I’ve been reading a lot recently about being a dictator. (No, not one of those authoritative types who’s clearly too big for his boots.) I’ve been looking into the art of dictating some of my writing to my computer.

For those with Windows computers, the Dragon Naturally Speaking software is king (and a rather expensive one at that!). Being and Apple user, dedicated software solutions are extremely limited, although Dragon’s creators, Nuance, now offers a mobile version for a monthly subscription (still pricey!), which works on Android and iOS devices.

But these days, most of us have devices that are capable of listening to us (whether we want them to or not). Therefore, there are several different ways of dictating and getting a transcription of your text produced.

And that is how some extremely prolific writers operate. Writing their first draft through dictation enables them to produce five, six, seven or more books a year. But it’s not for everyone.

If you’ve ever considered dictation but don’t know where to start, then I can recommend Kevin J Anderson and Martin L Shoemaker’s On Being A Dictator: Using Dictation To Be A Better Writer. It gives a great overview of things you need to consider (such as a microphone, software, and what is the best method for transcribing your speech).

You see, there are two ways of doing this:

  1. You can dictate your thoughts and use software that will transcribe it for you. Like most voice-activated devices, what this software does is send your dictation over the Internet to highly-powerful computers that interpret what you’ve said and then they transcribe it, returning that text file to you via the Internet to your device. (This often takes seconds, but it is slow enough to see a delay in the words appearing on your screen. It’s how most voice-activated devices work, such as Siri, Alexa, etc. Not all writers are comfortable with their ‘first drafts’ being listened to by unknown servers, some of which retain the voice file and use it for training purposes.)
  2. Or you can dictate your thoughts, and then email a voice file to a transcription service. These services will either charge by the minute, or by the number of words. Cheaper services use Artificial Intelligence to do the processing (just as in the example above). The only difference is that you upload your voice file when it is complete and you’re ready to do so. They’ll email your text file back to you within an hour or so. More expensive services use human transcribers. Error rates tend to be higher with AI services. (They can’t tell if your character is called Jean or Gene.)

It doesn’t matter which way you look at this, there’s a cost involved. However, for writers who are producing a lot of content, this can still be a cost effective way of working. Many people can sit down and dictate thousands and thousands of words a day. Indeed, ten thousand words in a day is not unachievable, if you are clear in your mind what you want to say. Speaking five thousand words a day is achieved by many.

Then it may take about an hour to tidy up the errors that the transcription service has produced. Some writers also see this as a first edit stage.

What I liked about On Becoming A Dictator was that it reminded readers that you don’t go from being a writer who types to a writer who dictates in one session. The book’s authors got to the stage where they’re at today, over many years.

So I’ve been doing a little experimenting. I am nowhere near the stage of dictating my articles, or fiction. I just don’t seem to be able to think like that (at the moment). But what I am doing is dictating my thoughts while I’m out doing my daily exercise. (Yes, we’re still on lockdown, here in the UK.)

I bought an app for my smartphone called Just Press Record. (It’s iOS only at the moment.) It allows you to dictate into your phone, as you would a dictation device – pausing and recording – as thoughts cross your mind. When you press stop, there’s an option to transcribe. Select this and the words then begin to appear on your screen. These can then be shared like any other file. 

It worked, but only for short periods of time. If I was too busy gazing at the view from my walk and not dictating for five or more minutes, the app shut down, and I would have to start a new recording. While not a major problem, there were some days when I was getting home and finding five or six different files for transcribing and then sharing to my desktop. It was clunky.

So I experimented a bit more, and have currently found a system that works well for me at the moment.

I use some writing software called Ulysses. Again, it’s Apple-only, but it means I have it on my desktop, iPad and iPhone. When I’m out walking, I simply open a new page/document in Ulysses, and switch on the dictation facility already built into my iphone. I talk into my phone, and the words (or those similar to the ones I’ve said!) appear on the screen.

I can turn dictation on and off just at the touch of a button. Which means when I get home, I’ve just got one file to deal with. And because Ulysses synchronises with all of my devices, when I get home, the text is there, waiting for me on my desktop. 

I’m not at the stage where I can dictate thousands of words. But what this is enabling me to do is express my ideas and thoughts I have while out walking. They’re not forgotten now, like the used to be on those days when I forgot to take my pen and notebook. And on those days when I did have pen and paper with me, I didn’t always express the thought/idea in its entirety. I have numerous notes where I can’t read my writing, or have no idea what I was thinking at all!

Yet, with dictation, I am capturing more. And I’m beginning to find that amongst my transcribed waffle, there are sentences or complete paragraphs that I can lift from my transcribed page and paste them into my working document. 

So if you’ve considered dictation, I would suggest giving it a go. But be realistic. Don’t expect to sit down and be capable of dictating tens of thousands of words right from the off. Dictation is a skill that has to be learned. I quite like typing. I’m a slow typer, which gives me time to think about what I want to say. That’s not quite as easy when you’re dictating.

It’s taken me about a month to get to this stage. But the way I’m using dictation at the moment means that I am more productive, because I’m collating thoughts and recording them, often in a way that can be used within my writing, when I’m not at my desk. Who knows, in the future I may be able to dictate the first drafts of longer pieces, such as these blog posts, or my articles.

And the other benefit of this system is that you don’t have to rewind a cassette tape and then press play and listen to your own voice as you try to transcribe your own thoughts!

Good luck.

Testing, Testing, 1 … 2 … 3

4 thoughts on “Testing, Testing, 1 … 2 … 3

  • April 14, 2020 at 6:13 PM

    Good to hear of the ins and outs of dictating! I cannot get out of the habit of pencil (2B) and good paper for first drafts – but a storytelling friend who’s dyslexic made excellent use of the programme.

    • April 14, 2020 at 6:54 PM

      Thanks, Penny. There’s nothing wrong with your 2B habit! Interesting how your dyslexic friend is using software. It just shows that if you’ve a story to tell, there’s a way of getting it written!

  • April 15, 2020 at 3:05 AM

    I have a friend who is legally blind, she writes her books with Dragon. Thanks for sharing, I like how you worked through that.

  • April 15, 2020 at 8:09 AM

    Hi Mark. Yes, dictation makes writing more accessible, doesn’t it? I’m finding I’m dictating/transcribing ideas everyday now. Who knows? Perhaps in a year’s time I might be dictating my novels! But at the moment, dictating ideas while I’m out is working well.


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