I’ve recently been fiddling about with voice recognition software. Not surprisingly, it’s made me very self-conscious about the actual process of writing.
I’ve been writing on a computer for a long time. I made the shift more than twenty years ago. Before then I usually used a typewriter. I was never one for writing long-hand.
Of course, I am as fond of notebooks and nice pens as the next person. Because I am an ethnographer and action researcher I still get to use those lovely Moleskine exercise books to make field notes, so it’s not as if I never actually write anything by hand any more. My field notes are not nearly as pretty as those you can see in the wonderful book Field Notes on Science and Nature by Michael Canfield, but nevertheless, I frequently do write by hand, and at great speed.
When I taught writing I often took my own work into the classroom. I would hold up a long string of typed pages cut into sections and put back together again with tape. I could show the students the places where I had crossed words out, and where I had had second thoughts about the way that I had expressed an idea. So I was used to a cut and paste approach and was pretty well prepared for the shift to mouse and screen.
When the computer came along, I was delighted at how easy it was to do this kind of drafting and re-drafting. I like the process of playing with the words, phrases and sentences and the ease with which this can be achieved. While I still had – and have – a plan in the form of a short abstract, I compose/d this on screen. I also began early on to copy and paste the abstract sections into a new document in order to guide the drafting – a process I still use. Making the shift from the notebook plan and the typed page to the computer wasn’t completely seamless, but I now can’t write any other way.
There is something very embodied about writing using a keyboard and screen. The whole body is engaged. I hammer away on the keys, I look at the screen and watch the words fill up line after line, sometimes I even read the words as I write in order to hear how the writing sounds. It’s a kind of multi-sensory engagement if you like, this writing.
So I found adjusting to voice recognition software to be a curiously dis-embodied process. It feels perfectly fine to dictate email, but very tricky to do more protracted writing.
I’m not use to talking in sentences. Anyone who has transcribed interviews knows this to be true of just about everyone. We tend to talk in fragments, leave things unsaid, move between thoughts, use distracting little phrases – you know. And even if we do mostly talk in sentences then the kind of sentences that we are used to hearing as talk are not the same as written sentences. Oral and written speech are not always the same. Writing, particularly academic writing, is more formal in its syntax and vocabulary.
So in order to actually talk in sentences that are like the writing I do, I often have to close my eyes in concentration – at the very least I can’t look at the screen very much when I’m dictating, because this disrupts my flow of thought.
Talking-the-writing felt so strange that for the first week of my one handedness I used my left hand in preference to trying to dictate. I have now moved to the point where I am dictating blogs, but still dealing with papers and chapters using one hand. Fortunately, I am now able to use my right hand a little and so I can manage question marks, quotation marks and colons manually – rather than speaking the punctuation at the same time as I am trying to compose sentences. [Dear Jane comma new line … Thankyou for your email full stop.. yes stop!!]
Because I know that one handedness is a temporary state of being, I just don’t feel that I can commit the time to thinking about how to translate more extended writing from the embodied act of keyboarding to the partial embodiment of speech.
I realize that I have learnt to think with my fingers in ways that I currently can’t do in speech. It reminds me of playing a piano and the way in which when you know a piece of music really well you can forget about the mechanics of playing, and think about interpreting the music. I think this is how writing has become for me… I can hammer away on a keyboard, not completely accurately to be sure, but with sufficient clarity that I can think about what I’m writing at the same time as I’m doing the physical act. I think this is OK. I am comfortable in thinking that writing is distributed physically around my person.
The process of thinking and talking-the-writing just doesn’t work that well for me at the moment, although I dare say it might if I stuck with it. I’m sufficiently persuaded of the benefits of voice recognition to continue to use it for emails and those situations in which it feels quite ‘ natural’ to be talking. I also have a new regard for those journalists who dictate entire articles as a matter of course.
I doubt that my experiences are unique – I’d be interested to hear of other people’s engagements with doing extended writing by dictation.