Why you should dictate rather than write by hand

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Do you want to speed up your writing process? Who doesn’t? That’s precisely why you should dictate rather than write with your hands…

Back in the era of Mad Men, secretaries went into the offices of people like Don Draper (photo above) and took shorthand while he dictated. Now, however, you don’t need a secretary to be able to dictate.

I am writing this column by speaking it aloud to my computer.

This process is called voice command or voice activation. You speak and your computer records your words — not as an audio file — but as a text one. Likely, you may have already used such a feature on your cell phone to record texts or emails to family, friends and colleagues. But the same process operates just as well for longer writing on your desktop or laptop computer.

I was reflecting on voice activation software recently, because I have a client — a university professor — who is working with a very bright PhD student who has a hard time expressing himself in writing. “I bet he has a learning disability,” I said. My advice was to get him using voice activation software.

I first tried voice activation about six years ago on the urging of my doctor who thought it might help my back problems. I have difficulty with my thoracic spine and the theory was that reducing my typing would help reduce my pain. I went out and bought Dragon Dictate and gave it a try. Sadly, I found the number of errors the software made so infuriating that I couldn’t continue with it.

A few years later, I decided to try again. This time, however, I hired a consultant to help “train” me — along with the software. Smartest move I’ve ever made. In only an hour, the consultant had me operating Dragon like a pro, and helped me understand why it hadn’t worked for me before. Let me share those reasons with you:

  • I have a Mac. Until recently, the Mac version of Dragon has been vastly inferior to the PC one. (As a long-time Apple user, I’m more accustomed to the reverse being true.) If you’ve already tried Dragon on a Mac and found that it doesn’t work for you, check to see which version you’re using and upgrade to a later one if necessary. Dragon for Mac is now on version 6; version 5 or later works well for Mac. (If you have an earlier version, be sure to upgrade.) If you’re on a PC, you’re already good to go. Dragon was built for PCs.
  • I used to use Dragon with any software— Word documents, email, text files, websites. Now, I’ve learned that it works best inside of Word and can be finicky inside of email clients. As a result, I do all my dictating in Word, then I copy and paste it to wherever I want it to go.
  • The training isn’t as onerous as I thought. My consultant gave me a handy-dandy “cheat sheet” with reminders about how to quickly correct errors as I see them. It’s always better to direct the software to correct mistakes — rather than fixing them yourself — because that trains the software in how to better capture your voice and pronunciation.

What are the benefits of voice activation software?

I see three main ones:

1 – It helps you write a whole lot faster. I’m a pretty quick writer now, but I’m much, much faster with voice activation. I think this is because:

  • I can speak a lot faster than I can write by hand or type. When I use a pencil and paper, I can produce no more than 40 words per minute. And although my typing speed is very respectable — about 85 to 90 words per minute – it’s a lot slower than my talking, which, like most people’s is about 150 words per minute.
  • Even though I’m diligent about trying not to edit while I write, my inner editor still wrestles for control. I use all sorts of tricks to keep my inner editor at bay, but speaking the words, rather than writing them, makes the biggest difference of all.

2 – Voice activation eases the strain on my back and wrists. Now I can write more quickly with much less physical pain. If you find that it takes a full weekend for your back or wrists to recover from the typing you do, voice activation would be a good tool for you to try.

3 – Voice activation allows me to walk more easily while I write. As you may know, I have a treadmill desk, and I find it an enormous boost to my creativity and my productivity. Of course I can type while I walk (it’s not nearly as difficult as most people imagine), but it’s easier to use only my voice. And if you don’t have a treadmill desk, then — with voice activation, and a wireless headset — you will be able to stroll around your office while you’re writing your next article or report.

And what are the downsides?

I see only two, and one of them is temporary.

1 – The error rate is about 5%. The only difficulty is that many of these mistakes are really hard to see. This is because our brains have their own built-in autocorrect function: typically, when we see a mistake in something we’ve written ourselves, our brains read the words they expect to see rather than the words that are actually written. When using any voice activation software, it’s important to proofread extra carefully. See my tips for proofreading, here. Note one super-smart idea recommended by one of my readers (below). Have your computer read your writing back to you. That way you’ll be able to hear any errors.

2 – If you’ve written on a computer for many years, expect it to take some time for you to become accustomed to dictating. When I first started dictating, I used to say that I “didn’t know where to put my brain” when I was writing. It felt as though I had more brain than I had things to do. It was awkward and uncomfortable. It reminded me of the feeling I had, 30 years ago, when I switched from writing by hand to writing directly on a keyboard. In both cases it took me about three months to get used to the transition. (You also have to learn to speak your punctuation — e.g. say “comma” when you want a comma and “period” when you want to end a sentence — but I’ve never had any difficulty with that.)

The software program Word has built-in voice activation. I’ve never used it myself but most of the reports I’ve read suggest it’s not terribly effective. The small investment in specialized software, like Dragon, and a good microphone has been worth every nickel. I can both write faster and do it more happily.

If you want the name of my consultant, send me an email and I’ll share it with you.

Have you ever tried voice activation software? How did you find it? We can all learn from each other so, please, share your thoughts with my readers and me in the “comments” section, below. Anyone who comments on today’s post (or any others) by July 31/18 will be put in a draw for a copy of the non-fiction book The Golden Spruce by John Vaillant. Please, scroll down to the comments, directly underneath the “related posts” links, below. Note that you don’t have to join the commenting software to post. See here to learn how to post as a guest.

*This post first appeared on my blog on Nov. 1/16.

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