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.
You can watch a video of me explaining this article below, watch it here on YouTube, or read the notes beneath.
[ 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.]
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.
(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
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.
“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.”
“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.”
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.
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
• 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.”
“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.”
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.