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Mitigating Circumstances

I’ve been incognito on the blogging front for the past week, having been laid low by a horrible virus. On the surface, this didn’t seem so bad, giving me a bona fide excuse to stay in bed all day watching Grey’s Anatomy re-runs with my cat (this is my life, please don’t judge). However, illness struck the night before my law exam, meaning that I’ve had to do something which I’ve managed to avoid in the past four years of university: claiming mitigating circumstances.

This was a venture into the unknown for me because I’ve always been, for want of a better word, a goody two-shoes. I was the child who cried at school because I’d forgotten to bring in my homework (not even forgotten to do it, but just forgotten to bring it with me to class) and who once sat an exam having almost passed out ten minutes beforehand. But last Wednesday I had to face facts: there was no way I was staying upright long enough to sit my law exam.

I’m now having to wade through the swamp of bureaucracy that comes with missing an exam. It’s not enough that the invigilators saw me looking like I was at death’s door, I need a doctor’s note to back up my claim. And, of course, I have to pay for the note. Plus, I haven’t yet been able to work out whether I need to fill in a mitigating circumstances form or whether the NCTJ just want my doctor’s note. So I delegated: I handed it over to the admin office and now I’m just hoping that they have more of a clue than I do. It wouldn’t be difficult…

Five Tips for Learning Shorthand

Earlier, as I was browsing through my Twitter feed in an attempt to do anything but revision for my Essential Media Law exam on Wednesday, I caught sight of a tweet from a fellow journalist asking for advice to help with learning shorthand. Never one to pass up an opportunity to procrastinate, I decided to write a whole list of tips. In my defence, my first shorthand exam is also fast approaching, so this exercise has helped to remind me of what I need to do to pass.

1) Start early. The best piece of advice that I was given when I came for my Kingston interview was to start learning shorthand during the summer. If you haven’t started shorthand yet, but know that you will have to soon, get a head start. Even if you just learn the alphabet, it will make a difference in class.

2) Practice makes perfect. Any shorthand book which you buy will tell you that you should be practising for at least half an hour per day. This is an understatement. Often an hour or even more will be necessary if you have been learning difficult outlines in class. If you struggle to find a large block of time in which to practise, keep your notebook with you and do some outlines whenever you have a spare five minutes. I use my twenty minute wait on Twickenham station – excellent use of dead time!

3) Keep a pen in your hand at all times. During shorthand lessons, we’re told that if we aren’t reading shorthand then we should be writing it. Every single outline which you write improves your speed and accuracy, so even if you don’t have as much time outside of class to devote to practising, you can use every minute of your shorthand lessons.

4) Read shorthand as well as writing it. When you’ve written out a passage of shorthand, make sure to read it back. This serves a dual purpose: you can see if you’ve made any mistakes, and by improving your reading speed you will also become more familiar with the outlines and thus improve your writing speed.

5) Learn to associate outlines with sound. As you practise a new outline, say it to yourself under your breath (this may not be advisable if you practise on the bus – people will think that you’re crazy). When learning sentences or passages, try to get someone to read to you, or use a disc if your book comes with one. This will make the response to sound automatic.

Shorthand: We should not be amused

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Amidst my media law woes, I’ve found time in my busy schedule for something else: stressing about shorthand. It comes second on Independent blogger Martin King’s list of important journalistic skills, but is also one of the hardest skills to learn.

After two months of learning outlines for such bizarre words as ‘pebbly’ and ‘frolic’ (try using both of those in the same sentence) we have been deemed ready to sit our first exam. This entails taking shorthand notes on a four minute passage, read at a speed of 60 words per minute. Given that the average person speaks at two or even three times this speed, we have a long way to go before we’ll be able to take notes from actual people, but the idea of writing at 60 w.p.m. is still faintly terrifying.

Yesterday, our tri-weekly dose of shorthand was scheduled for 4pm. I had been at university since 10am, and had already endured three hours of local government and a gruelling law revision session. I was not in the mood. By the time we started dictation, I had already tried to read the word television as ‘T…V…shun’ and forgotten multiple words which I was supposed to have learnt already. Then Sue decided that as a special treat, we would do our dictation at 70 w.p.m. rather than 60. This was to be my undoing.

Surprisingly, the problem was not actually the speed. With shorthand passages, the word ‘a’ counts for one of your 60 but so does the word ‘supervise’. Therefore a 70 w.p.m. passage can actually be easier to write than a 60 w.p.m., which seemed to be the case here. Then came the fatal sentence ‘Mr Brown had returned from walking his dog to find that his pet parrot, Jack…’ Don’t ask me why I found it hilarious that a man would name a parrot Jack, but I did. So did several other members of the class. And the teacher. The passage had to be paused and restarted, but once I’ve found something funny, I can’t stop laughing. I tried to muffle my laughter enough that I didn’t disturb anyone else in the class, but unsurprisingly my own transcript had several large gaps. These gaps seemed to coincide with the mentioning of a certain name.

So my advice to anyone who is learning shorthand is this: do not find anything funny in the exam! Unfortunately, I have no tips as to how to help with this problem, and if anyone has managed to combat it then I would appreciate their help. In searching for solution though, I have discovered this useful article from Wannabe Hacks on passing 100 w.p.m. shorthand. There may be hope for me yet, providing that no other unusually-named birds show up, of course!

If you want to share your own shorthand-learning stories or tips for passing the exams, then please leave a comment below.

Media Law

Good old McNae’s…

For the past week, my life has been consumed by one thing and one thing only: media law. And with an exam in the subject fast approaching, that doesn’t look likely to change any time soon!

Law is taught in a two hour lecture every Monday afternoon, followed by a seminar in which we have the dubious pleasure of being able to apply our new knowledge to exam questions. The aim is simple, to learn how not to get sued in the workplace. As it turns out there are many, many things for which a journalist can be sued. We’ve covered an awful lot of them since the beginning of term: defamation, contempt of court, sexual offences, breach of confidence, copyright. Just thinking about it all makes me want to lie down in a darkened room, not sit an exam paper on my knowledge.

Undeniably useful though it may be, law is by no means my favourite module. It can be boring at times, but the theory is livened up by examples, often featuring our Hands-On tutor as a fictional murderess (sorry, alleged murderess). Our lecturer also enjoys telling us about his own run-ins with the law, including massive payouts, injunctions, and the time that he was followed home by a threatening black car after refusing to retract an article. And his job is to teach us how not to get sued!

The main problem is that it’s so specific. My exam answers will have to be precisely-worded to pick up the top marks, with four marks sometimes being awarded for remembering one four word phrase. Memorising these phrases means spending a lot of quality time with my textbook, McNae’s Essential Law for Journalists. When I develop a hunchback from the weight of my bag, I shall blame this law exam for forcing me to drag that book back and forth to university every day (because everyone knows that train time is reading time). But hopefully, this way I can avoid failing and having to fork out fifty pounds for a resit. And with that said, I must get back to learning the exact wording of the Contempt of Court Act 1981. Wish me luck!

Chasing the Dream

More than once in the past week, I’ve been told to make sure that I don’t get stuck writing about things which don’t interest me. I’ve been told this in the context of finding a work experience placement (which I’ve just managed to arrange at Retail Gazette), at a networking event, and by the great Sir Trevor McDonald himself at last week’s Media Summit. Whilst this was well-meaning advice, especially from Sir Trevor, to chase the dream and make sure I’m writing about the things which are really important to me, it presented me with something of a conundrum. What is it that I want to write about?

Those of you who read my blog post about blogging itself will remember that I struggled with finding a niche (if you haven’t read it, you can find it here). This latest dilemma has proven to me that I’m not very good at decision-making generally. Several of my classmates have clear ideas of what they want to do when they finish their MA. I just know that I want to be a journalist.

According to the woman who taught us networking as part of the Media Summit, this will put me at a disadvantage, at least in networking terms. Being too general is not a good thing, I need to be passionate. But can I not be passionate, just…generally?

So far, lacking a concrete end goal has opened more doors for me than it’s closed. In my last year at Durham, when I was most heavily involved in student media, I wrote articles about travel, music, history and theatre (and saw more different theatre productions than I thought possible, all for free). Here at Kingston, the focus has been more on hard news in order to fill the dreaded NCTJ portfolios, but that hasn’t stopped me from trying new things. Having never previously shown any interest in business, I’ve become Business Editor of the Kingston Courier and discovered that business is actually an extremely interesting subject to research and write about. This in turn has led to me getting work experience at Retail Gazette. I’ve also written a sports article, largely as a favour for a friend, and realised that I may have been wrong in ignoring the sports pages at the back of the newspaper  (in fact, if you include the business section, there’s a whole world at the back of a newspaper that I never encountered before starting my MA course).

I’m not saying that those journalism students who know exactly what they want to do and how they’re going to get there are wrong. What I am saying is that I don’t think what I’m doing is wrong either. When I come to apply for jobs, I may not be able to say that I’ve wanted to be an entertainment critic since I was five years old, but I will be able to be passionate. About what? It could be any number of things, and I have the rest of my MA year to work out which box I want to put myself into. For now I want to be a journalist, the rest will come with time.

Enrichment Week: A Short Breather

Photo by Ken McKay / Rex Features

This week was labelled on the timetable which I received at the beginning of the course as enrichment week. Having never had a reading week at Durham, I was quite excited at the prospect of having half term again. Then I went to induction, and the prospect of that glorious week of free time slipped away before my eyes. It was to be used for shorthand!

In the event, shorthand bootcamp only took up two days of enrichment week (although my days of freedom were quickly filled up with a family funeral, an interview for work experience, a small amount of socialising and an even smaller amount of law revision), but it was intense. Wednesday was particularly draining, with eleven hours spent on campus.

Those eleven hours were not all devoted to shorthand. The day started at 9am with three and a half hours of shorthand, covering much more of the book (and certainly many more long passages) than we normally get through in a lesson. We were all rather grumpy about being there so early, especially as the broken coffee machine in the postgraduate café meant that we had to venture into undergraduate territory (uninhabited due to enrichment week, but it was the principle of the matter), but we were cheered by a trip to Pizza Hut when shorthand was done with for the day.

Before long though we were back for the Media Summit, opened by the one and only Sir Trevor McDonald.  He gave an inspiring speech, and one which for once didn’t leave us feeling afraid about what we would face in the media industry (all of the other guest lecturers have succeeded in terrifying us). A networking class by Nicky Moran followed, with a little too much ‘talk to your neighbour’ for our liking given that we (or at least I) had been up since 6am, but which had some very useful pointers for the networking which we will all have to do in our careers.

Then it was time for a caffeine pit stop before Marian, Felicia and I finished the day with a crash course in web design with Adam Westbrook.  None of us knew anything about web design beforehand and before the end we were talking about creating our own websites, so it certainly gave us confidence in our own abilities. Whether we’d be quite as confident without Adam guiding us through the process is another matter entirely.

The next day was filled with more shorthand, and our very first unseen 60wpm dictation. Given that we’ve only been learning it for a month, it didn’t go too disastrously, but it also could have gone a lot better considering the fact that we have an exam at the end of the month. I have a feeling that the next few weeks are going to be interesting!

The Kingston Courier

There are many things which I have to do for this course, but one that’s been at the forefront of my mind recently has been writing articles for my NCTJ portfolio. This must include 10 articles, one of which has to be a news feature (that’ll be written as part of the Public Affairs module), and although it isn’t due until May we’ve been assured that before long it’ll be April and we’ll be running around like headless chickens wondering why we only have one article worth submitting.

The easiest way to get cuttings is to write for the Kingston Courier, our very own hyperlocal news website (the efforts of last year’s students have led to them being shortlisted for an NCTJ award, so it’s faintly terrifying that it’s now been entrusted to us). Even this isn’t easy though, as alongside the obvious problem of fitting research and writing in around the rest of our work (and we have plenty), we’ve been confronted with an inconvenient truth: everyone hates journalists. Or at least distrusts them. As soon as you say you are one in researching a story you see the smiles start to slip, and hear the voices falter. Last week I was passed around multiple departments, kept on hold indefinitely, questioned as to how I had the audacity to call someone on their lunch break and hung up on, all in the same call. And this was in an attempt to write a good news story!

The fact that this treatment made me more determined to write the story in question is probably the biggest indicator I’ve yet had that I’ve chosen the right career path. Negative impact on my blood pressure aside, I’m definitely enjoying the experience.

(You can read my article on the business implications of the recent Oceana stabbing here and a more cheerful piece on the Richmond Park WomenOnly Run here.)