Dictation or Fighting the Dragon

books-on-dictationHave you heard about Dragon Dictation software? No? Let me enlighten you: I HATE IT! Not always but mostly.

Last winter I listened to Joanna Penn’s interview with Monica Leonelle, author of Write Better, Faster and Dictate your Book. Both books are available on Amazon and highly recommended!

Dictation Problems – am I the only one struggling with this?

Problem Nr. 1 – Accuracy of Transcription

So off I went and bought the dictation software and a microphone. Then I ‘trained the dragon’ where I read passages of text and allowed the software to calibrate to my voice. Not hugely successfully because I’m German, lived in the UK for 13 years and I’m married to an Irishman. So Dragon has issues with my accent. Fair enough, so does everybody else.

I started walking and speaking into a recording app on my iphone, then mailed the sound file to myself. Dragon transcribed the file with about 85% accuracy. Not great but I had to make allowances for distracting background noises like my  heavy breathing. This approach is not recommended for steep hill walking!!!

Problem Nr. 2 – Writing ADHD

I soon discovered the second problem: my thought process isn’t suited to dictation.

I type fast and my thoughts run through my fingers onto the page quickly. My eyes hook onto the words, and this establishes a feedback loop that works really well. About 1200 words-an-hour-well.

So when I’m walking and trying dictation at the same time, a large chunk of that loop is missing. As a result, my thoughts act like Dougal in Up. Squirrel! And there is goes, my train of thought…

It’s like herding cats. I think of 3 variations of the same sentence before I’m able to get it out of my mouth. There are gaps in my recording lasting 30 seconds or more while I think of a way to say what I want to say. Really inefficient. 600-words-per-minute-inefficient! 

Solutions – Where there’s a will

Solution Attempt Nr. 1 – Stay at Home

Since walking seems to make the issue a lot worse, I set myself up with my expensive microphone and my cute little Macbook Air at my livingroom table and started speaking. And it worked a lot better. Particularly during active scenes and dialogue, my speed increased dramatically. 2200-words-per-minute-dramatically. 

Holymoly, that was really cool! Only problem, I couldn’t be consistent. During slower passages like exposition or settings, I slowed right down again. And it felt like really hard work, remembering all the punctuations and line breaks.

So I reached out to Monica Leonelle via Twitter and she got back to me with some nice encouraging comments. She also said that maybe dictation was just not the thing for me. Bummer. I had dropped a lot of money on this:

Dictation Software $120, microphone $60, various dictation ebooks on best practices $15 = nearly $200, never mind the time I’ve already invested. No way was I giving up now!

Her words made me think though. Maybe she was right but instead of dropping dictation altogether, I needed to change my approach again.

Obviously a get-it-right-first-time-system doesn’t work for me because I’m too mentally disorganized. Or too creatively distracted, whatever sounds nicer 🙂

Giving my mind a visual structure in the form of letters on the screen works a lot better but not consistently.

So what about a hybrid approach?


Solution Attempt Nr. 2 – Loosen up!

I’m a planner so my novel is plotted out to scene level. When I sit down, I usually quickly type out a few bullet points of how I want the scene to go.

For example, the scene might be called “_ADI_ begins training with meditation and chanting. She hates it, Honi is super-strict.” The capitalization indicates the POV – thanks to Laurie Schnebly from Writers University for the tip! I might throw down beats like “Adi can’t focus and gets distracted, Honi increasingly irritated and shouts at her, Adi’s upset, they fight, Adi storms off”. Then I fill in the beats and hey presto, 700 words written.

Today I decided to drop best practice and just talk. Instead of dictation, I pretended I was telling a story to a friend. I added dictation when I remembered but basically just let rip. My accent was stronger because I spoke faster and more naturally so I had to go back and clean it up a little. This is the result:

Pre-Draft Word Vomit

“So this is a situation Honi sitting there and it is added looking lectured in front of him and she’s basically bend over she staring into space she’s not taking any notes, and and Honi really starts to wonder what is going on. He’s trying to take down his own notes. The teacher’s droning on and on, it’s not particularly interesting, and everything just rises to a crescendo of irritation in the classroom. There’s people collectively clacking next to him there’s people whispering behind him, there is some guy throwing spitballs at a girl and HOni thinks he’s back in high school. So his just sitting there, legs stretched out in front of as far as it can go, is arms crossed in front of him. He’s given upon taking notes now even though he knows that this is a really important class but he’s just so worried. He starting to notice more things about Addie. Her fingernails are bitten down, she seems to be twitchy, she keeps throwing quick glances of people and then immediately looking away. Then he hears somebody whispering what the hell is going on with that girl? Is she on drugs? And Honi starts to wonder. Because she does seem to be on drugs. Then he notices that she keeps nodding off. Her head drops, her eyes drop, her face goes slack and then she just jerks awake again. And he notices that she scared, really scared.”

I threw 700 words on the page within a few minutes. This is the skeleton, now I can work with it. And this is the result after 60 minutes typing: 1700 words. 1700 fun-filled-awesomeness-words!

Not any faster but wow, it felt so much different! I typed quickly, the words flowed and while I was typing, I could feel the next scene emerging. My productivity had dwindled lately because I was unsure of how to get words on the page. It felt like splitting rocks! This was the first really productive fun writing session I had in a while! This is so cool! And here’s the result:

Cleaned-up Draft

“Diepger moved through the material at break-neck speed. Honi had to hustle to keep up and he tried hard to commit key points to paper. Next to him, a girl typed away on her notebook. She worked so fast with perfect 10-finger-technique that the clicketyclack sounded like morse signals. It irritated him so much that he threw a dirty look at her. The girl glanced at him, then did a double-take and frowned back. Honi sighed. No need to let out his frustrations on other people.

For the next few minutes, he continued taking notes and ignored the noise level in the hall. Now that his hearing had tuned into the subtle tapping of fingers on keys, it seemed to come from everywhere. Honi didn’t have the money to buy a new Macbook and his old one had given up the ghost not long ago. Who knew spilling juice on the keys would cost as much to clean up as a new one. Writing by hand after years of electronically taking notes made him even more antsy than he already felt.

With a grunt, he flung his pen down on the paper. Maybe he could convince Sean (confirm friend’s name) to let him borrow notes. He was already so far behind, he may as well leave it for today. He settled back into his seat, folded his arms in front of his chest and just looked around. Most students had their heads down but two rows ahead of him, a young man dressed in a grey canvas jacket and a scarf took a clump of paper out of his mouth and aimed it at the girl ahead of him. Honi shook his head. That dude dressed like a hipster and acted like a kid. What a douche.

“Hey, what’s up with that girl up ahead? Is she on drugs?” Honi sat up straight. The two boys behind him were talking about Adi, no doubt. “She’s messed up, man, look at her twitch,” one of them said with a chuckle. Honi’s eyes were drawn back to the girl and sure enough, her head made tiny jerks to the side and back again. Except Honi knew that they weren’t twitches but frightened little involuntary responses to something she saw. If her appearance hadn’t tipped him off, her behaviour sure did. Her visions were getting the better of her.

Adi lifted her hand to shield her eyes at one point and Honi could clearly make out her fingers. Her nails were chewed to the quick and one of them was crusted with blood. No wonder people thought she was taking something. She looked ill, psychotic even.

After a while, her head dropped lower, just to jerk up again. She seemed to fall asleep right in front of the entire class. Come on Adi, don’t give Diepger an opening, Honi thought. The teacher had noticed her odd behaviour but rather than challenge her as he did before, he looked at her with a satisfied smirk. Then his eyes met Honi’s and he smiled wider, as if he was in on a joke and the young man wasn’t.     

This was terrible. Adi hadn’t struck him as a user but you couldn’t always tell. One of Honi’s friends back in high school abused ritalin that he scored from his younger brother. He said afterwards it helped him feel more awake during school. Nobody knew until he collapsed at a rave and nearly died. His parents sent him to rehab but he never recovered from his addictions. He went on to abuse over-the-counter meds and last Honi heard, he was serving time for dealing harder stuff. He had gone from a gangly kid with his whole life ahead of him to a broken wreck of a man, so badly emaciated even his parents didn’t recognise him last time they visited.

Honi began to think hard. Adi was obviously much worse than before. Worse than a few days of bad sleep would account for. What if there was truth in the whispers, what if she were on drugs? As he considered the possibility, Adi’s head dropped to her chest again. This time it stayed down for a moment. Then her whole body seemed to convulse, her arms flew in the air and she slipped precariously sideways on the smooth surface of her seat. For a split-second it looked like she might topple but instinct took over and she righted herself.

A wave of giggling rolled through the room. Everybody had witnessed her near fall. Adi looked around and the sheer terror on her face made Honi’s heart go out to her. She looked so small, so scared, huddled into her fleece, her eyes wide-open and blood-shot. He wanted nothing more than to fold her into his arms, to hold her and whisper to her until she wasn’t so scared anymore. In that moment he made up his mind. She needed his help and he would find a way to help her. He wouldn’t allow that girl he held in his arms only last week, to slip away because she was too stubborn to accept help. He had never been that determined in his life. He’d find a way to convince her. He would hold out until the end of class and then talk to her again. If she did take drugs, then only to be able to handle the visions that terrified her. Handle the visions, handle the drugs. Easy.”

Never Ever Give Up!

So give it a try and above all, don’t give up. I’m convinced that dictation is a great tool for every writer but like with every tool, you have find a way to integrate it into your own workflow. I hope I’ve figured out how to do this, and who knows? Maybe instead of Training the Dragon, I can Train my Mind to think in a more linear fashion, at least for the first draft!

Let me know what you think below!