Speak Your Mind: A Real-Time Dictation Experiment

This . . . is going to be an interesting post to write. I need you, Reader, to bear witness to a little experiment.

Here’s the background: I’ve been playing around with Dragon Dictation for my iPhone lately, mostly to record quick ideas that I come up with while I’m in the car and can’t safely type. I’ve found that it picks up on my speech very well. So today, with this year’s upcoming NaNoWriMo in mind, I decided to go ahead and purchase the Home version for my PC Laptop. It’s a bit of a splurge, but I feel like it will be worth it to keep my writing flow going. I could just go ahead and keep using the mobile version, but the problem, I’ve found, is that the mobile version will randomly stop recording (maybe because I’ve paused for too long? I’m not sure), and I won’t realize it until I pull my phone out of my pocket to see where I’m at. The PC version isn’t supposed to do that. So far, I’m finding this is true. The mic hasn’t turned off unless I’ve told it to.

Anyway, I mentioned an experiment. This is it. This post that you’re reading right now . . . is the experiment. I’m using Dragon on my laptop for the first time while “writing” this, and I will now tell you, in real time, what’s working for me and what’s not. I know. Meta.

speakyourmind

So here’s the first thing I’m noticing: remembering to add in punctuation as I speak is really slowing me down. It’s tripping up the flow of my thoughts. In fact, remembering to say “comma,” “period,” and “new line” means my dictation is actually much slower than my typing. This may change as I get used to it, but . . . hmm . . . how about I try something else? How about I just ignore all punctuation, and speak, not as if I’m dictating, but as if I’m casually talking to another person in the room? I can go back and edit in the punctuation and paragraph breaks afterward. (Obviously, most of the punctuation that you’re seeing right now has been added post stream-of-consciousness word vomit.)

The main purpose of writing via dictation for me is to get my thoughts out of my head and onto the screen. Sometimes (not all the time) I have trouble doing that while typing, as if somewhere along the journey between my neural pathways and the muscles in my fingers, my thoughts run out of gas and have to pull over—a bit ironic seeing that I’m writing this post for a blog called Thinking Through Our Fingers.

This occasional brain-to-page disconnect is why editing and revising is so much more pleasant for me than drafting. Once I have my thoughts down, I have something tangible to work with. It’s easier to replace and move around words that are already there.

A way that I’ve sometimes been able to get past this is to switch back and forth between typing and handwriting. And now I have dictation as a third option. And that makes me think of another way in which I will surely be using dictation to assist me with my writing—dictating handwritten pages into my word processor will be so much faster (and easier on my joints) than typing it in.

And here’s something else I’m enjoying about dictating this post. I can get up and move around. I’m not tied to my keyboard. Sometimes pacing and other forms of movement can help get my thoughts flowing, and I know this is true for a lot of other people as well. I may, (dare I even think it?) even find myself dictating my novel while exercising, or doing the dishes, or knitting, or even soaking in the tub. Yes! While taking a bath! With my laptop out of harm’s way, if I speak loudly enough for the mic to pick up my voice, I’m sure it could work. This also means I have no more excuses not to write. Hmm . . . maybe that isn’t such a bonus after all (says the chronic procrastinator.)

Now let’s pause for an update. Remember how in the beginning of this post, I observed that having to dictate punctuation was slowing me down, so I decided to stop? It has now been about five minutes, and I’ve written about 600 words. That would normally take me a half an hour on a REALLY good day—and hour or more on a bad one. Granted, here’s a screenshot of those words:

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Ugh. It’s one huge run-on-sentence, stream-of-consciousness paragraph. The editing may take me at least three times as long as the initial dictation took. Not only will I need to add in punctuation and paragraph breaks, but it looks like I’ll also need to remove or rewrite garbled sentences that I swear sounded much better out loud than they look on the page. But as I said earlier, I’m fine with that. I’m just thrilled to have so many words down so quickly; so many words to work with that would never have made it onto the page before.

Overall, I’d say that for me, this experiment has been a success. I am going to dictate the heck out of my NaNoWriMo novel. It’s going to be so great. I’m am so very, very excited. I may change my tune in December when I’m faced with gargantuan revisions, but for now, I think this is going to work.

Do you use dictation for writing? If so, please tell us in the comments what you think of it, and if you have any good tips!

(Note: I forgot to keep track of how long it actually took me to edit this, but I’d say it was probably around fifteen minutes, for those of you who are interested.)

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When she’s not writing, revising, or banging her head on the keyboard (it’s all the same, right?), Megan Paasch can be found playing her ukulele (badly), knitting (rarely anymore, unfortunately), or herding two amazing, but rowdy little boys (pretty much constantly) with her husband. A native to the Pacific Northwest, Megan earned her B.A. in History from the University of Washington. (Go Huskies!) Her favorite history subjects were, and still are, Women in History, the Tudors, and the Celts. You can read more about her here.

On Getting Unstuck

What do you do when you’re stuck in your writing? When you know you have a beautiful swan of a story, but there are messy, muddy parts you don’t know how to fix, or maybe even how to finish? What then?

There are excellent compilations of quotes by world-famous writers on overcoming writer’s block, but for this post (and for a panel I was asked to be on at a recent workshop), I wanted fresh material. So I turned to some of my equally wise and wonderful author friends, who’ve written everything from the hilarious to the serious, fiction and non-fiction and poetry, kid favorites and even a Newbery Honor. Here’s what they had to say:

Ruth McNally Barshaw: Take a walk. Look through magazines. Make a zillion lists. Exercise. Go someplace you haven’t been before. Go to an art gallery or museum and look at art. Commune with nature — walk in the woods. Talk with someone who inspires. Read a good book. DRAW.
Edith Thornton Cohn: Usually if I’m stuck, I’ve taken a wrong turn in the manuscript. So I back up & rethink it.
Anna Staniszewski: I second what Edith said. I go back to where the story was working and try to figure out went wrong. I also close the document and brainstorm on paper.
Janet Sumner Johnson: A blogging friend of mine once suggested making a bullet list for what comes next and go from there. That’s always really helped me. But I agree with all the other suggestions too!
Cynthia Levinson: For me, it’s insufficient research. But I’m a NF writer. Yet…it might still apply.
Kristin Wolden Nitz: I often make forward progress when writing by hand in accordance with Natalie Goldberg’s strategy she put forth in WRITING DOWN THE BONES. The short version is that you “rent” a table at a coffee shop for office space. Then you sit down and start writing without stopping for the next hour or more. No editing. Sometimes I call this Thinking with a pen…I used to get my best ideas when I was mowing the lawn or shoveling snow when I lived in Michigan. There was something about the long straight lines of snow or grass.
Kami Kinard: Usually I switch projects for a while… hours or days… or I read. So far, those two methods haven’t failed me.
Maggie Moris: A couple of things: I just got the book, “Around the Writer’s Block. Using Brain Science to Solve Writer’s Resistance,” by Roseanne Bane. Several writers recommended it. Also, if you physically move your body for a short series of exercises where the left hand taps the right shoulder/side/knee/toes – pick one, and vice a versa, this apparently lights up the brain’s cross wiring. I also agree with painting, or playing with modeling clay, or other forms of making art.
Margarita Engle: Scribble! Don’t expect perfection. Just let the pen flow, knowing that you can make corrections later.
Susan Hill Long: Setting a timer and writing till it goes off. Over and over. On the rough days, that’s what it takes for me. I love my timer.
Peggy Harkins: Take a walk. Somehow when my body gets moving, my brain does, too.
Tracy Holczer: Usually I get writer’s block when I’ve made a wrong turn somewhere in the narrative. It’s my brain’s way of telling me I’ve hit a dead end. The only way for me to break through is to go back and figure out where I went wrong. Sometimes that means taking a break from the writing and doing research, reading craft books or brainstorming with writing friends. The answer always comes and then the writing flows again.

Louise Galveston: I get blocked when I’m dreading a scene, especially if it involves a new world with lots of description. So I focus on dialogue on the first pass. Also I use the same playlist for a project so my brain hears the music and is conditioned to be productive-helps me, anyway.
As always, I’m overwhelmed by the wisdom and generosity of my fellow writers. Thanks to all who contributed to this post. And readers, what advice would you add?

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Elaine Vickers is the author of LOST AND FOUND (HarperCollins, 2016) and loves writing middle grade and chapter books when she’s not teaching college chemistry or hanging out with her fabulous family. She’s a member of SCBWI and represented by Ammi-Joan Paquette of EMLA. You can find her at elainevickers.com on the web, @ElaineBVickers on Twitter, or generally anywhere there are books and/or food for her consumption. 🙂