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 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?