Why you should dictate rather than write by hand

why you should dictate

Reading time: Just over 4 minutes

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 to use 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. 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 voice activation software consultant, who works via Skype, 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.

Posted July 10th, 2018 in Power Writing

  • Jen

    Which Dragon edition do you use? Home? Professional?

  • John Blois

    Great suggestion. Here’s a related one: try dictating into your phone (later, you or someone else–maybe Dragon–can transcribe it). Advantages: the same 3 things you identify in this article, plus, you don’t have to learn how to use the software. Most people speak better than they write: they are more direct, concise, and clear. When they write, they tense up, reverting to too many words and too much passive (and many other counterproductive tools). A message they can convey well in speaking turns into sludge in writing.

    • Meredith Roark Childress

      John, you’re probably right, but I may prove the exception in regard to speaking clearer than I write. I’ve been doing both for a long time, but my mind seems to trail off when I’m speaking, whereas my writing keeps going. It could be that a definite subject in mind would be the cure!

      • Meredith: I’d suggest doing a mind map, first. The thoughts of ANY writer will trail off if they haven’t done enough thinking and planning BEFORE writing!

        • Meredith Roark Childress

          That is such a good idea, Daphne. I’ve been dealing with physical problems and they have made me forget everything I’ve learned. I’m working to get back on track!

    • Good suggestion, John!

  • Javier

    I use “Dictation”. It comes standard with Mac X Yosemite but must be activated in settings. The best results are achieved talking not very fast, clear, and separating the words, almost as if you were a robot in a movie. I am delighted with it.

  • Meredith Roark Childress

    My daughter has suggested that I try Dragon because of back issues that don’t go away if I sit too much. I haven’t been impressed by the information I’ve seen, because I’m afraid I’ll say too many things that don’t need to be recorded, and I’ll ramble around far too long. But your blog has made me think about it again and I’ll take a look. Thanks for your clear explanation!

  • Bob

    I use an app from Google called Voice Recognition which has a very low rate of issues with spelling. In addition I use a Jabra speaker connected to my laptop (also answers phone calls) to speak into..It may be a question of quality of speaker vs spelling errors in dictation?

    • It’s pretty clear that earlier versions of Dragon for Mac just didn’t work very well. (Also, I’ve always had a professional microphone.) Glad to report, however, that later versions of Dragon for Mac have solved this problem.

  • Lesley Grainge

    Hello Daphne . Another inspiring article. Yes, I have found this to work for me. I actually use my IPad. But I found that using voice activation really helped me to get it all down before I tried to edit and that really speeded things up. I can now separate writing from editing much more successfully, which is something I didn’t do at all before reading your blog. I am completely converted to the principle. Thanks.

    • That’s great news that it helped you separate the writing and editing processes, Lesley!

  • Jody M.

    Post-stroke, my boyfriend was gifted Dragon software to help him get back into the workplace. He found it decently useful, even with his altered speech. The bonus was that it also helped his speech therapy!

    Apple has included Siri in the latest MacOS, so for those Mac users who don’t want to buy software (and have good luck dictating to Siri), that’s now an option.

    • I’m a stroke survivor, too, although (lucky for me) it never affected my speech in that kind of way. So glad your boyfriend has found Dragon helpful.

  • Vicky

    I can see dictating has many advantages. However, as an introvert, I express myself more easily and clearly in written form. I can sort out my thoughts through writing, whereas I often can’t by speaking. Maybe it’s also something about writing being a bit slower.

    • Vicky, I’m not sure being an introvert would have anything to do with it. I do know, however, that people are “wired” to learn better in different ways (e.g.: auditorially, visually, kinaesthetically etc) and it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that we all express ourselves better in different ways, too.

  • Gary

    I’ve used Dragon since the 90s, twice ditching it out of frustration. But I always went back in hopes that, with time, the application would develop a better ear. Which it has. However, voice-recognition errors persist. One workaround for improving recognition accuracy (your and my #1 downside with the software) is to dictate in the “Dictation” mode and not the default “Dictation & Commands” mode (chosen, appropriately, in the “Mode” menu item or by voice command – you can freely switch between the modes by voice commands). I’ve found that the “Dictation” mode, which retains some useful commands, produces superior results.

    • Gary, are you on a Mac or PC? Also, are you using a microphone?

      • Gary

        Daphne, I use Dragon NaturallySpeaking Premium version 13.0 on a PC (Windows 7 Professional) with a SpeechWare 6-in-1 TableMike, which knowbrainer.com (a third-party reseller and tester of voice recognition products) highly ranks for accuracy. Nuance also highly ranks the microphone on its Hardware Compatibility List. As you point out, a high quality microphone is essential.

        • I’m astonished you have voice-recognition errors! Everyone I know who works with Dragon on a PC has no difficulty at all. And even though I’m on a Mac (which is inferior for Dragon), I’ve never had to use “Dictation” mode. I guess the software recognizes every voice differently…

          • Gary

            I’m also astonished. I’ve never come across or read about anyone, PC or Mac user, who has experienced “no difficulty at all” with voice recognition errors. Even the most favorable PC-based “tests” at 99+% (which involve reading scripts rather than dictating off-the-cuff) will still average four or five errors per 500 word passage. For my Premium edition of the software, third-party tests have ranked its accuracy in the low to mid 90% range, and my software version (a couple of years old) supposedly improved accuracy by 15% over the prior version, according to Nuance. Perhaps higher-end editions and more recent versions of the software run the latest and greatest neural nets and artificial intelligence that strive to improve accuracy.

          • Sorry! I think we have different definitions. When I say “no difficulty at all,” I don’t mean there were no errors. I mean there was a tolerable number of errors (which I would put at 2-5 for 500 words.) To me, this is quite different from feeling you want to throw your computer through the window — which is definitely how I felt after trying the earlier versions of Dragon for Mac. Since version 5, however, it’s been fine. And I noticed a BIG improvement re: accuracy when I recently upgraded to version 6.

  • grldsndrs

    As I read through your list of downsides, I was reminded of a technique I use to help me with proofreading. I scanned through your post on improving proofreading and this tip was not listed there, so I thought I would post it here. I think you will find it useful.

    Your post is about “Speech-to-Text” technology. I suggest, that the inverse, “Text-to-Speech” will be useful. For many years, I have used it to proofread, as it was effective long before its inverse. It completely eliminates the issue cause by our brains reading the words they expect to see rather than the words that are actually written, by removing seeing from the equation.

    By selecting text and activating the function, the computer will read aloud the selected text. You can select different computer voices and speeds according to your tastes.

    The set up is easy, but is different on Macs and PCs. The technology has been built in to these operating systems for years.

    On a Mac: Go to your setting and open “Accessibility” and select Speech. You can adjust your settings there.

    On a Windows PC in Word: You will need to gain access to the command. I usually put the command in the quick access tool bar, for quick access. See the attached image for the Where’s and How tos: https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/073c983f7330d1db998b018976b4223a3b109e825476ffe6c47a820529160302.png

    • Thanks for the terrific suggestion. This is a really GREAT IDEA! I’m going to start doing it for my column, too.

    • Fred

      Thanks for this idea. I will also suggest it to my students, as it will make their life and mine easier.

  • Aurore

    Dear Daphné,

    For the last few months, I have problem with my right wrist and arm. I cannot write anymore full day on my computer as it too painfull.
    I started to think about buying Dragon and wanted advices from writers and intensive users. Obviously, I thought about your blog and found my answers !
    Thanks for this post and for all comments ! It really HELPS me to make up my mind : I’ll buy the French version. I ‘ll come back to give you a feedback.

    Have a nice summer break !
    Your biggest French Fan 😉

    • I know it will make a huge difference to you, Aurore. Don’t be afraid to hire a consultant to get started. Let me know how it goes.

  • Amaka

    Thanks Daphne for this enlightening post.

    I understand that Dragon can help with speed but what happens with the writing when you are still organizing your thoughts and putting together ideas?

    Do you suggest to initially write during the planning phases but finally put forward the final version using the dragon software?

    Or can one use this dragon software all the way, without having to write all through?

    • Christine Mifsud

      I usually create a mind map first, to organize my ideas, and then speak from the outline.

      • Yes, this is exactly what I do as well, Christine!

        • Christine Mifsud

          I probably learned it from you then! 😉

          • You may be giving me too much credit! Perhaps I learned it from you!

    • Here’s what I do Amaka: I go for a walk and THINK about what I want to write. Then, I do a mindmap. THEN, I write (frequently, using Dragon.) Writing, for me, is one phase, not many.

      • Amaka

        Thanks, Daphne.

  • ted

    I began my career answering client inquiries via snail mail, dictating letters that were then transcribed (and, no, I’m not that old, it was just a quirk of the place I worked). The process of composing a letter in my head, in this case answering investment questions, definitely helped train me to later become a successful investment commentary writer. Speaking your words, rather than first writing them down, imbues your writing with a conversational tone and helps avoid being too wordy. Also, by virtue of expressing an idea verbally, as if explaining something to someone in conversation, you tend to focus on finding the most direct and easy to understand way of expressing the idea.
    Being able to dictate and transcribe work also lets you capture ideas and the language to express them when they hit you while, say, on a walk or other situation when you can’t write things down..

    • Thanks for describing many of the additional benefits of dictating rather than writing by hand, Ted!

  • Thomas O’Keefe

    I use Google talk but find it quirky. It often doesn’t capitalize and can’t seem to understand some of my Lindsay Ontario accent.

    • Angie Koh

      Dictation.io seems to understand different accents.

  • Thanks Daphne

  • Christine Mifsud

    I just want to tell you I usually read your emails in the email itself, but TODAY, I went to your blog because of the promised pic…I find Jon Hamm SO handsome, I just had to click.

    Just thought this was funny (despite myself) and maybe you’d chuckle, too. 😊 Or maybe you counted on this to boost site traffic? LOL

    I have a Mac and have used the dictation function in Word, and it wasn’t so bad for a while, but then all of a sudden it got really horrible (MS tends to give us updates that make things worse, in my opinion). I will have to buy Dragon at some point. It is really so much faster to speak than write!

    • No, the photo of Jon Hamm was not an SEO strategy! Wish I’d been smart enough to think of that myself!

  • Fawzi Al Musallam

    This is really interesting
    However feels to me like changing from
    Driving manual transmission to manual
    Or maybe vice versa
    I can see one advantage
    It will help me with my public speaking to be more present and spontaneous

    The disadvantage or the difficulty would be for me how smart is “Dragon” in identifying different accents. I face this challenge with my smart phone be an iPhone or a Samsung to the point where I know I am much faster doing it manually
    It is the smartphone problem to be honest.
    Out of curiosity what is the cost of a Dragon for iMac and the consultant’s fee?

    • As I recall, Fawzi, Dragon is about $80 (for a regular version — the legal and medical versions are much more expensive.) The consult was roughly $100/hr and I needed only one hour. Probably, the most expensive thing is the microphone. I was able to find a good one in my house but if you don’t have one of those available, you’ll likely need to spend about $300.

      I believe the software is smart enough to adapt to most accents. The only issue that seems to faze it is young male voices. (I know this because my son has learning disabilities and we tried to use Dragon with him when he was 11 or 12. It didn’t work.)

  • I almost always use voice recognition Dragon software. Once you start using it effectively, its hard to go back to typing your first drafts. I too started it because I had an injury. I swear by it.

    • I use it about 50% of the time. Because it doesn’t work well for me inside of my email client, I find it too much trouble to go back and forth between Word and email. But for all other work, Dragon is so much easier.

  • saludgarcia

    As usual, your suggestions are excellent. I was so taken with the idea of dictating to my computer, I frantically scoured the web looking for an inexpensive version of Dragon. What I found however was that Google Docs has voice recognition software. It may not be as helpful as Dragon, (I don’t know, I don’t own Dragon) but it’s free. And as I’m exploring this, free seems like a good deal. I’m very excited to start this. I’ve been trying to write and the thought of being able to write while not hurting my neck, my shoulders, or my wrist is liberating. Maybe one day I’ll buy the Dragon software, Maybe after I sell my first piece. A first piece that probably wouldn’t have been written if I hadn’t discovered or if you hadn’t pointed me in the right direction.

    • I’ve never used voice recognition with Google Docs, but I’m always wary of “free” stuff. Nevertheless, it’s better than having NO voice recognition. One thing I suggest you consider: Such software usually works better with a good quality microphone, so you might consider investing in one of those.

  • Lauren H. Hunter

    I love Evernote voice record functionality. I’ve even recorded articles while driving! Also, somehow voice recording cuts through procrastination because it is so easy to begin, and you’re not “sitting down to write” at your desk.

    • I didn’t know that Evernote has a voice record option. Thanks for sharing that fantastic tidbit!!