Secretarial Letter Dictation

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Basics of secretarial positions

Secretarial work, in one form or another, has existed since writing has existed; scribes were the first incarnation, followed by clerks. With the commercialization of the typewriter in the late 1800s and their adoption in the 1900s, record-keeping and composition became increasingly integral to modern businesess and organizations. Originally, most outgoing business correspondence was handled by business owners and a hired clerk, and was usually handwritten (Yates 25). This was an incredibly time consuming, laborious process, and made record keeping confusing, as all incoming and outgoing communication was hand copied so it was impractical to keep more than one comprehensive book of correspondence (Yates 38). Speedwriting and stenography along with typing skills sped up the process of bureaucracy and were delegated to women, particularly young women, in the 1900s.

The origins of the word secretary are generally agreed to be related to secret-keeping and trust. According to Edward Jones Kilduff, the word secretary "has its origin in common with the word secret, for both are derived from the Latin word secretus, which means private, secret, or pertaining to private or secret matters. Hence came the general definition of secretary as a person who is intrusted with private or secret matters; a confidential officer or attendant; a confidant" (Kilduff 3).

Secretaries as mediums

In a sense, secretarial work is a kind of 'medium' in and of itself. Secretaries receive communications from all types of sources; it is up to the secretary to determine which communications are the most pressing, and which do not deserve attention, and forward the important communications to the boss. Communications between businesses, especially letters, were not usually written by the businesspeople themselves--rather, the businessperson would speak (dictate) what was in the letter while the secretary/stenographer would write in shorthand what her supervisor dictated, and then type the letter on a typewriter with correct 'form,' meaning correcting any grammatical errors, formatting, spelling, detail work, etc. Essentially mail communications would go from a businessman to his secretary to another secretary to the businessman she represented. This was also true of phone calls and visitors: all communications had to pass through the secretary before reaching the intended recipient.

Secretaries themselves still exist, but their duties have changed drastically due to email communications, word processing, and various other technologies. Letter dictation in particular is now incredibly rare, perhaps because of the common use of word processing technologies which drastically reduce the time needed to compose documents. Like the demise of the scribe due to increased literacy and printing, the stenographic duties of the secretary have diminished due to computing technologies. However, stenographers (using stenographic typewriters) are still in use in the legal system alongside voice-to-speech technology in case of computer failure.

Stenography in secretarial duties

Stenography, or the practice of transcribing spoken word, was essential to the duties of a secretary, and a fast speed (usually of 100 words per minute), was desirable. "Except in the instances of college graduates, of persons who have received a specialized training in secretarial work, and of those who posess some exceptional qualification (a knowledge of financial matters or the ability to write well, for example), it is very difficult to obtain a position as a real private secretary without first having served an apprenticeship as a stenographer" (Kilduff 358).

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The importance of stenography, and particularly accurate stenography, for the secretary was expressed by George E. Roberts, vice president of National City Bank of New York City, "If my stenographer is not wholly accurate and dependable in transcribing her notes--her share of this mutual work--the effectiveness of my letter suffers. Through carelessness she has made me appear to say things I did not say, she has inclined my reader to the belief that I am ungrammatical, and by her inaccuracies in typing she has caused my letter to make an unfavorable impression. [...] Letter writing is an important function in business, and is becoming of greater importance because of the fact that transactions carried on by means of letters are rapidly increasing in number. The personal contact between a business house and its customers that existed in former years is being supplanted by a contact by letters. And all of this means that we must today make our letters more efficient. To do so we must enlist the coöperation of our stenographers to perform efficiently their share of the work of getting out good letters--letters that are accurate in transcription, correct in spelling, grammar, and punctuation, and pleasing in appearance" (Kilduff 13). This excerpt suggests that secretaries only copied exactly what was written, but frequently part of their duty was to correct wording, phrasing, and grammar, and know all of the correct formats, sort of like what Microsoft Word does with its Paperclip helper.

Many different types of speedwriting and shorthand exist, including the Pitman and Graham styles. College courses on shorthand were a popular choice for young women, and considered to be very practical. An example of this is in Sylvia Plath's novel The Bell Jar, in which the Plath-based protagonist Esther's mother encourages Esther to take shorthand instead of trying to be a poet. Esther rejects this, seeing shorthand as a sure way into a subservient lifestyle.

Typically pens were utilized more by secretaries than pencils, because the pen required less muscular exertion, allowed for faster movements, preserved better than pencil marks, and were generally more legible (Gregg 46). Other tools involved in the dictation process include the steno notebook.

The typewriter's role in the growth of the secretary

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Female typist, 1926 (Yates 40)

In 1890, the U.S. Census reported 33,000 people employed as stenographers/typists, and by 1900, there were 134,000 people employed as stenographers, typists, and secretaries. In 1910, that number doubled; and in 1920 doubled again--786,000 secretaries (Yates 43). The typewriter allowed for a massive boom in the amount of women in the workforce: in 1871, only four percent of total commercial (business skills) school was female, and by 1900, that number leaped to 36 percent (Yates 44).

Before the typewriter, letters were usually drafted and finalized by the composer of the letter--that is to say, the writer (the one who thought up the source of the material) and the writer (the one who performed the physical act of writing) were one in the same. With the advent of the typewriter, the two acts were separated entirely. According to Yates, the typewriter allowed "increasing subdivision of tasks and specialization of jobs, with the techniques of systematic management to coordinate the various specialized elements" in order to maximize efficiency. The typewriter further reduced the amount of time spent by highly paid executives on letter-writing, instead moving that task to lesser-paid secretarial workers (44).

With the popularization of personal computers and word processing, this separation of composing and typing has again merged, as executives can easily write their own letters and internal communication is done increasingly through e-mail.

Secretary as extension of self

What is particularly interesting about the secretary as a medium was the focus on her appearances, or 'poise.' While secretarial handbooks emphasize fast typing and shorthand skills along with organizational skills, each book has lengthly sections on the presentation of a secretary. As is expected, secretaries had dress requirements like we do today in offices, but even more requests on the attributes of secretaries were made. For example, a desired quality among secretaries was a pleasing voice, and to smile. Becker encourages secretaries to be 'phonogeninc' while on the telephone, at least until "television becomes a practical commercial reality" for telecommunications (73). Particular posture was requested--"Draping yourself about furniture, or leaning against files or doors as if they were lampposts is similarly condemned" (Becker 106)--and only pale nailpolish acceptable. One secretary recommends wearing blue frequently, as "[m]en almost universally like blue" (103).

Manners were also essential, and women were thought to be much better at mannered speech and behavior than men, and more adept at being 'channels.' Edward Kilduff explains, "In so far as any general statement can be true, male secretaries are more likely not to possess suitable manners than are female secretaries; perhaps because it is man's nature to be more unrestrained and more independent than women, perhaps because men are not so sensitive to the effects of manners as women are and hence do not appreciate their value." Men, essentially, made bad mediums because they are too independent, more productive, and more creative than women.

The work a secretary did, particularly letters, were not signed by secretaries but rather bosses, and it was important that they and their work was reflective of their employers. The secretary, ideally, was to be involved, but not necessarily thought of as a 'producer' of content--only visible as an extension rather than authority: "Letters are an expression of an executive's personality. Don't you, as a secretary, quickly spot any flaws that come to your employer's desk? Don't you judge other secretaries and their employers by the kind of letters they mail from their offices?" (Becker 11)

The ideal secretary was one who was trustworthy with private data, efficient, reliable, and attractive. She, as one employer describes in Secretaries Who Succeed, served as "an extension of my own brain" (37). This sentiment has been echoed in the present with new technologies such as the iPhone, Blackberries, and laptops--all of which similarly serve as both status symbols, secret-keepers, transmitters of data, and as extensions of one's consciousness.

Letter dictation in pop culture

In Monty Python's Flying Circus episode 33 ( letter dictation is parodied. Biggles dictates a letter to his secretary, who is confused as to exactly what words to transcribe in this exchange:

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Biggles puts on antlers to indicate he is not dictating

Biggles. Just put down what I say.

Secretary. Do I put that down?

Biggles. Of course you don't put that down.

Secretary. Well what about that?

Biggles. Look. Don't put that down. Just put down - wait a mo - wait a mo. (puts on his antlers) Now, when I've got these antlers on - when I've got these antlers on I am dictating and when I take them off (takes antlers off) I am not dictating.

Secretary. (types) I am not dictating.

Biggles. What? (puts the antlers on) Read that back.

Secretary. Dear King Haakon, I am not dictating what?

Biggles. No, no, no, you loopy brothel inmate.


Becker, Esther R. Secretaries Who Succeed. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1947.

Charters, W. W. and Isadore B. Whitley. Summary of Report on Analysis of Secretarial Duties and Traits. New York: The National Junior Personell Service, Inc., 1924.

Doutt, Howard M. Secretarial Science. Chicago: Richard D. Irwin, Inc., 1944.

"Episode 33." Monty Python's Flying Circus. BBC. 30 Nov 1972.

Kilduff, Edward Jones. The Private Secretary. New York: D. Appleton-Century Company, 1924.

Pitman, Isaac. New Standard Dictation Course. New York: Pittman & Sons, 1933.

Yates, JoAnne. Control Through Communication. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989.