The Art & Skill of Radio-Telegraphy

-Second Revised Edition-
William G. Pierpont N0HFF

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Chapter 8 - Copying - Getting it written down

This is really an extension of Chapter 7 To the principles given there add these: --  If you are going the easy way, copying is the next step after "listening" --  advancing in code skill by adding the new action of  writing it down.

What we hear as letters and words are now to be written with pencil and paper or with typewriter.   It is learning to co-ordinate ear-to-mind-to-hand.  Copying by hand exposes all the senses to what you are hearing, and it is nothing more than listening to and writing down what is being received.  An old 1854 book on telegraphy described it as "taking dictation" -- at first letter-by-letter, later as word-by-word, etc.  That is a good way to think of it.  So, hunt up that pencil again.  Operating ability is measured by copying:  if you don't write it down -- putting down everything you hear exactly as you hear it -- you aren't copying.

A skilled operator is trained to copy what he hears 100% perfect.   .   Most people can learn to copy with a pencil up to about 25 wpm (a few can reach 35, rarely 45), but above that speed almost everybody needs a typewriter ("mill").  (On a typewriter it may also be done "mechanically" by direct ear-to-typewriter-key transfer without processing it through the letter stage to the typewriter key. -- See later in chapter)      Remember - don't try to do more than one new thing at a time.  You already know how to write.  When you copy by hand, make it easy by writing the way you usually do.  For example, don't try to block print unless this is natural and easy. Likewise, don't try to copy on a typewriter ("mill") before you have learned how to touch-type.

While most of us would like to know what we are copying as we copy, this isn't necessary.  It can become so automatic that we copy something correctly without realizing what we are copying. (I usually like to know what I am copying, don't you?)  People who do these things well do not struggle with them -- they have learned so well that it has become second natural for them.

Here is an interesting example of copying properly:-     One night, as I was copying mixed groups in a very relaxed manner, and feeling quite comfortable with the code, I asked my friend if he would speed up to 25 wpm from the 20 wpm he had been sending.  He started sending them at 25 wpm, and I was vexed at his misunderstanding, but began to copy anyway, wondering why he was using voice to send these simple data. -- Voice?  What voice?   He was sending clear code with letter-number combinations at 25 wpm and I was copying it easily."    Aha!  The listener was now thinking in terms of letters and numbers,  not as code characters at all.   He had become proficient.

To copy just WRITE DOWN what you hear, everything you hear -- not what you think your hear -- and you will make progress.  The faculties of hearing and understanding code signals work best in learning to coordinate this way to create a useful copying ability.


As in listening, this helps by dispelling the fear of missing something, because we already know what it is about.    By using things which we have read, or recorded material we are already familiar with, we feel more comfortable.  When we know, at least in general, what it's about or what it says, we know what to expect and not worry about not  understanding and losing out. It helps build confidence in learning to copy behind.  The more familiar we are with what we are copying, the easier it all becomes. This confidence will begin to carry over into receiving new and unfamiliar materials also.


Condition yourself to copy what comes easily.  As you practice, copy everything you instantly recognize and pay no attention to any errors  --  just forget them and go on.    IF YOU MISS ANYTHING JUST GO ON --  Let it go, forget it and keep  going on. Train yourself to leave a blank space and go on, because if you stop for even an instant to puzzle over a signal you didn't recognize, you will miss at least some of what follows.  We must condition ourselves to do this.  After all, we're learning.

The holes in your copy will gradually fill up and you will be keeping relaxed while you go, just leaving blanks for each missed  letter or word.  (However, characters we habitually miss do point out what needs more practice.)   Remember also that we may sometimes mis-hear, or mis-identify a character or a word -- and also it is always possible that the  sender may have made a mistake. --  Count these things as of no importance, and keep at it until you can do it easily.  Don 't work so long at a time during these learning stages that you get tired or bored.  Use a wide variety of material and choose it to be as interesting as possible.

One student, speaking of ARRL practice materials, said: "I made more progress in learning code in weeks than I did in years previously, because it is more interesting to copy and understand solid copy."  Some practice copying random 5-character groups is good in the early stages to make sure we are recognizing the characters correctly and to prevent anticipation, but because it is meaningless it soon tends to become boring. --  Too much of this may also lead the mind to expect a break after each five letters when we are trying to copy normal English.  This has happened! (Practice with "Backward English" -- provided in some computer programs -- is better because the letter groups are of variable length and have normal letter distribution.)


Who Doesn't ?  If you are able to copy every letter, you are not learning -- but if you are only getting two letters out of every three, or four out of every five, your mind will be motivated to get that extra letter.  There is always some speed at which for the time being each of us falls apart -- so what?  It need not become a barrier.   If you want to become more proficient, don't practice at such a slow speed that it becomes a fixed habit.

Keep trying in short bursts of not over a minute or two at a time at higher speeds  2 - 5 (or more) wpm faster in order to force the mind to respond faster -- it will.  This is especially important when we are at a speed where we getting about 95% of it, so that we don't become satisfied to stay there.   It is often  best to begin a practice period, when the mind is fresh, at a speed too fast to get more than about half of it, and then slow down.  -- Keep moving up faster to improve, because then copying at a little slower speed than your maximum will become easy and enjoyable.  Alternating with some practice at 2, 5 or more wpm above your limit for brief periods will challenge the mind, then dropping back a little will show you are really improving.  Every operator soon develops enough  awareness of what he is writing down, that he  doesn't need to wonder whether it is copied correctly.


If you begin copying early, you will be copying letter-by-letter, sticking close behind the sender: you hear the character and write it down, then forget it and listen to the next and write it down, and so on.  But to copy this way for very long, in step with each letter being sent, tends to tense us up.  It becomes tedious and tiring because it is meaningless and so much conscious effort is involved.  Then you usually have to read what you have written in order  to understand it.  (If we look back while copying we may lose out.)  In practising to speed up copying, try not to stop if you fall behind, just keep going.

The beginner is afraid of losing something, because he can't get it all down fast enough.  He is frantically struggling to keep up, "tail-gating" the incoming signals, so as not to lose any of them.  This is because he is still not recognizing some characters quickly enough.  The problem is made worse because the characters are received at very unequal rates of speed as compared to writing them down.  The letters "E," "I" and "T", for example, are the shortest letters, while C, J, Q and Y are the longest ones.  A beginner copying letter-by-letter can get panicky trying to write down an "E" or other short letter before the next one arrives.  It is worse when two E's, or  EI, IE, TT or other short letters occur together, and we frantically try to write them down before the next one comes along.  As we advance most people can copy letter-by-letter up to about 25 wpm or even faster, but above that we simply have to find a better way.


The first step to making copying easy is to learn to copy behind.  That means training the mind to act as a buffer, or short-term memory, between hearing the incoming signals and what we are writing down.  Several characters or words are automatically held in mind after hearing them and before writing them down, meanwhile continuing to listen to the next ones coming along.  This helps smooth out the uneven rate at which characters are received as compared to writing them down, and also it relieves the mental strain of copying.   It serves as a cushion.   In this way we can also make much better looking copy and can even capitalize proper names as we hear them.

Copying behind is another good way to beat anticipation.  It puts a premium on listening before you write   A good operator seldom starts writing a word down until it is completed.  By starting out using things which we have read, or recorded material we are already familiar with, we feel more comfortable. When we know what it's about or what it says, we know what to expect and not worry about losing out.

Above about 25 wpm, we need to build up vocabulary of at least the most common words and syllables.  Practise waiting until a syllable or short word is finished before starting to write it down,  then try it for two syllables.  Writing down more than that behind what has been sent may be risky -- the word may turnout to be longer -- unexpected letters may  still be coming and surprise you, making you miss them or even more   (If you're still going at 40 wpm you will have to copy word by word.)  Some people seem to develop this ability without any special effort as they progress.  But for most of us it just doesn't seem to come at all without some help.

How can we learn to copy behind?  Is there something we can do specifically?  There certainly is.  Here is one way to begin: start out with random two-character groups at first, until you get the hang of it, keeping the spacing between groups wider than normal.   Listen until both characters have been heard before starting to write them down. As this becomes easier, try groups of three, then of four and if you wish up to five or more.  Practise also with decreasing spacing between groups until it is normal.  Another approach with any kind of text, is this way:  listen to the first character, but wait until the next one has been completed before writing the first one down; write down the second one after hearing the third one, etc.  Then increase the number of intermediate characters between hearing and writing to two, then three, etc., as far as you wish.

This kind of practice should be extended to include short syllables and short words (such as the 100 most common words), in each case waiting until the whole syllable or word is completed before starting to write it down, and while listening to what follows.  To extend this to more than a couple of syllables or short words can be risky, because, as noted before, something unexpected may come along and throw you off balance, and cause you to miss some of what follows.

An interesting example is this comment (from the time when a government inspector had to test each individual applicant for an operator's license):-  "I can remember the benefits of copying behind.  The inspector giving the test started and sent 'of' and then added an 'f.'  I immediately thought of 'off' and got set for the next word, but to my dismay, without a pause he sent an 'i' and so immediately I tried to outfox him by prewriting the word 'office'  To my consternation he kept on going with 'cia' and I quickly revised my thinking to 'official.'  But I was wrong, because he finally ended up with the word 'officially.'  Listening first and copying behind are beneficial."  So, copying a word or two behind is a leisurely pace, but too much more may produce some mental strain, especially if an unusual word comes along.

Copying behind has many advantages besides making it easy.   It allows us to make a neat, finished-looking copy with a proper appearance, capitalization and punctuation.  When it is at speeds well below our limit, it gives us time to fill in gaps and flaws due to static, etc., and to correct errors in sending.  Context can help. (Numbers, however, have no context and generally must be copied without delay.)  The purpose of copying behind is to relieve the mind of the compulsive pressure, the strain, of keeping up letter by letter.

Most high speed operators who have discussed this subject tell us that we need not copy more than one or two syllables or words behind, and in fact as speeds go up this is about the safe limit.  (Some experts,.such as Ted McElroy seem to have been able to copy 6 or more words -- even whole sentences -- behind with no trouble at all, but most of us probably cannot.)  Copying  letter-by-letter forces one to write with conscious effort, and this in turn blocks our attempts to copy behind.


We can hold in mind only a few individual numbers or random characters at a time because they usually have no coherence, no meaning  - they don't make sense as syllables and words do. Words and phrases are much easier to remember than a string of letters or numbers (or a call sign) because they form meaningful groups, not a lot of little unrelated pieces.  This is why Walter Candler, who in earlier days taught many operators to become experts, was convinced that learning to hear words as words was essential for efficient copying behind.  (He was a strong proponent of listening practice.)  We can learn to copy by words as readily as by letters.  For example, the word "the" takes no longer time than the number "9."

Copying behind by syllables, words and even by longer expressions is merely an extension of this.  If we build up our working vocabulary (word-familiarity) as already discussed in Chapter 7, "Listening", this will help us a great deal.  As speeds go up you will find that, by around 40 wpm you're copying word by word and by 60 wpm (if you go that far) it will be more like copying phrase by phrase.

Old time telegraphers used to say that their "alphabet" was words.  That is, they had a wide working vocabulary of words that they instantly recognized when they heard them.  When they heard a word coming in on the line in code, they heard the word, not the individual letters, unless it was some proper name or something unusual that they had to spell out.  They had a familiarity with words.  That is why one of them, who also was a well-known teacher of Morse code, said that by listening and re-listening over and over again to the same recorded code tapes of regular English text, this will help us to become intimately familiar with the words -- that is, over-learning.  We need to get familiar with words as they sound in code.


Law 3-  if you miss something: condition yourself to skip it.    Keep copying everything you recognize instantly and easily and shrug off the holes left over.  You'll soon be surprised to find the holes gradually filling up.  If you are frightened you lose much of your ability to copy code well and --surprisingly --your sending speed also tends to go up (as much as 25%).  The parts of brain that copy normally are pretty much shut down.

At first it may not be easy to let go, and allow some characters or words,  which we can't quite consciously identify, pass by. That doesn't mean we stop listening or paying attention: it means we are learning to trust the mind to store them safely in its immediate, retrievable memory and not get panicky or confused because we are not conscious that they are there.  So, especially in practice, if you miss a few letters or a word here or there, don't worry.

Overcome this fear by just continuing to go ahead -- including more practice on the sticky characters -- and you will surprise yourself to find you will recall them.  Because our fear of losing out is the greatest barrier to copying behind, Candler devised some special exercises to help us get started with a minimum of strain.  It goes like this:-- take a list of short words in two parallel columns, preferably words with about the same number of letters each, and:-
a) with pencil or typewriter write down the first word in the first column while simultaneously spelling out loud the parallel word in the second column, and so on down the columns. (We may do it again, reversing the column order.)  Try it with 2-letter words first, then longer words till you get the knack of it. -- As a useful variation, try sending the one word with your key while spelling the other out loud.
b) Have someone "read" easy printed matter to you by spelling out each word at a regular, even rate of speed and a level tone of voice.  Don't begin writing the first word until the third starts, and keep on two words behind, and then if you wish, with three words behind, etc.
Finally you may repeat it using code instead of voice spelling.    Do these exercises slowly enough that you don't feel rushed or have any fear of losing out.  Don't do it too long at a time: a couple minutes at a time are enough to get the hang of it..


Try some "copying" this way:--  sit as though were going to write, using your index finger instead of a pencil (or your hand as though you held a pencil), letting it rest lightly on paper while listening to the code.  You may try it as motionless copying, not moving your finger, "copying in your head" only,  or you may prefer to "write" with your finger. Either way, it can help wean us away from that baby step of letter-by-letter copying, and graduate us into seeing several letters or words as a unit in the mind's eye.

Once we've gotten the knack of it, we will discover that visualizing and holding the letters, even for just an instant, will help us to copy better and faster than the old on-the-edge way -- almost a reflex action.  All this is training the mind to dig up the images of words that have already been sent.  It will develop a sort of automatic response: ears, mind, hand all coordinating together.  Remember: to ignore any errors, not to work too long at a time, and -- don't forget: you're just practicing.  So give yourself a chance.  In learning to copy on typewriter, go slowly at first.  You may find it easier to use either caps or lower case altogether at first.  Until the typewriter became practical old time Morse telegraphers copied all messages with pen and ink in beautiful longhand up to 30 - 35 wpm -- solid deliverable copy, while a real good operator using a mill later could take 50 -60 wpm without overextending himself.  Most copied 5 - 6 words behind to do this.   (OT bulletin  Jn 92 p 13)


Until you have gained considerable skill in copying, avoid working too long at a time.  but after this point it is good to practice copying for longer periods without fatigue.  When you have reached a fair speed, long copying practice can be helpful because by the time we are getting somewhat tired, our subconscious mind is translating the dits and dahs so that we do not feel that terrific mental strain that is the cause of guessing at certain letters.  Under these conditions one can copy page after page and not be aware of a single sentence in it.


In the old days when all ships used spark only it took a lot of concentration and skill to copy a station a thousand miles away when another ship 150 miles away was transmitting.  When there were static crashes it was hard (and they also often sounded like parts of code letters).  Learning to copy a weak station thru static and interference and fading is an art in itself, and to master it takes quite a bit of practice.    It taxes the skill of the operator to the utmost, as it is often necessary to retune the receiver and go back and fill in missing letters in the copy without actually losing a word of a signal that can hardly be read.  Signal fading is something to contend with, but during practice even that may prove to be a benefit to us.  Copy what you do hear and leave a space for what you can't.  It can help us learn to ignore lost sounds.

Quality of sending and on-the-air receiving conditions have a marked effect on copyability.  An operator who can copy solid code at 25 wpm may drop to about 15 wpm when static or interference is present.  Bursts of static can take out gobs of information.  Old time commercial operators copied solid right through static, interference and fading so bad that others had to ask for repeats, and they kept right on copying when most us wouldn't even have heard the signal at all.  Their jobs depended on it. That is skill, and CW does get through.  Some hams have learned to do this just as skillfully --  they have learned to copy signals against intolerable background noise, noise to signal ratios of 10 dB or more.

It takes practice and patience to learn to hear the weak stations under the loud ones, but we can learn to copy a weak station buried under several strong ones.  This is a truly remarkable ability of the human operator: to read incredibly weak signals in the face of strong distractions.  It does take  concentration, and the advancing operator should be developing some of it.  Bum "fists", bad sending, is something else again.   A skilled operator who can copy solid at 50 wpm with good quality sending might be able to copy only at 10 wpm with poor spacing, poor rhythm or poor weighting.


Holes and errors in one-time copy can often be corrected, whether they originated in the sending or receiving  (including interference, etc.),  by rereading and analyzing the entire message.  Look for key words, clause and sentence boundaries, linking words, etc., for clues.  The context can help greatly in filling in and correcting things.  Where a word is strange, look for the letter which might have been warped, mis-sent or mis-heard.  Examining our practice copy in this way can also be a valuable tool, and encouragement as we are learning.


At the expert stage where copying is automatic, the most common copying error is said to be getting so personally interested in what is being received that we begin to anticipate what is coming next, and then if it turns out to be something unexpected,  we may lose out something.  Learning to copy on the "mill" (typewriter) without knowing what is being copied was actually used during WW2 in Africa, when operators were in short supply.  Native Africans who knew no English at all, were taught to associate each code signal with its corresponding typewriter key.  They quickly learned to hear the character and punch the proper keys, and became quite proficient.

When making notes just for our own use, we don't need to copy every single letter or word-- we can use any kind of shorthand or abbreviations we know, such as "rcvr" for receiver, "ant" for antenna, etc., just enough to remind us later.   The extra time lets us take it easy.

During WW-II many operators found it was no more difficult to copy code by pencil in block letters at 25 wpm than copying English text at the same speed.  Some of those messages lasted over an hour!   But proficiency in copying coded groups can be a detriment to copying plain language.  Coded groups are usually exactly so-many (usually 5) letters long, but plain language words are expected by the operator to vary in length.  When such an operator moved from coded groups  to plain language operation, he often tended to split the words into 5 character groups.  Background music or other soft rhythmic sounds which do not distract, have sometimes been found useful to relieve the tedium for high-speed operators making lots of copy.

98 of the 100 most common words arranged for Candler's practice:

go  he  and  how  been  into  great about  first  their  before should  am  if  man any some very other  shall  could  which little  people  me  an  him  its  then  what every these  would there on  us out  may  like  than  by  or  not  are  well  more to  in   but  now  made  will  of  do  was had  work  must  up is  can  two  when  they  as  be one  the over  said  so  at who  for have come  she our  such  them  it  my  has  men only that all  his  time  this  no  we  say  her  your from were upon

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The Art &Skill of Radio-Telegraphy-Second Revised Edition-
©William G. Pierpont N0HFF
This page last updated August 02, 1998

Modifications and compile by Thom LaCosta - K3HRN - December 2004