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How To Use Dictation For A Healthier Writing Life

28 January 2018

From The Creative Penn:

The word ‘writing’ has become associated with hitting keys on a keyboard to make letters appear on a screen or inscribing by hand onto paper.

But the end result is a mode of communication from one brain to another through the medium of words. Those words can be generated by your voice, just as people can ‘read’ by listening to an audiobook.

Famous authors who have written with dictation include diverse creatives John Milton (Paradise Lost), Dan Brown, Henry James, Barbara Cartland and Winston Churchill. When Terry Pratchett, fantasy author of the Discworld series, developed Alzheimer’s Disease, he found he couldn’t write anymore, so he moved to dictation in his final years.

. . . .

So, why dictate?

(1) Health reasons

You can dictate standing up or while walking, or lying in bed with injuries, or if pain stops you typing.

I started using dictation when I had RSI and used it to write the first drafts of Destroyer of Worlds and also Map of Shadows, plus some chapters for this book, which I dictated while walking along the canal towpath.

Dictation can help alleviate or prevent pain right now, but learning how to write with dictation can also future-proof your living as a writer in case of problems later.

(2) Writing speed and stamina

Dictation is faster at getting words on the page than typing, especially if you are not self-censoring.

I’ve made it up to around 5000 words per hour with dictation, while I only manage around 1500 words per hour typing.

There is a trade-off with ‘finished’ words as you will have to at least lightly edit to correct transcription issues, but if you want to get that first draft done faster, then dictation can be the most effective way.

Link to the rest at The Creative Penn

During his professional career, PG has dictated approximately a trillion letters and documents (give or take), but he’s never been able to comfortably dictate anything remotely creative. Of course, while he was doing this, he usually had a couple of very intelligent secretaries/assistants/paralegals who turned is spoken words into something that wouldn’t get him disbarred. Alas, those valuable people have turned to more remunerative and fulfilling pastimes when PG moved into executive roles in some large organizations which occupied him for quite a few years..

However, Joanna has given him incentive to try dictation again. We’ll see how it goes.

Writing Advice, Writing Tools

28 Comments to “How To Use Dictation For A Healthier Writing Life”

  1. Because I’ve never had to dictate for work, it’s never been something I’ve had cause to do, nor have I had the chance to get comfortable with it.

    I did try dictating for a novel a few times, but I felt incredibly awkward doing so. This, in turn, stopped the creative flow, rather defeating the purpose.

    Perhaps I should give it more of a shot before giving up entirely, but I don’t feel particularly optimistic. :\

  2. I dictated for a bit. The latest dictation software is getting very good. For me, it took perhaps a month to get entirely comfortable. It’s definitely faster, and though my output was somewhat less elegant than it seemed when I actually typed words, I believe all of that was smoothed out in the editing process.

    Depending upon what you’re writing, dictation can make you super productive.

  3. I went through two periods when I dictated. Once when I had an RSI, wrist tendinitis, and once after a bicycling accident put an arm out of the action for a couple months.

    I didn’t like dictation. I didn’t like listening to my own voice, I’d get frustrated and raise my voice, and my throat got sore. The dictation software at the time was not that good, so I had to spend a lot of time correcting. Coding was sheer hell.

    I taught myself to use the Dvorak keyboard layout during the shoulder recuperation and that improved the RSI for me.

    However, Joanna is a very practical person and I may give dictation another try.

  4. I type and handwrite 16 words a minute, when things are flowing. When I’ve tried to dictate in the past, that has dropped to a few useful words a minute, always in the wrong place.

    Think of painting. You have an entire canvas to fill. You put color on your brush and go, anywhere on the canvas that demands it. Think Bob Ross. He fills a canvas in a half hour by focusing on, a cabin, or a mountains, or a lake.

    Bob Ross

    That is one way I use “stream of consciousness”, as a painter. I write the next word, the next sentence, wherever on the page that it demands to be. I am always cycling through until the end, when I have a fairly clean draft.

    This is similar to how Dean “Writes into the Dark,” but I use nightlights. HA!

    Those “nightlights” are the other way that I use “stream of consciousness”; as in “Free writing” the way Peter Elbow, or Natalie Goldberg talks about. I dive in, fill a page or more without worrying about it making sense. Then I go through and circle sentences, paragraphs that seem to mean something. I copy those circled parts to the top of a new page and dive in again.

    It only takes a few iterations of diving in, harvesting sentences, diving in again, to have enough to set up a “canvas” and start throwing color down, because by then, I have an idea of what I’m writing.

    I can’t do that by “dictating.” HA!

    • Similar to your painting metaphor, things have to look right on the page for me. It’s very much a visual thing. I can hand write, I can type, but when I am dictating things don’t come out right at all. Worse, I totally lose track of where I am, cuz like you said, I can’t go back and see what’s what.

      I guess if I dictated and watched the words pop up on my screen, that might work, but then I’m faced with my total inability to leave messy sentences alone. I hate editing with a passion, so I make sure to make things as clean as possible in the first draft. With dictation that’s very hard.

      So for now I’m a typer and occasional hand writer. Someday my health might fail and I’ll go for the dictation, but that’s not today.

      That said I know a ton of peeps who do awesome dictating.

      • Jo (Uncle Jo) said – things have to look right on the page for me. It’s very much a visual thing.

        Funny you should say that. Normally I write using classic manuscript page, double spaced, etc…, but sometimes I take the literal view of filling a page like a painter.

        I love reading good RPG manuals. Some would have a story scene to show the world, some event or key battle, in prose form. Those pages were usually two-column, small letters, and would be a thousand words per page. I found the book years ago called “Fast Fiction” by Roberta Allen. There were story examples that were often below a thousand words, that in some cases I wanted to see the rest of the story.

        When I am trying to see a world better, I will set up a Word page formatted, Portrait, three-column, 0.2 spacing, Times New Roman, size 10, with half inch margins all around, zoom 150%. Then size the window so that I can see all of the page at once. That lets me have about a thousand words on one side of the page.

        Instead of filling four classic manuscript pages, I could see the whole page at once, while I wrote all over the page trying to capture one image or event. I limited myself to that one page.

        – Like the Bob Ross paintings, it helps me focus, giving me limits.

        Knowing that all I have to do is fill the page that I see, sets up the trick that it’s “just” a page. But I only do that now and then to shake things up. HA!

        • My trad publisher required that I submit chapters using a word template that looked very close to the printed book. At any point in the edit process, I could look at a good representation of the printed page.

          At first I thought that was nonsense, but I learned to like it. Now, I regularly compose into a template that looks as close to my final Createspace paper product as possible. I find it helpful to see the page the way I expect my readers to see it. The ebook version is farther from what I see, but still close. I convert to double-space ms format when necessary, but I write in WYSIWYG.

          • I’m using a 6″ x9″ template with proper margin spacing on Google Docs for the same reasons. It’s also easier to read when editing.

          • Yes!

            Writing using the 6×9 book page is another great way to focus. That is to remind me that I’m writing a “book”. It helps to see that the page is not full of too many short paragraphs or too many long.

            When I read H.G. Wells he drives me nuts by having a single paragraph filling page after page. I still want to take his “When the Sleeper Wakes,” and break up his paragraphs.

            The main reason that I use the classic manuscript page is to help see the prose in a different way, so that I catch the mistakes. I can literally miss something on the manuscript page because my eyes pass over the same glitch. When I then pour the prose into the 6×9 format, the glitches stand out.

        • I mean Landscape not Portrait. HA!

          • New, and longer, acronym: WYSIWYRG. What You See Is What Your Reader Gets. Pronounced Wizzy Wirg. 🙂

            • Wizzy Wirg, I like that.

              Why do I feel like a Pirate when I say that. Arrh!

            • I am obsessing here, but I have to throw in one more comment.

              I’ve been reading a lot of Raymond Chandler in the last few weeks– all the novels, most of the stories, three biographies, and three collections of letters and notes.

              This morning I was reminded that Ray typed his manuscripts on half sheets of letter size paper, the equivalent of 6 by 9 book pages, like several of us do. His wife Cissy cut the sheets.

              WYSIWYRG (Arrh!) was not his reason. Ray edited by rewriting. If he didn’t like something, he rewrote and retyped the page it was on. By using half-sheets, he cut down on the amount of retyping. His publishers retyped his half-sheets on regular paper for conventional editing.

              Slow, but it is hard to dispute his results.

              • Now to really blow your mind:

                I forget his name, but one SciFi writer would literally write using a Linotype machine. The Linotype machine is what would create the rows of metal letters used in making the final page for the printer. Remember, those letters would come out reversed. So he would write, and compose the metal print for his short stories.

                Now that is scary. HA!

              • Hmm, one could simple shrink the size of the page you can ‘see’ in your word processor to help keep you focused on just that ‘bit’. (though it is a lot easier to change your mind than having to re-type an entire page …)

  5. I’ve tried. I can’t seem to do it. I can type as fast as I think now though, so I’m fine with typing.

  6. Talking is physically exhausting. Doing it while walking, doubly so.

    Dictation is too linear, too.

    All the ideas are for healthy people!

    • I have a suggestion for sick people. I have a form of heart failure that limits my energy and I have to ration physical exertion carefully.

      You might try a Dvorak keyboard. Learning a new layout is muscle memory training, which is hard, but after you cross over that hurdle, typing is much less physically trying. I can’t remember the exact statistics, but your fingers move miles less per day of typing with Dvorak.

      Usually, Dvorak enthusiasts tout increases in typing speed. I’ve never been a fast typist and I didn’t see any speed increase after the switch, even a slowdown at first, but I did notice far less soreness and fatigue in my hands, wrists, and shoulders. Dvorak is not the panacea some claim it to be, but it is a real help to me.

      Using the battery powered pen on a Surface tablet instead of a keyboard is also helpful to me, but that is more for arthritis from an axe wound to a couple of fingers.

  7. I started using Dragon Naturally speaking last September for my non-fiction (which is what I write the most) It’s been a game changer. Thousands of words per hour and then light editing. I wrote my next book almost completely with it and use it for email and blog posts as well. Saves a huge amount of time.

  8. The thoughts of dictating 100,000 words fills me with dread. But that’s mostly because I can sit silent for 8 hours and not realize i haven’t spoken. I’m kind of internal.

    But, I’ve started using dictation on my phone for all kinds of things, including tex and email. This may be worth exploring again.

    Is anyone using Chrome’s built-in dictation in Google Docs for this purpose? Is it accurate?

  9. The other issue I would run into is proper names in sci fi and fantasy settings. That seems like it would be a pain to handle.

  10. I’ve taken a ton of dictation in my working life, but don’t think I could ever use it for writing. Mostly because, like others have mentioned, my writing process is so profoundly non-linear…I’ll be working from a fairly detailed outline for a scene, then for each actual sentence I’ll type out the rough beats of what I want to say, then rework each phrase/clause multiple times, not necessarily in order, until I have all the right words, then maybe go back to a previous sentence and change a word, and so on. For the same reason, I can’t listen to audiobooks at all and have trouble trying to read ebooks, because even my reading is non-linear…I reread words/sentences to savor them, skip back numerous times to check facts, names, etc.

  11. I dictated once, but went back to two fingers typing. No reason. Dictating is like getting used to listen to audio books. You’re not in your head but connected to the outside, through a voice. I’ll probably try again dictation.

  12. I can’t even imagine composing fiction out loud. For those of you who dictate, are you in the house alone when you do? If you’re composing mysteries or fight scenes out loud, does anyone ever mistake you for planning a murder?

    “No, I should have Bob step inside first, then then have Andy shoot him. Oh, but Carrie will be with him just then, so how do I deal with her?”

    I can’t dictate a story anyway. Anyone remember that character from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, the brain that lives in a robot stomach? IIRC, the brain has pseudohands to control the robot. My hands are directly attached to my brain, as I think of the story my hands write [type] it. If I had to slow down to talk I couldn’t get anything done.

    • I can’t compose out loud either. I’ve tried with Dragon, and it just doesn’t work for me. I thought at first it was the same kind of thing as getting used to composing at the keyboard vs. composing longhand (which took forever for me), but now I wonder if dictating a story engages a different part of the brain than typing or handwriting a story. I wonder if anyone’s done any brain imaging studies on that.

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