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Chapter 3: Description of Scopist

3.1 - Job Overview

As of this writing, today's scopist performs support services for court reporters by preparing clean draft transcripts and performing dictionary maintenance. Scopists can work on staff or freelance, being compensated by the hour, by the page, or some combination thereof. Working on staff generally means that you're part of the office team, and you help wherever you're needed when scoping is light. In exchange, you do have the security of a minimum level of income, usually with page-based incentives. Also, sometimes reporting firms will hire scopist-trainees to work on staff and learn on the job. This on-the-job training usually includes supplying the trainee with all equipment needed.

Working as a freelance has become the most popular business model for scopists in today's workplace. After receiving training, either on staff or through school, or both, freelance scopists work on a page rate, usually working for several clients. Also, quite often scopists will pair up with just one or two court reporters, deriving the bulk of their work from them while doing overflow for others as time permits. The freelance scopist generally works from home unless needed on site for expedited or real-time support. The freelance scopist generally provides their own equipment, which includes a PC, special CAT software, and usually various types of audio playback software and a transcription foot pedal to run your audio (when available) while keeping your fingers free to scope the job.

An experienced scopist should be fairly fluent in machine shorthand, the language of court reporting. Although there are many methods, or "theories," for writing machine shorthand, they're all built on the same foundation. Machine shorthand, like written shorthand, is based on phonetics.

The foundation of machine shorthand is the ability to write syllables in single strokes, so a three-syllable word takes three strokes of the hand, as opposed to typing individual letters. Unlike typing, each stroke is a letter or combination of letters used together in a single action. The letters contained in a steno stroke designate its phonetic equivalent. Machine shorthand is critical to maintaining reporters' dictionaries, and a big part of a scopist's job is dictionary maintenance.

An experienced scopist is also flexible in their application of rules of grammar, being able to adapt to their reporter's style. In freelancing, this is very important when servicing more than one reporter client on a regular basis. Flexibility in grammar is especially important because the profession is all about capturing spoken testimony, and people don't always speak in a fashion that is conducive to proper grammatic use. In other words, think of it as writing a script or screenplay rather than a scientific article.

Most reported proceedings, whether in court or in deposition, are time sensitive. Because of this, scopists have to be extremely reliable with regard to turnaround times. Delays to the reporter can mean delays to the attorneys, and that will affect the bottom line for everyone in your team.

Many reporters and reporting firms specialize in certain services -- so many scopists do, too. For example, some reporters and scopists specialize in real-time transcription, which means what they're writing is displayed more or less immediately, on video monitors. Some reporters and scopists specialize in hearings. Closed captioning has become a major item in many areas. Even on staff, some scopists only work for official reporters while others work only for deposition reporters. Scopists can generally control their work volume by controlling either the hours they work, if on staff, or the number and nature of their clients when they are freelancing.

The routine of a scopist is generally to receive a job online, along with exhibits and audio files, if any, then edit the rough translation into a clean draft transcript. During the editing process, the scopist performs certain editing functions which become part of the clean draft while also programming new definitions for the reporter's dictionaries and flagging passages or terms that they wish to bring to the reporter's or proofreader's attention.

It's important to note here that scopists are not simple typists, and typing speed is secondary to accuracy and consistency. Dictionary maintenance skills and familiarity with machine shorthand, familiarity with court formats and transcript guidelines, and a multitude of other skills also come into play. 

When court reporters used notereaders to type everything up on paper, speed was critical. Scopists, however, work with drafts that are mostly English, and many of the scopist's edits affect the reporter's dictionary and every transcript that is produced from that reporter's dictionary. Also, with CAT technology, a scopist can make one edit in a transcript and have it automatically applied throughout the rest of the transcript. Needless to say, for the scopist, accuracy is far more important than typing speed because one typo can be propagated throughout a transcript and even show up in subsequent rough translations.

The most common method for producing transcripts is through the CAT system. As mentioned earlier, the CAT system is special software running on a PC. CAT systems integrate functions for reading notes from a reporter's steno machine, translating notes against custom dictionaries, maintaining custom dictionaries, and creating transcript printouts in various formats.

Since being a scopist requires specialized knowledge in machine shorthand, transcript editing, and using a CAT system for production and dictionary maintenance, we'll next take a closer look at each of these areas.

3.2 - CAT Systems

Computer-aided transcription, or CAT for short, refers to software. CAT software started on minicomputers in the days before PCs, then made the leap across platforms as PCs became affordable. Court reporters then, as now, were in the forefront of the technology revolution.

As of this writing, the most popular CAT systems are available for DOS, especially utilizing DESQview for multitasking and QEMM for memory management; but the next generation is the new Windows95(+) platforms. The 32-bit generation of CAT system is promising greater interaction between different brands of CAT while also incorporating previously unknown features like digital voice backup and time stamping and video synchronizing. There are various levels of functionality among CAT systems, from a low end of using WordPerfect as a macro engine to translate steno to the more common systems which integrate note storage and management, output controls and formatting, even real-time support for editing live sessions. On the high end, capabilities include the computer-integrated courtroom (CIC) and closed captioning capabilities. CAT software is profession-specific, specialty software, and because of this, it's not what most people would call inexpensive. Purchased new, CAT software can cost well over five thousand dollars for a reporter's translation system. Fortunately for scopists, most CAT vendors offer scopist versions of their software, which is basically the CAT system's editing features but no support is available for dictionary translation and maintenance, a feature that most scopists don't need anyway since the reporters keep and maintain their own dictionaries.

Most CAT systems are set up to accommodate work flow. CAT systems are different, so we'll not go into the specifics for each function here. Suffice it to say that CAT system editors are different from word processors in that they support the process of converting machine shorthand into English. And CAT systems are frequently designed with other features, for linking systems for real-time production of rush jobs, and many other features to facilitate work flow.

Needless to say, some people prefer one "species," or brand, of CAT system while others prefer a different species. Fortunately, there has been work in the past few years to make CAT systems interact with each other, so a scopist on one brand of CAT can support clients which use different versions. However, having said that, I'll note that it's still standard in the industry for reporters to have a first preference for scopists on their exact CAT system because some systems don't support the more advanced functions of others.

In everyday practice, the scopist is basically using their CAT system to import a rough translation, edit and spell-check the job with the editor; creating globals while editing to facilitate dictionary maintenance; then exporting the job back out, along with the globals that were created.

3.3 - Steno  Shorthand Basics (Portions excerpted from Scopists.com articles)

Stenography is a complex business because of its shorthand nature, which is basically another written language. Fortunately, there are fairly simple rules to the whole process. There are many different techniques, or theories, for writing machine shorthand, but they all share some basic underlying concepts and rules. I can't teach all there is to machine shorthand in this section, but I'll try to provide you with underlying principles that will take some of the mystery out of the process.

The actual teaching of machine shorthand is conducted in all scopist training programs. First we'll discuss the stenograph machine.

The stenograph machine is specially designed so that there's a minimum of keys present, thereby allowing the reporter to keep virtually all keys on or near the home row. The specific layout of the keyboard has vowels on the bottom row, two rows of consonants in the main key set, and a number bar on top. The number bar is used in conjunction with the top row of keys, converting them from letters to digits. Note, however, that not all reporters use the number bar, some choosing to use letter strokes to represent numbers. This is a good example of different "theories" that still share the same ground rules.

The steno machine, or "writer," writes the reporter's strokes on a strip of paper which is fed through the back of the machine. The paper that's used by court reporters is set up in pads which are creased to unfold into little sheets that are then refolded after being written on and placed in a hopper on the back of the writer. Each sheet is referred to as a "fold." Some reporters use colored paper for their writers, and most use numbered pads. Remember that court reporters write syllables phonetically, representing sounds within the syllable with key combinations.

To facilitate this process, the steno machine's keyboard is set up so that beginning consonants fall on the left side, vowels print in the center of the fold, and ending consonants fall on the right side of the keyboard. Since not all the letters of the English alphabet are represented on the keyboard, and there are repetitions of some letters (note that there are two "r's" on the keyboard), combinations of letters are used to represent the ones which are missing; for example, the letter "I" is represented by the combination "EU," since no "I" appears on the keyboard. Following is a representation of what a stenotype machine looks like. After noting the arrangement of the keyboard, we can then demonstrate some words in very simplified stenotype, to give you a brief overview of what is involved in reading the steno language.

The Stenograph Keyboard

Several simple writing samples will appear below, and the actual order in which the letters can print on the folds will appear as a guide at the top (for purposes of this explanation only -- this guide does not appear on the actual steno notes), to indicate how words actually look when written out in stenotype on those narrow strips of paper (and this will explain the appearance of large spaces between letters, which happens, once again, because the individual characters can only print in a given location).

++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

S T K P W H R A O * E U F R P B L G T S D Z

++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

  T             H    A                                      T

Above is the word "that," written out exactly as it is written in English. Again, the only reason for the spaces between the letters is the fact that only those characters which correspond to the depressed keys on the stroke are printed on the paper and stored in electronic memory.

++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

S T K P W H R A O * E U F R P B L G T S D Z

++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

       K                 A                                  T

This example shows a simple word, "cat," written by phonetic sound. There is no "C" on the keyboard, but stenotype is based on writing by sound, so the hard "K" sound is used.

++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

S T K P W H R A O * E U F R P B L G T S D Z

++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

    T    P            A                                    T

Here we have the word "fat." Note that no "F" appears on the left side of the keyboard, so the combination "TP" is designated to stand for "F."

++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

S T K P W H R A O * E U F R P B L G T S D Z

++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

  T                    A                                    T

The sample above is an example of a phrase which includes several "brief forms." (Remember, a brief form is simply an abbreviation for a word; we're all familiar with "ASAP" to stand for "as soon as possible" in everyday English.) In the case above, the phrase "TAT" is the designation for the phrase "at that time."

It is because of the use of phonetic writing and the use of brief forms and phrases that court reporters are able to write several words at one stroke, rather than one letter at a time, and that accounts for their ability to be writing at high speed, even though their hands appear to be moving rather slowly.

++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

S T K P W H R A O * E U F R P B L G T S D Z

++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

S   K     W    R            U           P B L G

This final example is a rather amusing one because there is not one normal letter of the English alphabet represented above in the word "judge," which is written out by sound as "J-U-J." To explain: There is no "J" on the left side of the keyboard, and all the two- and three-letter combinations have been exhausted, so the letter "J" (being used with less frequency) is represented by the four-letter combination "SKWR." Likewise, on the right-hand side of the keyboard, there is no "J," so the four-letter combination "PBLG" is used to represent the final "J" sound.

Hopefully, you're now getting a feel for what is occurring on a court reporter's machine. Don't worry about feeling confused at this point; it all becomes second nature after awhile.

Next is a chart of all major phonics which make up a court reporter's steno strokes. These are phonics that are used in combination with each other. In other words, examples in the following chart of phonetic equivalents can each be a complete single stroke, but they can also be combined together in other complete single strokes. When these phonics are combined into a single stroke, the stroke is usually constructed with an initial consonant sound, then a vowel sound, then a final consonant sound. The writer's keyboard is divided into five rows, or "banks," of keys. There are four banks of consonant keys, two banks on the left and two banks on the right, separated by the asterisk key; and one bank of vowel keys centered below the four main banks. The left banks of consonant keys stroke the initial sound, while the right banks stroke the final sound. Vowel sounds are written in the middle, which is how most sounds are constructed. However, remember that beginning scopists should also be aware that sometimes vowels are written out of sequence in the stroke, generally when a reporter is writing a brief form, or a symbolic stroke that represents a phrase or word that would otherwise require two or more strokes to write in its entirety.

MACHINE SHORTHAND/STENO EQUIVALENTS

Steno Phonetic Equivalents - One Syllable will combine Initial and Final Strokes to create the phoneme.

Phonetic Steno Initial Keystrokes

       *   

(Asterisk) 

(Center of keyboard)

Steno Final Keystrokes

A

Long A

B

Soft C

Hard C

D

E

F

G

H

I

Long I

J

K

L

M

N

O

P

Q

R

S

T

U

V

X

Y

Z

A

A EU

PB

K R

K

TK

E

TP

TKPW

H

EU

AO EU

SKWR

K

HR

PH

TPH

O

P

KW

R

S

T

U

S R

KP

K W R

S E

-

-

PB

S

BG

D

-

F

G

-

-

-

PBLG

B G

L

P L

PB

-

P

-

R

S

T

-

F

BGS

OEU

Z


3.4 - Editing Basics

As many people know, medical transcription is oftentimes performed without using any punctuation at all; instead, text is typed as large, unpunctuated block paragraphs. Legal transcription is intended to capture in writing what is occurring in a live proceeding, and have it read intelligibly to the lay person. Because of this need, punctuation and grammar become critical in the transcription process.

Interestingly, people don't usually speak in grammatically correct sentences, so creative grammar is oftentimes necessary to correctly and accurately capture the testimony or colloquy. In general, legal transcription will follow Gregg's rules, with a few differences and variations from reporter to reporter and region to region. However, legal transcription almost never uses the exclamation point (!), and most people use the long dash (--) only to indicate a midstream change in thought whereas it's often used in lay writing to indicate a pause or clarification also.

Specific to scopists, it's important to remain flexible in your use of grammar so you can best match your reporter's style. Many scopists will have to remember several reporters' styles and preferences, being able to change styles for each reporter. Remember, scopists perform reporter support services, so when your reporters have preferences that you may not care for, or even feel are incorrect, your job is to minimize their correction time in preparing a final transcript which the reporter is comfortable with signing, and you're not helping them if they have to change your punctuation, etc., into their preferred style. In short, "The Reporter is Always Right!"

During the editing process, a scopist will be reading a rough translation which was generated on a CAT system. A rough translation will contain boilerplate pages for covers, etc., and the text will be formatted as specified by the reporter's configuration in the CAT system. Also, most of the text will be in English, but some of the text will appear as raw steno.

The raw steno occurs in a rough translation because the reporter's dictionary didn't contain a corresponding English definition for that particular steno stroke or stroke combination. This raw steno appearing in a rough translation is referred to as an "untran," indicating that it's untranslated steno. There are many reasons for raw steno appearing in a rough translation, but the most common reasons generally are:

Regarding new dictionary entries, this can happen because the reporter hasn't encountered a specific word or phrase before, but it also happens frequently because reporters write things differently over time, always looking for better or faster ways to capture testimony; a reporter's dictionary is an ever-evolving animal.

Regarding misstrokes, remember that reporters work with live testimony, and they're writing on-the-fly.

Regarding machine problems, steno machines, or "writers," are like musical instruments in that they're custom adjusted by each reporter to perform optimally for that individual. These machines sometimes lose adjustment in one or more keys, requiring reporters to regularly readjust their keyboards. With all the computer electronics, machine adjustment can be very tricky. Also, steno machines sometimes accidentally combine, or "stack," separate steno strokes when storing them electronically, causing untranslates.

When a scopist encounters untrans during the process of editing a rough translation, they'll correct the transcript by replacing the steno with its proper English definition; however, since they're editing on computer, they have several different options for making this correction. First, a scopist will look at the steno and decide if it's just a typo or if it's recurrent. If it's a typo, the scopist will decide whether or not it's a common typo. If it's just an anomalous typo, the scopist will simply replace that steno occurrence with its proper English definition. However, if the stroke sequence is correct for a word that's not contained in the dictionary, or if it's a fairly common typo, the scopist performs what's called a "global," or global replacement.

These globals are critical to the process because creating the English definition once in the rough translation will cause all occurrences of that stroke sequence to be changed to the newly specified English. This is very efficient if a reporter encounters a word like "thermoluminescence," which may not be in the reporter's dictionary. If the reporter writes the steno equivalent two hundred times in a single transcript, the scopist need only make one global edit for that stroke sequence to automatically replace every occurrence with the English definition.

This, again, demonstrates the need for a scopist to be painstakingly accurate in their work; one mistake is easily multiplied and propagated throughout a transcript.

Beyond making editing a transcript easier, globals are the main input method for reporter dictionary maintenance. Every time a scopist makes a global replacement, the steno stroke sequence and its English equivalent are saved in an electronic database. After the job is produced and printed, the reporter will review the globals which were made during that job and designate them for storage or discard. A good scopist will global generously, thereby giving the reporter the option of saving or discarding the definitions. Court reporters will then designate globals they wish to save, placing them either in their main dictionary or in a supplemental dictionary or job dictionary.

There is another type of global that scopists use, referred to as a "text global" or "trash global." This type of global is made against text only, so there's no dictionary support to go with it. However, it's convenient for doing some global replacements that are specific only to the individual transcript and you know the reporter will not want to save the definition for future use. One example of the text global is in filling out boilerplate or template data for creating cover pages and captions, etc., where the text might appear as WITNESS/NAME* and the scopist will replace that with the name of the witness, also causing it to be changed throughout the transcript wherever "WITNESS/NAME*" occurs, such as in the certificate pages. Also, it's a convenient way for court reporters to fix typos that their scopists make when globalling <g>.

There is yet another type of global that is commonly used in court reporting, called a "conflict global." The conflict global is necessary for steno strokes which are used for more than one English definition. For example, the words "their" and "they're" sound alike, and a reporter may wish to define the stroke as both words via the conflict global. The scopist will global the word with its primary designation, then conflict global it with a secondary definition, a tertiary definition, etc. When translated, the steno will appear in a transcript something like (sans quotation marks) "[their:they're]" and the scopist need only execute a command to choose a definition.

As conflict globals occur in a translation, the scopist will perform what is referred to as "surround globalling," where they'll use surrounding English words to automatically resolve conflicts. Using the above conflict as an example, a scopist may global the occurrence of the translation "[their:they're] not" into the English definition "they're not" simply because "their not" will probably never be a correct translation. This technique is used to gradually eliminate conflict definitions in a reporter's dictionary, or at least bring them to a minimum.

There is one final global that CAT systems share, called a purge global. If a set of strokes was misgloballed, a purge global reverses the translation and reverts the text to raw steno, ready for regloballing.

Globalling is also used to correct mistranslations in steno. A court reporter may write steno strokes which may translate into English, just not the correct English. This is referred to as a "mistranslate" or "mistran." Using surround-globalling techniques, a scopist can eliminate most mistranslates.

During the scoping process, definitions for some mistranslates and untranslates may be desirable for a specific job, such as for use in translating steno for a series of depositions or trial days in the same lawsuit. People's names are commonly job specific because of spelling differences, etc. Speaker identifications are usually job specific. Specific terms of art, or brand names, are also frequently job specific. The scopist will create main and job-specific globals during editing, and after the job is complete, the court reporter will review these global definitions and place them in either their main dictionary or a job dictionary, or they'll simply discard the definition if it's unwanted.

Another thing to remember when creating globals is that machine shorthand can do more than just write words. In court reporting, reporters have codes for punctuation symbols like commas, periods and question marks, and they even have codes for creating question and answer symbols and other formatting chores, as well as codes for causing blurbs, or parentheticals, to appear in a transcript. Further, globals can be used to create prefixes and suffixes such as "ing" and the like. It's important to remember formatting, because a scopist might define a single stroke to be the equivalent of "?<carriage return><tab>A.<tab>" -- which is simply the format for a reporter's answer symbol. Also, the global for a period or question mark stroke will actually be ".<space><space>" or "?<space><space>" for formatting purposes. This also applies to paragraphs, because many reporters will use two period strokes or something like PAR/PAR to start a new paragraph.

Upon completion of the scoping process, the scopist should have as clean a draft as possible to return to the reporter. Proper spelling for names and terminology is absolutely critical, so a scopist needs to be quick to check references. Obviously, a professional scopist will also have ample reference material on hand. Scopists are frequently provided with copies of exhibits, and part of the work flow for a scopist is to cull the documentation for spellings. Spellings which a scopist is unsure of will usually be flagged in some way, making the reporter or proofreader aware that it is just a best guess. Usually only the first occurrence is flagged, and the final spelling can be globalled into the transcript by the proofreader or reporter.

A final aspect of editing for scopists is consistency. Words should never be spelled two different ways, unless it's in quoted written material. Typos are very serious in legal transcription not only because they reflect upon the overall quality of the reporter and scopist but mainly because today's modern law firm uses software to perform what is referred to as "depo digests" and indexing, where they'll use computer software to do legal workups of whole libraries of transcripts while extracting testimony in a fashion that flags the testimony and evidence in an orderly, issue-oriented fashion. Typos make the job harder for lawyers and their paralegals because they have to be cross referenced or they'll miss something during the automatic processes and have to manually correct their databases. Furthermore, today's transcripts usually come complete with a concordance of keywords, listing each word and every occurrence of it in the entire transcript. One typo in someone's name when manually editing can lead to a side-by-side presentation of the error in the keyword index or concordance.

To facilitate consistency, a good scopist will always maintain a word list for each ongoing case, since they'll oftentimes do many proceedings in one lawsuit over a period of time. It's not unusual for scopists to maintain over fifty active word lists at any given period of time.


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