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Healthy Writer Tips: How To Use Dictation For A Healthier Writing Life

    Categories: Writing

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 clearly, dictation is a method that can work for many writers and it has become an emerging trend for authors these days as technology makes it easier and faster.

[ This is an excerpt from The Healthy Writer: Reduce your Pain, Improve your Health, and Build a Writing Career for the Long-Term by Joanna Penn and Dr Euan Lawson. Available now in ebook and print editions.]

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.

Walking along the tow path, occasionally dictating!

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.

(3) Increased creativity

Some writers have a problem with perfectionism and the critical voice in a first draft. They struggle to finish a book because they are constantly editing what they have written.

If you dictate, you can bypass this critical voice, get the first draft done and then edit it later.

What's stopping you dictating?

There are a number of reasons why people resist dictation. I know them all because I've been through this journey several times!

The most common are:

• “I'm used to typing. I don't have the right kind of brain for dictation.”

• “I don't want to say the punctuation out loud. It will disrupt my flow.”

• “I write in public so I can't dictate.”

• “I have a difficult accent which will make it impossible.”

• “I write fantasy books with weird names which won't work.”

• “I don't know how to set it up technically.”

• “I can't spare the time to learn how to dictate.”

Here's what I wrote in my journal on the first day I tried dictation before I'd actually even started.

I'm very self-conscious. I'm worried that I won't be able to find the words. I'm so used to typing and creating through my fingers that doing it with my voice feels strange.

But I learned to type with my fingers, so why can't I learn to type with my words? I just have to practice. Something will shift in my mind at some point, and it will just work. This should make me a healthier author, and also someone who writes faster.

Authors who use dictation are writing incredibly fast. That's what I want. I want to write stories faster as I have so many in my mind that I want to get into the world.”

Here are thoughts from my journal after the first session:

“It felt like the words were really bad and the story clunky and poor. But actually, when the transcription was done and I edited it, it really wasn't as bad as I thought it would be. A classic case of critical voice.

I need to ignore this when I'm dictating. I definitely need to plan the scene more before I speak it, which will save time overall in both dictation and editing.

I did think I would find the punctuation difficult, but that has also been easier than I thought. There are only a few commands that you use regularly, and dialog is the worst but you get into a rhythm with that. It also gives you a pause between each speaker to consider what they might say next, so perhaps it is a blessing in disguise. For the Indian character names, I am just using an easy placeholder word that I will go back and fix later.”

Different methods of dictation

There are two main methods of dictation:

(1) Voice to text in real time

Use a microphone to dictate straight into a text program, and adjust the words on the screen as you go. You may also be using voice commands to do other tasks e.g. open email program, send messages and more.

(2) Dictate now, transcribe later

Dictating while I walk

Use a recording device to record your words now and later have them transcribed. You can send them to a transcription service like Speechpad.com or you can upload them into Dragon Transcription or another program.

I tried real-time speech-to-text and struggled, as watching the words appear on the screen kept my critical voice in the foreground. I wasn't able to speed up as I was always concerned with fixing the errors on-screen.

Now I record directly into my Sony recorder and later on, I upload into Dragon Dictate on my Mac which creates a .txt file. I copy and paste that into Scrivener and lightly edit that file. It's usually pretty exact and this is definitely my preferred process now.

Fantasy author Kevin J. Anderson talked about his dictation process in a podcast interview:

“I'm a storyteller. I know my novel. I have it all outlined, the hundred chapters or so blocked out with, maybe three or four sentences each. I live in Colorado so I'm in the mountains. It's very beautiful scenery and I'll go out walking with my digital recorder and just tell the story in my head.

Now, all writers, they think of a sentence and then they type it. Well, I think of the sentence, then I speak it. I'm going through far fewer steps than somebody who types it because I can just think it and talk.

Rather than mentally deconstruct the sentences into words, and then break those words down into letters, and then type those letters on a keyboard so that it comes up on the screen. That's like seven extra steps to type your stuff.

So, I get to go out walking. I can be on a trail somewhere or a smooth bike path and just be away from the telephone, away from the computer, away from the nagging little Facebook icon that wants me to check my Facebook status and Twitter, or whatever. I'm just synced entirely into the story that I'm writing and I usually walk along the trail until I've dictated one chapter. Then I turn around and I have just enough time to dictate another chapter on the way back home.

I email the audio files to a typist who transcribes. Sometimes, I will transcribe it myself if I'm in a real hurry. But I'd rather spend the hour dictating another couple of chapters so that I can move forward.”

Romance author Elle Casey also talked about her experience in another podcast interview:

Before dictation, I used to be tied to my computer and tied to my bed because that happens to be the most comfortable place for me to write and it's the quietest place. But then, I'm stuck in a bedroom while everybody else is outside enjoying the beautiful weather in Southern France, walking the dogs, and doing all that fun stuff.

So I bought a little Sony Dictaphone that’s about half the size of my cell phone and I took one of my dogs for a walk. It was late in the evening and dark out. I started walking and I realized that with the dog keeping part of my attention, I could dictate a chapter without really realizing what was going on. I didn't focus too hard on it, so I let my mind wander.

Now I can take an hour walk with my dog, and I can write 5000 words, whereas 5000 words took me 3-4 hours before. So I have had 15,000 word days just working a few hours. I could literally write a book in two weeks now, start to finish.

That being said, there's always the other side of the coin. It's very rough because first of all, the dictation software doesn't get it exactly right, so you have to go back and polish but also telling a story is a totally different skill than writing a story which is kind of weird.

But there's something going on when you're staring at the screen and you're watching the words versus not seeing the words and just wandering around the Earth somewhere. I have had to build that skill, and it's taken me two months to be a semi-decent storyteller.”

Technical set-up

Speech-to-text technology is improving incredibly fast and will only continue to improve with the mainstream adoption of in-home devices and assistants.

There are different apps and hardware and software options, so you don't need everything listed below. Get started with one variation based on the process you want to use and change as you improve along the way.

Recording device

Your options will depend on how you want to dictate and your budget.

• Use your smartphone to record memos through an app like Voice Memos, Evernote or any recording app. There is also a smartphone Dragon Dictation app which syncs with the cloud.

• Hand-held MP3 recorder. I have the Sony ICD-PX333

• Record straight into your computer/laptop using software like Dragon

Microphone

• Desktop microphone to use when recording straight into your computer. I use the ATR 2100 and also have a Blue Yeti

• Lavalier microphone/lapel mic for standing/walking which you can plug into your MP3 recorder or smartphone

• I just talk straight into my hand-held MP3 recorder and it works well enough. You could also talk straight into your smartphone.

The quality of your microphone will make a huge difference to the accuracy of your transcription, so if you are having a lot of errors, look at improving/upgrading your microphone first.

Method for transforming speech to text

• Use a transcription service like Speechpad (which I use for the podcast transcripts) or find a transcriptionist yourself if you prefer the human touch.

• Most authors use Nuance Dragon which has PC and Mac versions and is the most developed speech-to-text software around.

• Use free built-in software on your computer. On a Mac, use Edit -> Start Dictation. On a PC, use Speech Recognition. Most smartphones have a dictation function for taking notes, or you can use Evernote or other apps.

Tips for getting started with dictation

“The biggest advice that I would give for you and for other writers to get started with dictation is don't try to write that way. The best way to start is to do notes or brainstorming. Take your recorder and just go for a walk. It's almost like free association.”

Kevin J. Anderson

“Dragon thinks very differently than we do. So we think in words, right? But Dragon thinks in phrases. So think about what you're going to say and then speak it with confidence. This makes the punctuation easier, too.”

Monica Leonelle, author of Dictate your Book. Listen to an interview with Monica Leonelle on How to Dictate your Book: www.TheCreativePenn.com/monicadictate

“Embrace dictation as a productivity tool. It's a weapon in your writing arsenal and your workflow. Don't treat it like it's something completely alien.

We're familiar with the keyboard, but that isn't necessarily the best input method anyway. Input methods keep changing. We've had the quill, and then we had the pen and then we had the typewriter and now we have the computer keyboard. In the last few years, we've had touch.

I genuinely believe that the next big input method is voice. In the next 10 years, if you're not embracing voice, you will be behind in the same way as if you don't have a smartphone right now, you're missing out on a lot of technological help.”

Scott Baker, author of The Writer's Guide to Training Your Dragon. Listen to an interview with Scott Baker on How to Use Dictation to Write Faster and Stay Healthy: www.TheCreativePenn.com/scott

My current thoughts on dictation

I dictated the first draft of my last novel, Map of Shadows, and it was a much faster creation process than my usual first drafts. I had it done in 27 writing days (about five weeks’ elapsed time) and some days, I got up to 5000 words an hour by dictation.

Because I usually write in public spaces, I booked a room at a local co-working space for two hours a day and dictated there. I had a rough outline of a couple of sentences per scene that I worked through so I knew approximately what I was writing as I went. If I needed to describe a scene, I found examples on the internet and talked about them as I dictated, which replicated my usual research process.

So the writing was faster but the editing was a lot harder. I wrote one chapter on a long walk along the canal and it was a real mess, just a stream of consciousness with some gems in it. It needed a lot of rewriting to make it coherent. I also found my sentences were more passive than my usual writing, so the edit was a lot harder as I had to rewrite sentences.

Then I got the manuscript back from my editor, Jen, who commented, “It really feels like the shift has reinvigorated writing for you.”

So my writing voice has changed through the process of dictation, and perhaps made my story fresher and my ‘voice' clearer. I also improved during the course of dictating the manuscript, so the later chapters are cleaner than the earlier ones. It was a new genre, a new world and new characters, so it's likely that the first draft would have been a bit of a mess even if I had typed it, since I am mostly a pantser.

It's also worth noting that the other novel I dictated, Destroyer of Worlds, was a finalist for the International Thriller Writer awards Best Ebook Original 2017, so the finished product can certainly be a good read!

I'm intending to continue writing with dictation and aim to make it an integral part of my creative process.

[ This is an excerpt from The Healthy Writer: Reduce your Pain, Improve your Health, and Build a Writing Career for the Long-Term by Joanna Penn and Dr Euan Lawson. Available now in ebook and print editions.]

What about you? Why do you want to dictate? What are the benefits you're seeking? Write down your reasons because that will carry you through the resistance! What's stopping you from dictation? How can you get over those hurdles?

Please do join the conversation and leave a comment below.

Joanna Penn:

View Comments

  • I am a newbie. Never thought about dictating while writing. This is an eye opener for me. I will definitely give it a try on coming days. Thanks for sharing.

  • I have thought about dictating before, but I never gave it a shot. I think I'm going to try it now after reading this article. Thanks.

  • So glad you're making writers aware that typing and handwriting is not the only way to write, that we can use our voices, too. I've been successful writing a max of 3,000 words in 20 minutes using Google's speech-to-text feature on my Android. (I rapidly lose momentum at the 20 minute mark, though. So, I only do 20 minute chunks, now.) It's efficient once you get the hang of it.

  • Hi Joanna ... When I click on the link for the Sony PX 333 recorder it went to a different Sony product..... Which recorder did you get the PX 333 or the recorder in the link ?

    Thanks for this blog. I've wanted to try to dictate for a long time ...now I will, I've just bought the Dragon and waiting to hear from you about the recorder.

  • Thank you for this article. I needed a reminder on transcribing. I write non-fiction how-to books and historical fiction from 1930s, so I didn't think I could do dictation as I have to do a lot of research prior. But I think if I do a more thorough outline, or just mark sections as needing research, I can do this. Looking forward to trying this out.

  • Awesome post Joanna.

    I have had Dragon installed for over 5 years on my pc but just got back into it recently.

    When I first tried Dragon, many years ago, my output was filled with misplaced words, errors etc. I started doing typing practice to increase my slow speed this year but then remembered about the Dragon and decided that a better use of my time will be to train it. I have decided to stick to it thanks to people like you and Scott.

    The posts on my blog are now mostly Dragon made and I am training it to get better everyday. I recently started dictating some content for an article that I've always wanted to write but kept procrastinating. It was just a mic test but when I did a word count of the text I had made, it was over 500 words. I couldnt throw that away.

    So a few minutes of mic test ended up becoming a blog post of over 3000 words.

    Yes it's full of mistakes and I will need to look through it one more time but it's NOW LIVE. It's now created and out there.

    Currently shopping around for a mobile dictation system and I'm torn between getting a dedicated digital recorder or simply getting an analogue headset for my android phone. Transcribing with the phone was not bad at all in accuracy but having to hold it up to my mouth while driving, walking etc is not ok.

    I think I'll just bite the bullet and get something from the local used online market.

    Anyway, I'm IN with Dragon and there is no going back.

    Rob

    The freedom to relax back in my chair and get content written

  • I'm glad I found this on DG Kaye because it's lead me to you. She had liked one of my blogs, 'Creatives' Wish for Children'. This is so exciting. I've been using my iPhone. Quality not as good to listen back to, but didn't realise it could be transcribed to PC. Thank you so much.

  • Thanks for the fascinating and though- provoking post on dictating vs writing. I read all of your 'pluses' with interest. But still. I love the way my thoughts flow from my head to my pen or laptop. I love seeing my characters come alive that way. I love how I edit as I write. I teach creative writing, and I teach that something special happens when we use the process of letting our fingers flow with our thoughts; something magical happens. That magic doesn't happen for me when I talk or 'dictate.' I'm envious of those that it does, because it does sound like a faster process. I say, whatever works for each person individually - GO FOR IT! ;-)

    • Some writers also get to a stage of crippling pain where they can't physically write anymore, so learning dictation is a way of future-proofing the writing life :)

  • I have to admit that when I first heard about dictation as a writing method, I thought “Why?” I have been thinking about recording ideas or thoughts or possible titles, etc on a voice recorder when writing things down is not feasible, but that was it. As I continued reading your excerpt it made more and more sense to give this dictation method a try or at least a thought.

    I have lived a very adventurous life and when telling stories to friends and acquaintances, their jaw hits the floor. But, when working on my current memoir, I find it hard to create compelling chapters and the right structure. Maybe starting the first draft by voice helps with this... Too late for this memoir, but, I have so many ideas, stories and experiences to share that dictation might be the way to store some of these thoughts for now! I agree it would go much quicker than taking notes. My mind works too fast sometimes to be followed by my typing fingers.

    • If you're writing it with dictation, you're already speaking it aloud? Of course, when you're editing it, you can read it aloud again :)