them often when looking for possible avenues of appeal, for instance, and judges may also review them before rending a final judgment. In most jurisdictions, the transcript generated by the court reporter is the official record of the trial. This makes it very important — and accordingly makes the burden for accuracy very heavy.

In many of the most important cases, courtroom stenographers will crosscheck their work with an audio recording. At the end of each day, the stenographer will review his or her transcript against the recording, double-checking for minor inaccuracies or omissions. Most of the time, these sorts of errors are too inconsequential to make a difference to the substance of the transcript. When a case is really important, however, having a flawless record is essential.

In the Business World

Stenographers also frequently find work in business settings. Law firms retain stenographers to record witness depositions and interviews that may have significance to a pending case. These meetings often happen in conference rooms or private offices.

Corporate executives may also have use for stenography services. If a company’s board is poised to decide on a contentious issue, for instance, or if an important shareholder vote is set to occur, having a stenographer on hand to keep record of the events can be advantageous.

Most business transcriptions will ultimately become permanent corporate records. In the case of a meeting, the members will usually vote to include the transcript in the official minutes. Portions of recorded proceedings may also be sent out with a company’s annual report, or kept with essential files that can be reviewed by interested stakeholders or executives.

Required Skills

Though the concept of stenography may seem relatively straightforward, the job requires a lot of concentration and attention to detail. Stenographers are usually only hired when precision is a must. This means that there is relatively little room for error, and the learning curve is often very steep. People who hold this job must be very quick thinkers, and must be able to keep their minds focused for long periods of time.

Stenographers must have a great deal of education before they can enter the job market. Specialized training is always required, and specialized degrees may also be essential. A number of different universities and community colleges offer degree programs in stenography. Students learn standardized shorthand in these programs, and also have the time to become proficient on modern stenotype machines.

Stenotypes often look like very small typewriters or computer keyboards, usually with a small screen attached. Most are outfitted with keys that are a combination of letters and shorthand symbols, which makes typing faster for the trained listener. Some also incorporate aural components: the stenographer may speak into a insulated mask, essentially re-dictating the verbal proceedings. The machine then turns his or her speech into typed text, which is usually printed immediately.

Needed Certifications

Training and requisite skills are not always enough to land a job as a stenographer, at least not in some of the most prestigious settings. Many jurisdictions require rigorous certification for court reporters, as well as stenographers who will be working to create official government records. Certification varies from place to place, but is usually a matter of taking certain classes, and passing exams and mock stenography exercises on a regular basis — often yearly.

Differences from Dictation

Stenography should not be confused with dictation, a similar method of transcription. Dictation is most common in medical and business settings, and most happens after the fact. Doctors and executives record their notes, then pass those recordings on to assistants who will turn them into written files.

Dictation is typically used for patient files, letters, and office memoranda. Stenography, on the other hand, generates permanent records that often have legal significance. Accuracy is important to each, but for different reasons — and to different ends.

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Discussion Comments


While some court reporters are paid by companies, it is possible to act as a freelance court reporter. As is the case with most freelance positions, this is often an attractive method of work because the stenographer determines when and where he or she wants to work. Freelance court reporters are paid per job.


Stenographic court reporters may either be paid per transcript or are paid a salary. The median annual wages of a court reporter were $49,710 in 2008. Compensation also depends on the level of skill, the type of reporting job, level of certfication, and region of the country where the stenography is practiced.


It usually takes about 33 months to become a real-time stenographic court reporter. Approximately 100 postsecondary vocational and technical schools offer certificates in court reporting. The National Court Reporters Association requires students to type out a minimum of 225 words per minute, which is also required for Federal Government employment opportunities.

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