The Dragon, the Mouse, and the Typewriter

The Dragon, the Mouse, and the Typewriter

Technological advances change the way we think and write. That’s a given. But how often do they encourage us to process our thoughts in ways our predecessors may have experienced on a more regular basis?

I had a conversation with a colleague last year about how dictating changes the writing process. He suggested that perhaps the way I have to think when I dictate mirrors the way I would have to think if I was using a typewriter.

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Let’s explore this idea. On a typewriter, it’s a pain to fix mistakes: the process usually involves some combination of erasers, correction tape, and white out. So that means when using a typewriter, the process is most efficient if you know what an entire sentence should say before you begin typing it. It’s the same with Dragon NaturallySpeaking. The program uses contextual clues to increase its accuracy.

Let’s do an experiment. I’m going to dictate a sentence about a cat eating a mouse. First I’ll dictate it with pauses in between each phrase. And then I’ll dictate it with no pauses, as one complete thought. Here we go:
1. “My cat (pause) eight (pause) amounts the other night.”
2. “My cat ate a mouse the other night.”
In the first example, the software received the words as unrelated to each other because of the pauses. But once it heard the complete uninterrupted thought, the accuracy of dictation increased.

What does this mean for writing? It means that my process involves a lot more silence and meditation than it used to. It also means I’m thinking more deliberately about how words will relate to each other within a sentence.  Whereas I would normally type fragments and then revise them into complete sentences, I now go through that revision process in my mind (or I have to deal with increased dictation errors on the page). This requires patience. It makes my writing process much longer than it used to be, but I actually think it’s increasing the quality of what I produce. I really am thinking twice before I speak.

So I’m curious about your writing process. If you do use dictation software, how has it changed the way you write? And here’s a question (or two) for everybody – during your typical writing session, how much time do you spend on each of the following activities: handwriting, typing, thinking, revising? I’m also curious if you ever read what you’ve written out loud and why?

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5 thoughts on “The Dragon, the Mouse, and the Typewriter

  1. I used to compose everything longhand; I never composed on a typewriter, and it took me quite a while before I was comfortable composing with a computer. Now I compose only with a computer. I “hear” everything that I write (and read) with my mind’s ear, which probably slows me down, but it’s the only way I can read and write. I read out loud at conferences, but not otherwise, and I don’t think that reading out loud is any different from reading with my mind’s ear (they sound the same). I’m fairly certain that many people don’t “hear” everything they read or write, though I don’t think that necessarily makes them poorer readers/writers. It makes them different, though–perhaps more visual than I am?

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    • Hi Gary! Thanks for the comment. When you talk to your students about the writing process, I’m curious if you ever ask them to reflect on what it’s like to compose without a computer? This is something I’m contemplating doing with my own students at some point so that they can think through how the physical method they use for writing affects the way they express themselves. I might try asking some students to try dictating their work. I sometimes think dictation can be a way of pushing through writer’s block, especially the kind that happens when the thoughts you think in your mind or say out loud just don’t sound as articulate when you write them down (an idea for a future blog post!).
      I too sometimes read with my “mind’s ear” and most of the time I find it equally as effective as reading out loud except when I’m tired. Then I find I need to audibly hear my work in order to catch awkward wording because it’s too easy to allow my mind to wander if I’m reading silently.
      At the end of your comment when you wonder if perhaps writers who don’t “hear” their work are more visual. I often tell my students that they should all read their papers out loud so that they can more easily catch awkward wording. But maybe that’s not effective for visual thinkers. It would be really cool if individuals who are more visual could spot awkward wording or wordiness by looking at the draft.

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  2. Since I learned typing on a typewriter (I know, I seem so much younger! wink) I know just how carefully thought out the idea had to be before typing, correcting is such a painful process! It’s funny, I have noticed as computers and laptops and smart-phones with easy texting capabilities have become more pronounced and the way things are done now, my writing style has changed – and not necessarily for the better. I used to spend much more time handwriting and creating (poetry, prose, stories, novel ideas….) and would spend countless hours internally processing before, during and after the process of handwriting. My written vocabulary was much more robust earlier in my life as well. Now with the ease of auto-correction and easy right click on a word to find synonyms the time up front to process and create is much less. It has taken me a long time to be able to be comfortable with typing fragments and then correcting later (left over from growing up handwriting first). I still do often pause though to correct and fully incorporate and re-work and re-flow as I go along so I still cling to old habits. I do definitely still read out loud, to catch both grammatical errors as well as to hear the flow – still creating….

    Krissy 🙂

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    • Thanks for the comment Krissy! I think the connection between handwriting less and engaging less often in creative writing is really interesting. I wonder if that happened for other writers too. Maybe it has for me. I used to draft out creative pieces in my journal all the time and now I sometimes find myself journaling in Microsoft Word. When I journal in an actual bound book, I’m more likely to draw, write poetry, and ponder while I write. I’m curious, do you still use handwriting for the brainstorming process?

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