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?