writing by speaking – enter the Dragon

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.

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in crafting writing, speaking, voice recognition software, writing and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to writing by speaking – enter the Dragon

  1. Hi Pat,
    I experienced voice recognition software for a short period some yrs ago – I didn’t pursue it… need to reflect on why (?) but I think you describe the process rather well. An additional complication in my case was that I was in desperate need of an office environment alongside doctoral peers. I therefore opted for that shared office environment and gave up the thought of perfecting my skills in dictating writing.
    I will reflect some more on my brief experience of voice recognition software and see if I can add anything to some of your observations (I am dyslexic so perhaps that brings another dimension…?). I just wondered – since you mentioned it somewhere else – if you had attempted podcasting?


  2. LeRoy Hill says:

    Hi Pat,
    I think I would have to agree with some of your observations on speaking the academic writing-up. I would have to admit through that I benefited much from the spoken academic scaffolding from my main supervisor. This was one way I was able to recognize the formality of the academic parlance. Needless to say, I benefited more from the written feedback but cannot deny the impact of hearing that academic talk from someone who inhabits the academic language. I was able to adapt this in my writing routine and often would get some of my most salient sentences while walking. This would make a strong justification for a product for those of us who are more auditory or visual. Now that I help students in writing, I find myself talking the academic writing as it comes easily to me in this form. Good luck dictating emails thought I find the sound to text engines too slow…it slows down thinking process.


  3. First, I would feel weird to talk aloud all by myself. I don’t use it on my phone. Second, it is difficult to do it everywhere. It can be an interesting experience to do it in a café and see what happens; people looking at you funny, other conversations being pick up by the software and integrated into your text.


  4. rglw says:

    I have not used voice recognition software but I do often leave myself a voice memo when I am unable to turn my brain off. Often, though, I find that I can explain myself well orally, but I struggle with the academic voice. So I will dictate to a friend (or myself) and then listen to get a sense of what I’m writing.


  5. Katinka says:

    I found it especially useful for transcribing interviews. Time wise it was comparable with typing, but by using this software I got less tension in my arms and shoulders in maintaining the speed of the audiotapes for many hours a day. In my case I interviewed Dutch people working in an international organization, which means that they used Dutch and English terms interchangeably. I recorded the interviews and talked to my computer to get them transcribed. In the program you can only select one language at a time, so I had to learn the software lots of ‘new’ words, which was time-consuming (and probably the reason it took as long as typing). At the time I bought the software there wasn’t a Mac version, but I think there is now.


  6. Alexis says:

    I’ve been playing with the voice recognition software built in to the latest Mac OS – with a decent microphone it generally works well. I agree that the disjunction between speaking, but “thinking” writing is awkward. I’m getting better. I have to admit though I only use it when nobody else is around – for fear of being sectioned.


  7. Liana Silva says:

    I’ve used voice recognition software at work, as a way to do online consultations or reports. Since I spend 40 hours a week in an office (and a lot of time at my desk in front of a computer), it works for me, but I haven’t tried it yet with my personal writing and research. I wonder if freewriting lends itself more to this tool than traditional academic prose.


  8. Hilario García Ostos says:

    Hello Pat,
    I have started Dragon 13 to dictate my thesis and I totally understand where you’re coming from. I am now learning to retrain my brain and dictate in full sentences but it does not come natural or easy. I am hoping that this will get better the more that I do it. Thank you for a fantastic blog.


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