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?


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.


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?

The Dragon and The Mouse, How It All Began.

This is a blog about writing a dissertation without using my hands, about working within limitations and capitalizing on them, and about making lemonade no matter what ingredients life offers.

My name is Rachel and I’m an English PhD student. I do all the normal things graduate students do. I stay up late studying; I read in my spare time; I wake up in the middle of the night to write down ideas that for some reason won’t come in the daytime; I procrastinate; I don’t sleep enough; and I hope against all hope that at the end of this degree I’ll find a job. But there’s one thing I don’t do that almost all grad students do: I don’t type.

In September 2012, in the midst of studying for comprehensive exams, I was diagnosed with significant muscle and nerve injuries in both of my hands. Poor posture at the computer and too much typing had finally taken their toll. I saw a specialist, signed up for occupational therapy, and began wondering how on earth I was going to take my second exam let alone grade student papers, respond to emails, and write lesson plans.

A colleague came to my rescue and suggested I try dictation software. I purchased Dragon NaturallySpeaking and began to train the program. Things were a bit rough at first. It took over a week to convince Dragon that my name is not Mitchell and that Debbie Debbie Debbie is not how a web address begins.  But after only a couple weeks I had trained Dragon in the basics and taught it the pronunciation and spelling for all of the authors on my specialization exam list.

It’s a year and a half later and I’m still dictating. What I thought would be a temporary fix has become a lifestyle change. Because of the recent development of tendinitis in both of my wrists, I made the decision this week to begin going hands-free. Up until now I’ve been dictating but using my mouse and ergonomic keyboard to navigate the web and make corrections in Word documents.  I’m now learning voice commands that will allow me to operate the mouse without touching it. Hence the title of my blog, the Dragon and the Mouse.  The more I can operate my computer using my voice, the more I’ll be able to use my hands to play piano, cook, and paint instead.

I realized this weekend that I have a choice. I can be frustrated and angry or I can make the most of the way things are and invite others into the experience. My hope for this blog is that it gives me a chance to reflect on the peculiar experience of dictating an entire dissertation and that it will help me connect with other individuals who rely on dictation software in order to complete their work, whether they’re graduate students or lawyers or professors or doctors. I’ll be writing blog entries on a regular basis sometimes about the frustrations of dictating, or about the good things it’s done for my writing, or about how it changes my daily routine.

I’m going to be optimistic and hope that this project attracts some readers. I’ll finish each blog entry with a question and I look forward to seeing your answers in the comments below. Let the hands-free blogging begin!

Today’s question: do you dictate and why?