The Dragon, the Mouse, and the Interrupted Writer: Part 1

Until a person actually relies on dictation software, it’s hard to imagine why a 500 word blog post might take two hours to compose and publish rather than one, or why sometimes it’s just not possible to write more than five pages or less of the dissertation in a day. Over the next couple weeks, I want to explore what it is about dictation that dramatically increases the amount of time it takes to produce a clean document.

Dictation software frequently requires me to say things that are counterintuitive or unexpected. Let’s look at the following sentence for an example: “two weeks ago, it took me 2 ½ hours to write a blog post.” The 1st word of the sentence, “two,” originally appeared as “2.”

In order to change the numeral 2 to the word, I had to speak a series of commands beginning with “Select 2.”This highlighted every to, too, two, and 2 on the page. The one I wanted to change was the 3rd instance of the word so I said the next command, “Choose 3.” Now that the correct 2 was selected, the software offered me a selection of words to choose from so that I could replace the highlighted word with the correct spelling of it. The selection included the following: two, to, too, and Tu. I’ve had plenty of practice using these commands and so while it’s cumbersome to have to say “select 2” and then “choose 3” in order to highlight the correct word, I’ve gotten used to it. But it’s entirely counterintuitive and a bit confusing to have to say “choose one” in order to change the spelling of 2 to “two.” To my absolute frustration, I kept accidentally saying “choose 2” which meant that I was selecting “to” instead of “two.” I had to repeat the process 3 times before I did it correctly.

Speaking a series of commands not only introduces unexpected vocabulary into a writer’s train of thought, it also means that each simple task becomes more complex. I tend to save these kinds of edits until after I’ve recorded the content of whatever document I’m composing; otherwise, I run the risk of forgetting what I intended to dictate next.

But having to say dictation commands isn’t entirely a bad thing. The process of learning new commands forces me to be more alert, and more detail oriented. If I’m not paying attention, it’s far too easy to say the wrong command which produces a result that I then have to undo using a different series of commands. The motivation to get it right the 1st time is strong.

Editing by dictation also requires my brain to switch modes from creative composition to task completion. My fellow grad students know that it’s hard to feel productive when you spend each day researching or writing small pieces of a large project. Recently, I’ve been obsessed with playing the cooperative board game Forbidden Desert. Each player completes a series of four tasks which produce a visible change on the game board. Playing this game has helped me relax at the end of a day full of research in much the same way that writing a grocery list or following a recipe can relieve tension. Strangely enough, sometimes editing a document by dictation can be satisfying in a similar way. While learning new commands consumes both time and energy, using commands that I’ve been practicing for over a year is like taking a turn in a board game. I say a series of commands and I see the physical result produced in front of me.

Question of the week: Are there any distractions that have actually become part of your writing process? And what kinds of tasks help you relax on seemingly endless research/writing days?


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