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?