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.


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?