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: 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?

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?