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 Tax Day

I don’t have anything terribly intellectual to offer this week.  My mind is tired after a long day of tax preparation, and so I thought I would write about the thing that occupied me most in the past 24 hours. This may involve a tiny bit of venting.

Tax day. Tomorrow. (Or if you’re not reading this late at night, then today.) I have a bad habit. I tend to wait to do my taxes until the last week (I’ve heard that I take after my dad in this way). On Saturday, when I heard an acquaintance mention that the accounting firm she works for had been quite busy lately, I experienced that all-too-familiar feeling of dread: “oh no! I still need to file.” taxman

Not to worry. I set aside the other tasks I planned to do today (which sadly meant not working on my dissertation) and went about using TurboTax to e-file. This is normally a relatively pain-free process, an hour or two at the most.  I think TurboTax is pretty great and my life is still simple enough that I don’t have many things to report. But this year, I wasn’t just filing taxes on my own. I was filing them with the help of dictation software. Last year I was still using an ergonomic keyboard when I would enter information into forms on the web, but in the last few months I’ve been learning how to navigate the web hands-free and input information with my voice.

It’s actually pretty exciting that hands-free filing is even possible. I have to admit though that frustration got the better of me. I started the process midmorning and quickly discovered that things were not going to go smoothly. I had forgotten my TurboTax login info which required me to open my email account, and then I needed to search for a record of a purchase I had made which required me to login to both my credit card and banking accounts. And then I needed to double check something about my student loans which meant logging into that account. Each login involved the use of at least 6 or 7 dictation commands (or more if I had forgotten my password which I did in a couple instances) and took approximately 10 – 15 minutes apiece.

Somewhere in the midst of all of this, I realized that Dragon was going to have a finicky day (which sometimes happens but not often). It failed at random times to enter numbers into the appropriate boxes and occasionally the mouse clicking commands didn’t work. I pulled out the actual mouse (or I guess I should say the actual computer mouse since I happily do not have access to the tiny white wiggly kind) and commenced clicking away. I took a break for the afternoon to eat lunch and attend two meetings at school and then was happily met in the evening by my fiancé who came to my rescue by offering to type the rest of the necessary information into my state tax form. Sigh of relief. My income tax forms have been filed.

Question of the week: I realize that this has nothing to do with dictation software, but I’m curious. Does anybody have any interesting tax filing stories to share? And on a topic more relevant to the theme of my blog, what are some tasks you’ve encountered that technology has actually complicated rather than simplified?

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?

The Dragon, the Mouse, and the iPad

I’m a bookworm. I don’t mean that I just like to read all the time. I like to hold the tangible book in my hands, turn each crisp white page as I read, and smell musty antique volumes or the newness of a book hot off the presses. I’m also relatively “old-fashioned” when it comes to how I live my daily life. I’ve stubbornly insisted only on purchasing basic phones that are capable merely of texting and calling. I don’t own an iPod, a Kindle, a Tablet. I journal in a notebook with pen or pencil. I still love receiving letters via snail mail.

(Disclaimer: I’m not living in the dinosaur ages. Of course I have a laptop. I experiment with new technologies in the classroom: in fact, one of my future blog entries is going to be about the possibilities of using dictation technology in the classroom. I find the Digital Humanities useful and intriguing. And I’m excited by the work my computer scientist fiancé does. I just want to keep my own life as simple and tactile as possible.)

I have to admit that I’ve recently come over to the other side, or rather I’ve stopped seeing sides. I still value the tangible book and hope that libraries are always fully stocked, but on my recent dissertation research trip to Oklahoma City I realized just how useful new technologies can be, especially for someone trying to do work hands-free.

Sometime last year, a good friend gifted an iPad Mini to me. books and iPad 2Grateful for such an extravagant present but convinced it was entirely superfluous to my life, I used it only to surf the web and take photographs. That is, I thought it was superfluous until I realized I could download a Dragon Dictation app. And then I found out that the iPad makes it possible to dictate into any open window. Now I don’t want to go anywhere without it.

I know I run the risk of sounding absurd to the rest of my generation (I insist that I’m just old enough to miss being a millennial) when I marvel over an easy-to-carry device that can take high quality photographs, make voice recordings, and offer speech-to-text in every application. But if you’re not one of my fellow dictation-dependent writers, imagine what a revelation it would be if you realized that you could conduct archival research, record interviews, and take notes all with the same device and almost entirely without using your hands. My handy (pun intended) little iPad is changing how I do research in unexpectedly welcome ways and making my job healthier for my hands.

I still think we’ve become too dependent on technology. And I still feel concerned each time another friend says, “I’d rather read a book on my phone than sign one out of the library.” But I’m not seeing such a clear line anymore between the old way and the new way of engaging with texts and words.

Question of the week:  What new technology has aided you the most at work? And for those of you “old-fashioned” individuals out there – in what ways have you found yourself being won over by new technologies?

The Dragon and the Mouse: an Interlude

I’m a little late this week (I’m shooting for one post each weekend) because I’ve been on a research trip to Oklahoma City. You’ll hear more about that in my next full-length, post but for now I thought I’d share one of my favorite images as a brief interlude while I work on incorporating research from the trip into my dissertation.

Back when I first started dictating, I talked pretty often about training my Dragon. So my boyfriend (now fiancé) surprised me with a bit of whimsy and humor. I present to you: How Rachel Trained Her Dragon!

How Rachel Trained Her Dragon

For all of you out there who use dictation software, I wish you happy training this week and I’ll be back over the weekend with a new post 🙂

And just for the fun of it, this week’s question:  if you had your own movie poster that described your writing process, which film would it advertise and why?