Dictating a novel, Part 2: Does it affect creativity?

If you missed my introductory post on Dragon Dictate, see here.

I named one of my characters Celandine, which has optional pronunciation. I tried training Dragon Dictate to accept the pronunciation “cell-an-dine”. What it comes up with? You guessed it: “Cell and dine.” Or “sell and dine“. And when I don’t accept that, it tries “seven dine“, “seven dying“, “cell undying“…anything but Celandine. So now I call her Celandeen, and my dragon happily types Celandine.

The main complaint by writers is that they can’t dictate a story because their creative muse “doesn’t work that way” or something along those lines.

Hmm. Look at the way I started my writing career:
  • A toddler, telling stories.
  • Learned to write and  use a pencil and a notebook. (Primary school)
  • Started to use ink and pen — the kind you dipped into an ink well. (Primary school)
  • Started to use a fountain pen. (Primary school, aged 11)
  • Was given my first portable typewriter. (Aged 21)
  • After some years, changed that for an electric typewriter. (Can’t remember when).
  • Upgraded later to an electric that allowed for changes to a line of typing. (About 1980)
  • 1982, bought my first computer: green screen; two huge floppy disks you had to keep on swapping in an out of the disk drives; no such thing as autosave. I thought I was in heaven.  I worked my way through WordStar and WordPerfect. Or was it the other way around? I forget.
  • I can’t tell you how many PCs that I’ve had since then, but now I’m on my first Mac, bought last year.
What I can tell you, is that I’ve been telling stories using all of the above, and switched from one to the other, usually with a big grin on my face. (Oh, that lovely fountain pen — I felt SO grown up.)

I can hear by fellow writers saying ‘But that’s different!’

Is it?

Then and now:
I used to think of the words, then my brain relayed the message to my hand to write them down using a pencil or a pen or by tapping on keys. Now I have to think the words aloud. That’s all. Dragon Dictate writes them down for me. (Occasionally I have to correct it verbally because it doesn’t hear me properly.) Not that much difference, really. The process is exactly the same, except for that one word ‘aloud’. Why should it make such a big difference, to the extent that it affects creativity?

I guess there are a few disadvantages:
  • You do have to get used to Dragon Dictate, and you do have to train it. You have to allow yourself a couple of weeks of frustration before you get used to it and it gets used you. But honestly? I think I took longer than that to accustom myself to using a Mac after years of PCs!
  • Occasionally, Dragon Dictate can be irritating and it can slow you down. For example, above  when I said “aloud”, it insisted on typing “allowed” and for some odd reason, wouldn’t do what it usually does — give me the alternative in the sidebar so that I can select that word or phrase using my voice. But  these hiccups are a minor matter and can be fixed later.
  • You can get into trouble if you have a noisy environment, or a cough. I used to listen to music while writing and I suppose I still could if I kept the volume down and put the player on the other side of the room. If you’re the kind of writer who talks to yourself or swears at your computer, I suppose Dragon Dictate might not be for you.
  • I personally don’t find the program particularly helpful when I am revising. It is possible, and I do use it if I am totally rewriting passages or inserting new paragraphs, but for altering a word here and there, or swapping words around, for me, it’s not really worth the trouble.
  • Of course, you are going to be speaking aloud so writing is no longer a quiet and secretive process. That’s going to make it difficult to write your latest chapter in the local Starbucks, or to write your sex scene when your seven-year-old is all ears in the same room.
But does it actually change my creative process? Does it actually make me a worse writer, or a very different one?

I don’t think so. It changes the dynamic a bit, but not nearly as much as switching from a typewriter to computer did! And it has so many advantages:

Firstly, I’m not the world’s greatest typist and my typing was not improved when I developed arthritis in my little fingers. I am now an eight fingered typist! I tend to make quite a few typos. With Dragon Dictate I am writing the initial draft at least twice the speed that I used to, possibly even faster. I will admit that I do seem to have to take longer to make the initial corrections than I used to.

Does that mean that my first draft is not as good as it used to be?

I don’t think that’s what it means all. I think that when I type I tend to make more corrections as I go along than I do now with DD. The first draft is therefore a little more shaky than it used to be, but I don’t find that problem, given the extra time using DD bestows on me.

And we mustn’t forget the initial reason I bought the program to begin with. Repetitive strain injury (RSI).

So why are so many writers scared of changing to a speech to text programme? I think there could be a number of reasons.
  • The early text-to-speech programs were awful and for some, that has been their only experience. I’m actually quite astounded at how well Dragon Dictate copes with what I say and how easy it is –usually–to correct the occasional glitch in typing.  Even quite recently, it was difficult to mix speech with mouse and/or typing in Dragon Dictate, because it tended only to recognise what it was told. With Dragon Dictate 2.5, that problem pretty much disappeared.
  • We writers are an insecure lot. We are terrified that our next book won’t be as good as the last one, or that we can’t repeat the previous success. We are therefore scared of anything that might change a successful dynamic. Writing is bloody hard work and so much can go wrong with the creation of an entire book — many don’t want to try something that might upset their writing applecart.
If they don’t have DD or a similar programme, I would ask any writer to reconsider the MOMENT you start to have back, wrist, elbow, neck or hand problems. Because, quite frankly, we weren’t structurally built to type all day long, and if you have RSI, it’s going to really, really upset your creative process.

Your muse may still be there, but she’ll cringe every time you approach the computer.

Next month: watch for some more about using Dragon Dictate, the process of speech-to-text.


Dictating a novel, Part 2: Does it affect creativity? — 9 Comments

  1. For me, the best thing about Dragon is that I find myself using it when I'm sick of sitting at my desk writing the usual way. So I can squeeze out an extra thousand words simply by virtue of sitting in a different room in a different chair using a different machine.

  2. I'm planning to try Dragon Dictate for my next series to see if it helps my back. Why not now? I'm a little worried that my style will change a bit. Not so good mid-series, but okay from one to the next.

    I'm not 100% sure it'll help my back, though. I'll still be sitting in front of a computer. But it's worth a try. And who knows, it might improve the way I speak!

  3. I've been using Dragon for years, and might be able to help you with a couple of things.

    Regarding Celandine: pronounce it as you want to, then when it appears wrongly select the wrong text and say, "spell that"; the spelling box will appear. Spell the word as you want it to appear, and that should be it. If it doesn't work, you'll get an extra option at that spelling level to train Dragon with that word, so that it gets it right in future.

    As for the typing in noisy environments: you just need a better headset. I bought a specially-adapted Sennheiser ME3 headset from KnowBrainer (the forums there have so much help for Dragon users), plus an external soundpod, and my accuracy has increased hugely.

    I now dictate onto a high-quality digital voice recorder while walking my dogs, then just plug it into my PC when I get home. Dragon finds my new files and recognises them automatically. It's fab.

  4. That's great advice, Jane. Thanks. I am still very much learning how best to handle DD.

    Trudi, yes — you still have to look at the screen, but you can position yourself differently because you aren't typing, e.g. you could lean further back in the chair, rest your elbows on the arms of the chair, etc.

  5. This is very interesting. Having a chronic back problem that means I have to get up and walk around frequently so disrupting my concentration it sounds something worth looking into. Not being able to listen music was one of my big concerns so I'm pleased to hear there are ways of getting around that.

  6. For those of you with back problems, I would recommend ActiPatch (you can find it on the internet) I have been using it for months now and think it does absolute wonders for my back pain. I highly recommend it.

    As a trained typist, I am usually fast enough and fairly accurate, but I also get strains which we call carpal tunnel here, I use a mouse pad with a wrist rest which seems to help me. I get them at Wal-Mart, don't suppose you have Wal-Mart in Malaysia, but such mouse pads must be available somewhere, if not, I could send you one if you emailed me Glenda.

    Satima, if you have MS Word, you have the option to dictate on that system. Not as efficient at DD by the sound of it, but if you are not a writer churning out lots of novels, it would probably be enough for you.

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