Photo by Abulic Monkey
In my last article I reviewed the speech recognition functionality of Dragon NaturallySpeaking. Now I’m going to focus on the creative side of things, by looking at five benefits of speech recognition for writers – plus two pitfalls you should watch out for.
1. Get Your Thoughts Down Quicker
I’m a pretty fast touch typist, but even so my fingers often struggled to keep pace with my thoughts as I wrote. There were many times when I simply couldn’t get the words down quickly enough, and found myself feverishly typing while trying to hold several sentences in my short-term memory. While I was doing that, of course, I was having to keep in check the impulse to follow the train of thought further. My mind was like an eager dog bounding ahead across the landscape, while my fingers plodded along afterwards, like the dog’s owner. Every so often the dog would have to stop and impatiently retrace its steps, yapping at the owner to speed up.
The act of typing was also taking up part of my attention as I wrote. After many years of typing, it felt pretty automatic so I didn’t really notice this – but switching to speech recognition has removed an element of friction that I didn’t realise was there. It’s common sense when you think about it, but the act of speaking is a far more natural and efficient way of generating words than moving your fingers over a keyboard. Making the switch is a bit like leaving the optician’s with a new set of lenses and suddenly noticing all the fine details that you hadn’t noticed you were missing.
Now, I can speak my thoughts as quickly as they come to me, and see them appearing magically on the screen. There is still a slight friction – Dragon mishears about 10% of words, so I have to go back and correct them. But the editing tools are superb, so this doesn’t slow me down much. The result is that I can devote far more of my attention to what I want to say than to getting it down on the screen.
2. Capture Your Speaking Voice
I recently wrote an e-mail to my brother-in-law, who told me it sounded like hearing me speak – more so than my previous hand-typed e-mails. I’ve also had feedback from writer friends that my style has become clearer and sharper over the past few months. I’m convinced that the switch to speech recognition has had something to do with this.
Dragon allows me to capture the natural quality of my speech. It feels more like talking to someone directly than trying to create literature. Hopefully this helps me avoid the temptation of self-conscious ‘fine writing’.
This has clear advantages if you’re writing for a blog or other forms of social media, where authenticity and a conversational tone are highly valued. It’s much easier to ‘find your voice’ when all you have to do is open your mouth and speak. And the false notes in your writing are much more obvious when you speak the words aloud – they just don’t feel right. Trust that feeling, it can be a great editor for you.
Poetry is my favourite form of writing – and as you know, poetry was originally an oral art form. Homer didn’t write his poems, he spoke them aloud, and they were handed down through generations of poets as oral memories before they were committed to paper. Modern poetry is still a hybrid medium: poets read their work aloud in public and debates rage about whether they should write for the ‘page’ or the ‘stage’. As yet I haven’t written a lot of poetry using Dragon, but my early experiments have been great fun, and suggest that speech recognition could be a tremendous way for poets to capture the rhythms and cadences of a live speaking voice.
3. Write with Your Whole Body
If you buy speech recognition software, I strongly suggest you get a version that supports a wireless headset. Using a Bluetooth headset means I’m no longer chained to my desk – I’m writing these words strolling around the room, which gives me an incredible sense of freedom. After spending years typing away at my desk, it feels like I’ve escaped from prison.
This is particularly important for me, because I tend to become very animated and un-British when I’m talking about something that interests me. I wave my arms about and walk around the room. My wife thinks it’s hilarious that I invariably walk up and down when I’m on the phone to someone. There’s something about walking and movement that facilitates the flow of words – and it’s sheer joy to utilise this in my writing process.
As a poet, I’m claiming kinship with some of my heroes with this habit – Wordsworth and Coleridge are two of the many famous poets who composed verse while out walking in the countryside. Here’s the Russian poet Vladimir Mayakowsky:
I walk along, waving my arms and mumbling almost wordlessly, now shortening my steps so as not to interrupt my mumbling, now mumbling more rapidly in time with my steps …
So the rhythm is trimmed in take shape – and rhythm is the basis of any poetic work, resounding through the whole thing.
(Vladimir Mayakowsky, How Verses Are Made)
So as I stride around my room, I like to think I’m (ahem) following in the footsteps of the great poets of the past.
EDIT: Scott Skibell has put together a great video on Dictating with your iPhone and Dragon NaturallSpeaking – which allows him to write while strolling in the countryside… Coleridge would have loved this!
4. Focus on the Words, Not on the Writing
Dragon is excellent for getting ideas down and producing a first draft. But our goal as writers is not to produce a rambling collection of incoherent speech. We are still in the business of producing a carefully crafted piece of writing. Speech makes it quicker and easier to do this, allowing you to revise your draft by highlighting and replacing words with a few simple commands.
It’s hard to describe exactly how speech recognition affects the process of editing and writing, except to say that I’m much more aware of the words themselves – their arrangement and impact – than I am of the writing process or the written document.
Again, poetry comes to mind for me – on the one hand it’s one of the most deliberately crafted forms of literature, yet on the other it aspires
5. Boost Your Motivation to Write
You can probably tell that I’m enjoying myself writing via speech recognition. Instead of sitting hunched over my laptop, willing my fingers to keep pace with my thinking, I’m now free to wander around the room, speaking in my natural voice and watching the words appear on the screen almost at the speed of thought. Which makes writing a positive pleasure.
And guess what? I’m now more motivated to write every day. I know from experience – and having coached many writers over the past decade or so – how much resistance and procrastination can get in the way of sitting down to start writing. And I’ve been delighted to discover that using speech recognition has significantly reduced my resistance to writing.
There’s still some friction – probably there always will be. But these days I actively look forward to writing every day, and speech recognition has to take some of the credit for that. More importantly, I’m writing more, and more often. Many writers have said that the best way to improve your writing is to do a lot of it – so if we measure success by productivity then I’m certainly improving!
Plus 2 Pitfalls to Watch Out For
Nothing’s perfect, and speech recognition is no exception. Here are two problems I’ve encountered as a result of using it:
You’ve probably noticed I tend to write fairly long blog posts, and this one is no exception. While I’d argue that this plays to my strengths as a writer and means I provide plenty of value to my readers, I do try not to overwhelm people.
Speech recognition can help you generate large volumes of text quickly – so there can be a temptation to ramble on and say more than is necessary. If you have a tendency to over-explain things, there’s a danger that speech recognition will make this bad habit worse.
So you need to be on your guard to ensure that quantity doesn’t overwhelm quality. Once you’ve written your first draft, come back to it with a sharp editorial eye and be merciless in separating out the wheat from the chaff. If you can, persuade a friend or colleague to help you with this – I know I’ve benefited from feedback from Brian and Tony while writing for Lateral Action.
Non-Freudian Freudian Slips
I mentioned in my review of Dragon NaturallySpeaking that it never makes spelling mistakes but often makes ‘word mistakes’ – i.e. inserting the wrong word entirely. But because the word is invariably spelt correctly, it doesn’t ‘jump out’ at me as I proofread the finished text. I can end up with a document littered with what look like Freudian slips.
So you have to learn a different style of proofreading, really reading every sentence for sense rather than scanning it for grammatical/spelling errors. Again, it can be invaluable to engage another pair of eyes to help you with this. (Shane Arthur did a great job of this for me on my e-book How to Motivate Creative People (Including Yourself)).
Overall, I’ve found the benefits of speech recognition far outweigh the pitfalls. It’s transforming my writing. Maybe it could transform yours.
Have You Tried Speech Recognition?
If so – how did it affect your writing?
If not – have I persuaded you to try it? Why/why not?
Either way – do you like the idea of speech recognition, or do you consider writing or typing to be ‘the real thing’?
This is an extract from Mark McGuinness’ book Productivity for Creative People – a practical guide to getting your real work done amid the demands and distractions of modern life.