How did Dickens practise shorthand?
To get into the character-building mindset, Dickens needed practice in listening to speech and writing it down. This would first be done by dictation – a process memorably performed by Tommy Traddles in David Copperfield.
I resorted to Traddles for advice; who suggested that he should dictate speeches to me, at a pace, and with occasional stoppages, adapted to my weakness. Very grateful for this friendly aid, I accepted the proposal; and night after night, almost every night, for a long time, we had a sort of Private Parliament in Buckingham Street […] I should like to see such a Parliament anywhere else! My aunt and Mr. Dick represented the Government or the Opposition (as the case might be), and Traddles, with the assistance of Enfield’s Speakers, or a volume of parliamentary orations, thundered astonishing invectives against them. Standing by the table, with his finger in the page to keep the place, and his right arm flourishing above his head, Traddles, as Mr. Pitt, Mr. Fox, Mr. Sheridan, Mr. Burke, Lord Castlereagh, Viscount Sidmouth, or Mr. Canning, would work himself into the most violent heats, and deliver the most withering denunciations of the profligacy and corruption of my aunt and Mr. Dick; while I used to sit, at a little distance, with my notebook on my knee, fagging after him with all my might and main.
If David’s description of the process is accurate, one can imagine that friends or family members dictated to young Charles around the kitchen table in Norfolk Street, reading out passages or improvising speeches while trying to make it as entertaining as possible.
As well as getting himself up to a reasonable speed at home, Dickens would also have had to put his stenographic skills to the test in a real courtroom situation. This was more serious, involving, as he put it, ‘walking miles every day to practice it in the courts of law’, where he would sit, listen and try to take down what was said. By attending the courts for practice, he could also make his face known to the proctors and become familiar with the speed of the speakers and the kind of legal phraseology that he would be required to transcribe. By 1829, after about a year of learning and practice, his shorthand was good enough for him to be able to make the step up to reporting as a profession.
 Charles Dickens, David Copperfield, edited by Jeremy Tambling (London: Penguin, 2004), 552.
 ‘To Miss Burdett Coutts, 14 January 1854’, in The British Academy/The Pilgrim Edition of the Letters of Charles Dickens: Volume Seven, 1853-1855, edited by Madeline House, Graham Storey, and Kathleen Tillotson (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993), 245.