The Dragon, the Mouse, and Losing My Voice

This week’s post is going to be rather brief. I don’t know if what I have is actually called laryngitis but I’m definitely losing my voice and my throat hurts. That leads me to perhaps the greatest challenge for a writer who relies on dictation. What happens to work when you can barely squeak out enough sound to make Dragon hear you over the fan that’s attempting to make a muggy June morning feel cool?

I can already tell that Dragon is making more errors today than usual. It’s used to my pronunciation, the volume of my voice. Today I just don’t sound like myself. My brain is in good working order. In fact, I have a ton to say and feel rather frustrated that it’s painful to do so.

This is when I wish Dragon had the ability to dictate what I’m thinking and not just what I’m saying (though I can see how that would often get me into trouble). For now I will close this brief post, enjoy the relief that not talking brings for this sore throat, and store up all of my writing ideas for a day when I can speak loud and clear.

Question of the week: when I teach writing to college freshmen, I encourage them to find their own “voice” as a writer. What’s the relationship between the voice produced by vocal cords and the one conveyed in writing? In other words, what’s the relationship between speaking and writing?


The Dragon, the Mouse, and Privacy

Like most people, I need a certain level of privacy. It wasn’t until I started dictating that I realized just how much I value privacy in terms of my writing. Sure, I blog and I use Facebook, but I’m very selective about what I publish/share on or off the Internet. I keep a paper journal, for my eyes only. And even now, after years of receiving feedback on essays in school, I struggle to share the rough drafts I produce for my dissertation with my committee. I love to write, but I don’t like to share it with others until I’m confident about both the content and style.

privacy keyboard

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Almost two years ago when I started using dictation software, I very quickly realized that writing privacy was going to be more difficult to come by. This difficulty has changed when and where I write. Sitting up late at night in my room working on an essay at my desk, I am hyperaware of the volume of my voice, not wanting my work habits to keep other occupants of the house awake. The desire for privacy when I write is another reason why working in coffee shops is more difficult than it used to be. I mentioned in an earlier post that noise level decreases dictation accuracy, but it’s also simply quite awkward to speak my ideas when I’m sitting next to a number of complete strangers who can overhear them.

The dining room table has presented the biggest problem. It’s one of my favorite places to write. Thankfully I have an easy-going roommate who doesn’t mind if I’m sitting there talking to my computer (though she admits it’s sometimes tricky to decipher when I’m speaking to her and when to the Dragon). I used to write here most often in the evenings when she was home, bustling around the house. I like the company. The occasional pleasant interruptions actually help me focus more on my work. I still work at the dining room table now, but I tend to save my composing for daytime hours when no one else is home (though I admit that I’ve become increasingly comfortable dictating in front of friends, my roommate in particular). But if I want to type a journal entry, compose a message to my fiancé, or send an email to my supervisor, I retreat upstairs to my room.

I’m not worried about people stealing ideas or giving unsolicited input. Here’s the problem: I feel self-conscious when I’m speaking my writing around other people. This keeps me from composing freely, experimenting with vocabulary and ideas. Before I used dictation software, I could write a sentence and then revise it without anyone ever seeing awkward wording or redundant ideas. Now I feel like I have to revise it first, before I speak it, so that what I’m saying out loud is something I’m proud of.  Perhaps this makes me a more conscientious writer, increasingly unwilling to commit to cumbersome or uncreative word choices. But I do crave the freedom that comes from composing in private. This means that instead of seeking out public spaces in which to work on a draft, I seek out the private ones: the individual study rooms in libraries, the little-used room upstairs at my fiancé’s house, the picnic tables in remote corners of the public park, and the solitude of my own home during the day.

Question of the week: If you use dictation software, in what ways has it changed when and where you write? And whether you are a typer or a dictator (hmm, perhaps I need to think of a better nickname) do you need privacy in order to write or do you find it easy to share with others?

The Dragon, the Mouse, and Typos

The dreaded typo. It’s hard enough to catch all of the pesky little errors when I actually physically type a document. It’s always good for a writer to have someone else read their work in the proofreading stage. A new set of eyes will see a lot more than eyes accustomed to the words and their message. The process of proofreading is all the more important when I use dictation software. I haven’t figured out why yet, but I find it exponentially more difficult to catch all of the “typos” when I dictate than when I type. I’m not even sure what to call them. Dictationos?  Perhaps they’re harder to notice because when I type, I correct the errors as I go. If I do that when I’m dictating, my thought process is too interrupted.

I’ve experienced some horrifying moments in the past couple of weeks. A couple times, I’ve been ready to send an email, the mouse hovering over the send button, when I realize the crucial error. Email dictationos usually involve proper names. I cringe when I admit that I have almost sent uncorrected emails to professors with names that Dragon has a particularly difficult time understanding. The latest last-minute proofreads have saved me from sending messages addressed to Dr. Pretty and Dr. Mowgli. Yikes! Imagine the follow-up conversations. I shudder when I think about it.

My need to proofread is heightened when I dictate. It’s no longer a matter of catching a misspelled word or a “their” that should have been a “there.” It’s a matter of changing words that Dragon misunderstands, far more egregious (and humorous) typos than simple spelling mistakes. I was talking to a writer the other day who said he tried dictation software but didn’t like it because it so frequently resulted in nonsensical sentences. I think he gave up too soon. Dictating in short phrases can cause this problem and so can speaking unclearly or around other loud sounds. It’s true though that Dragon does produce multiple misunderstood words each time I sit down and create a document, even in the perfect dictating environment. That’s why I usually proofread once after I complete each paragraph and again once or twice when I’m finished composing. This prevents me from returning to my document only to find that I no longer understand my original intent.

While dictation software creates more work in the proofreading stage, it doesn’t do so at a high enough cost that I want to walk away. I’d rather turn into a super proofreader, one who reads each document carefully multiple times in order to ensure that only the highest quality leaves my desktop.

Question of the week: I’m looking for stories! What was your most embarrassing typo? What strategies do you have for full-proof proofreading?

The Dragon, the Mouse, and Listening While You Write

This week I’m borrowing an idea from a fellow blogger. I just read a post by John (at his blog “All things books, all the time”) in which he answered the question, “what do you listen to while you write?” You can read John’s post here.

music notesThis question made me realize that I rarely listen to music while I write. I used to. Often it was whatever music happened to be playing at the local coffee shop. At home I prefer a variety of Pandora channels: Feist, Ingrid Michaelson, Joy Ike, classical piano. I find that music provides a soundtrack for the work I do that can be alternatively relaxing or energizing depending on the style I choose and what I need most at the time. I usually only get distracted by it when it’s too loud or too complex.

Dictation software complicates my desire to listen to music while I write.  If the volume is turned up too high, it could lower the accuracy of the dictation. And because I’m already hearing the sound of my own voice, the addition of music can be frustrating instead of a relief. I do still sometimes write at coffee shops where I can enjoy background music, but I find myself more frequently deciding to read in that environment than write because the software tends to experience more interruptions.

This isn’t a sob story. I still listen to music often when I’m reading, driving, cooking. I do this because I love music and the way it can almost immediately make a bad day good. Also, I’ve noticed that I tend to have more writing ideas when I’m listening to enjoyable sounds whether it’s music or the hum of activity at the local Starbucks.

Question of the week: What, if anything, do you listen to when you write?

The Dragon, the Mouse, and the Interrupted Writer, Part 2

Formatting commands. Both a blessing and a bane, these brief and sometimes strange voice commands allow me to properly capitalize and punctuate the content I dictate. Last week I began a brief series on the role dictation software plays in slowing down certain aspects of the writing process. This week I continue this series, focusing on the intrusion of formatting commands into my vocabulary.

One day not long after beginning to use dictation software, it dawned on me that anyone overhearing me would think my train of thought was nonsensical or that I had adopted a new dialect of English reliant on introverted word order and truncated vocabulary.

When I first learned these commands, it was actually quite difficult to dictate entire sentences without stopping and starting and getting really frustrated. Adding new vocabulary that does not have a bearing on the meaning of the sentence can interrupt a train of thought or cause the writer to forget the next word. What’s the solution? Practice makes perfect. The more I use formatting commands, the more I can compose with ease. For example, I had to learn how to adopt the commands for parentheses and quotation marks seamlessly into my speech so that I could say the following without hesitation: in her poem open quote cap equinox comma close quote cap joy Harjo writes about an individual deciding not to retaliate against crime with violence period

I think the best way to illustrate the peculiar experience of incorporating these commands into the writing process is to record a familiar poem with the formatting commands included. So I present to you the first stanza of Emily Dickinson’s “My Life had stood – a Loaded Gun” first without the dictation commands and then with them:

My Life had stood – a Loaded Gun –

In Corners – till a Day

The Owner passed – identified –

And carried Me away –


(and now the same stanza with the formatting commands included)


cap my cap life had stood dash a loaded gun cap that dash new line

cap in cap corners dash till a cap day new line

cap the cap owner passed dash identified dash new line

cap and carried cap me away dash

Personally, I think Dickinson would’ve liked dictation poetry. It complements the already cryptic nature of her capitalization and punctuation usage. But I’m curious about what questionthis actually does to a writer as he or she composes. So far I’m convinced that it forces me to distance myself from the words that I’m saying out loud since many of them end up being completely unrelated to the content of whatever draft I’m writing, and I’m also convinced it requires my brain to distinguish between formatting commands that need to be said precisely in a prescribed order and the sentences I compose which, when they are my own and not Dickinson’s, result from my own sense of a voice, logic, and style. The former interrupts the latter until I’ve practiced the commands so well that they can slide off the tip of my tongue without making me tongue-tied. This means that somehow I’m able to tune out the formatting commands once I know them well enough and say them as mindlessly as I said the Pledge of Allegiance every morning when I was in elementary school.

Question of the week: I’m curious what you all think. Whether or not you dictate, here’s a question to consider: how does incorporating voice commands (a seemingly nonsensical series of words or abbreviations) into one’s vocabulary affect the way a person writes?

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 and the Mouse, out on the Town

I just spent the weekend in New York City for a conference and so I thought this might be a good time to write about writing/dictating in public spaces.

Situation #1: I’m the kind of writer who can often write most seamlessly when I’m in a public space whether it’s a library or coffee shop or a park. Being around people, even if I’m not in conversation with them, helps me generate more ideas, and when I’m in public I don’t feel like I’m missing the action.

61CCoffee shops have always been my favorite place to write, but when I started relying on dictation software I was afraid I would have to give up the pleasant background noise, the company of other people, the cocoa and iced lemonade at my favorite local haunt. While libraries are now out of the question (dictating is an easy way to make a librarian perturbed), I’m happy to report that I have not needed to give up my coffee shop addiction.

The acceptability of quiet conversation in such an atmosphere and the increasing number of people who use Bluetooth technology to chat with friends mean that I don’t look terribly conspicuous or crazy when I’m talking to my computer. More importantly, the microphone that comes with Dragon software is surprisingly good at blocking out most sound except for my own voice. The microphone only listens on one side (I like to say it has ears only for me) and so the barista chatting with a customer, a chair grating against the floor, and a friend calling out goodbye don’t tend to interrupt the flow of my work too much.

Situation #2: Those of you who write know that ideas can come at the most inopportune times: just as you’re trying to fall asleep, in the shower, in the midst of conversation with a friend, at a dinner party, on a bike ride. As I’m sure many of you do, I’ve started carrying small scraps of paper with me so that I can record ideas I don’t want to lose. But it’s a lot harder to jot ideas down quickly in inopportune locations with dictation software.

I faced this problem a few weeks back when I was waiting at the bus stop on my way home from campus. I’m working on an article and was having quite a bit of difficulty with it on this particular day. I experienced a lightbulb moment just as I arrived at the bus stop and so I got out my scrap paper and pen and started scribbling away. That familiar pain in my wrists came all too quickly, and I found myself having to rehearse the ideas over and over in my head so I wouldn’t forget them by the time I got home.bus

As I took my seat on the bus, I realized that I really didn’t want to lose the thought momentum that comes when good ideas strike. So I awkwardly pulled out my laptop and wedged it between me and the seatback in front of me. I connected the headset and started talking to my computer. On the bus. In public. Just inches from the tired and irritated looking travelers around me.

Have you ever been caught talking to yourself in public? Imagine the self-conscious feeling, the sense of conspicuousness that floods over you in such a moment. That’s what it felt like to dictate to my computer when surrounded (closely) by what felt like a multitude of strangers. Feeling self-conscious, though, doesn’t exactly lead to quality writing, so I tried hard to set aside the awkwardness. I could see the man sitting next to me glance over every once in a while, and I decided that instead of imagining him thinking, “what’s that strange girl doing?” It was better to assume he was thinking, “wow! Look at that cool technology!” It really is remarkable. Even though the bus itself was noisy and I was surrounded with chatter from people, the text I produced through dictation was remarkably accurate.

Question for the week: Do you write better in public or in private? Why?