Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Writing by Dictation

An article in a recent issue in ‘Wired’ magazine says dictation is the new way of writing. The improvement of software like Dragon Naturally Speaking makes dictation easier. I installed the version before the current one and works exceedingly well. Previously I had used an older version and it is nowhere near the ability of the current form. The older version required you to ‘train’ the software by dictating a specified paragraph so the software becomes familiar with your speech patterns. But it still would not get it right most of the time. On the other hand, the current reincarnation gets your dictation possibly 90 % of the time with no time wasted ‘training’ the software. Newer versions will work much better. This is a watershed in the evolution of dictation software as it’s much easier to dictate as well as control software by your own voice.  It’s the difference between night and day.

The ‘Wired’ magazine says that dictation helps in the so-called pre-writing phase. The time when writers try to start a book and need some push to begin. One writer used dictation software to override his writer’s block. Dictation helps you speak your mind and capture more words. Trying to write down notes from a speaker or lectures, one would just write down 5% to 10% of words said, focusing on the key words.  Following this logic, writing down words from your head may not capture the full scope of what the brain is saying. So talking is a way to get over the initial block that one faces with an empty page. It is the blank page that creates pressure on writers when trying to write. The brain tries to formulate elegant phrases, self-edit and second guess the writing impulse to just write. Speaking freely is a different paradigm and feels uninhibited when trying to speak freely. The editing will truly come later unlike writing prose when self-editing will unconsciously come to the fore.

 There are precedents where famous writers dictate their books. Winston Churchill, Alexander Dumas and Montaigne are said to dictate their works to secretaries. Afterwards, the revising and editing of the work is done by hand after the dictation is typed out. Recent authors like Dan Brown use dictation software to write their books – saving money on secretaries. So there are concrete examples of writers using dictation to write books but it has never caught on until now. In the past, perhaps the cost to having secretaries prohibited authors from dictating. Or perhaps writing by hand works for them. But now the cost of the software has gone down plus the technical ability has gone up has made dictation a viable option to all writers. Perhaps the problem is how an author could incorporate this technique in his craft. The ‘Wired’ magazine says the voice recognition software will not only change the way we write but the way we think.

The normal evolution of writing skills may start as pen to paper writing by longhand, followed by typing directly into a typewriter or computer and finally dictation to a secretary or computer via voice recognition software. In each step the mode of expression gets easier with less effort. The mode of thinking shifts from visual to auditory mode. Instead of the symbols of the written word, one shifts to sounds before one sees the writing. Hence, one should liberate his mode of expression. Churchill was a famous speaker and world class orator. This may have eased his writing. Barack Obama is also a great speaker and orator and he has published 2 books before becoming a senator. With this in mind, can one say that speaking well is good training for writers who plan to use voice recognition software to ease their journey to being published authors? The common thread is honing the ability to express oneself in both speech and written prose.

Does being a speaker make it easy to be a writer? Mark Twain is said to be a famous speaker before he became a writer. He specialized in amusing anecdotes and funny stories and achieved some acclaim before turning to serious writing. Churchill also travelled the same path focusing on political and current events. From this perspective, a public speaking activity like Toastmasters is also a viable path to writing. Making public speeches and thinking on your feet with impromptu speeches hones one’s expressive skills. It tries to reconcile the inner writer’s personal search for expression and the outer challenge of making oneself understood by the general public. The writer’s challenge is something that is overcome much faster by the speaker. He will know if his speech works with the reaction of the public (and thereby make improvement before his next audience) unlike the writer who needs to wait to have his book published before getting feedback. The feedback loop is much faster.

Writing by dictation may make writing novels easier and faster. This can be the answer to today’s fast paced world where one needs instant gratification. The resulting book maybe closer to the way people think these days who are feed by off-the cuff blog reports or instant messages via Twitter or Facebook feed. It’s closer to the faced paced lifestyle of modern life. Hence, the modern writer’s training regimen is reading, writing and speaking. The main goal is develop one’s unique voice.  Perhaps that is the way of the future facilitated by tools like visual thinking in order to clarify the result. My Toastmasters experience has required me to find out who I am (transplanted Asian in the Deep South) in relation to my audience and express myself with this identity. One cannot speak like an American Southerner after all. A recent commercial expressed it best with a Korean dressed in a Scottish kilt speaking with a Scottish accent.  It was an amusing picture because of the incongruity of the picture. Speaking helps you understand your identity and help find yourself which is what reading and writing does too.

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