Dictation for writers

One of the great myths about writing is that it only occurs when you’re typing on a keyboard (or writing by hand, if you prefer). In my case, however – and I know I’m not alone here – a great deal of my ‘writing’ takes place when I’m away from my desk, often when I’m doing something mundane, like housework or waiting for the bus. Different stories take different lengths of time to percolate, and I’ve found no relationship between the length of the story and the time required. Greythorne, for example, came together relatively quickly – within a week of getting the idea I was writing it down, and I had a first draft in three months – but The Iron Line is taking a bit longer. And, weirdly enough, I just finished a 2000-word short story, Reset (which I hope to make available to my newsletter subscribers very soon), which has been percolating for nine months – a long time for such a short piece.

In recognition of the idea that ‘writing’ actually often consists of random musings while doing other things, a growing number of authors have turned to technology, especially dictation software, to fill the gap. Indie superstar Joanna Penn often dicusses how she dictates her books while going on long walks, and many others have followed suit. In the past, I’ve found that switching mediums (especially going from the computer to writing by hand) can really help me when I’m feeling creatively blocked, so I decided to test-run the dictation thing, with interesting results. I used Dragon Naturally Speaking and dictated directly into Scrivener at first, before switching to recording directly into my phone for the second experiment.

Conclusion 1: Dictating my novel directly doesn’t work for me.

Dictation software has improved in leaps and bounds over the last few years, and it’s now actually pretty accurate most of the time (especially if you have a decent mic). My dislike of dictation stems not from the reliability of the software, but from the way it changed my thought processes, which was completely unexpected.

I’m a very visual person and, it turns out, there’s also something about the touch of the keyboard or pen that helps words flow for me. When I had to dictate them, my brain felt sluggish, as if it couldn’t handle having to get the words out through my mouth rather than my hands. Pauses were more awkward, as I felt like I should be speaking fluently, and at the same time I was very conscious about having to speak clearly so the software would pick it up.

It’s also worth noting that I’m a fast typist, so I didn’t gain a lot time-wise from dictating, especially when you factor in the time needed to go back and edit the mistakes (one of the best ones was when I mentioned how someone “smiled with his mouth but not his eyes” and it heard “mouth” as “mouse”). However, if you’re a slower typist, have issues like RSI, or are more of an auditory person, dictation may work very well for you.

Conclusion 2: Abstract recording (as opposed to direct dictation) really helps when I’m blocked.

I’m currently working on the second draft of The Iron Line, which is written in the first person. In the past when I’ve got stuck, I’ve often ‘interviewed’ my characters in my head and written down their responses. During a particularly blocked patch about a month ago, I decided to go one step further and record myself speaking in the voice of the main character, just as if it was a proper interview. I’d been taking some improv acting classes and was feeling much more comfortable about developing a character on the fly, so I figured it was worth a try.

It worked a treat. Unlike the direct dictation, where I kept getting stuck looking for the right word, these ‘interviews’ were more guides for the plot than anything else. I basically asked my character ‘What happened next and how did it make you feel?’ and then got in her head and told the story in her voice. The words didn’t necessarily make it into the written version verbatim, but listening to the recording helped keep the plot on track, and there was much less pressure just sitting on the couch and talking, rather than staring at a screen. Perhaps it’s because of my journalism background, and the fact that I’ve done a lot of interviews on both sides of the mic, but I found it really unlocked something just by approaching it a different way.

So I guess the moral of this story is don’t be afraid to try new things. We’re so lucky with the way technology is developing and that we now have so many innovative solutions available to us – not just as writers, but in daily life. If something isn’t working for you, change it up – you never know, you may just hit on the key that unlocks it all.