East of Constantinople, West of Shanghai

Dictation, or, how I hit 3500 words per hour and kept going


I started dictating my stories to Google Docs.
The basic idea: we talk a lot faster than we type, so we can essentially dictate a rough first draft a lot faster than we can type it.
This is one of the nifty ideas in Chris Fox’s excellent little handbook, 5000 Words per Hour, but it’s not something he invented: many authors of the past dictated their work, including Erle Stanley Gardner and, as it was pointed out to me a few days back, Edgar Wallace.

What you need: a Google account and a smartphone or, if you are the sort that prefers to work with a microphone and a PC, you need to make sure your PC is 64 bit.
Mine is not, so I use the smartphone.
If you use an Android phone, it comes with the full suite of Google services, including Drive (where your text will be saved) and Docs (that will do the heavy lifting, recording your text).
Depending on your setup, you might need to load a Google Talk thing. Or maybe not.

So, here’s some general impressions.

The first and foremost is, of course, that it’s very fast.
It’s just a matter of talking to your phone.
The trick is finding the proper speed, because too slow, and the Google Talk thingie will shut off automatically, too fast and the buffer will overflow. So, a few experiments are in order.
Once you find your pace, the next step is to dictate, not talk. Which means calling comas, full stops and new paragraphs.

This was, in fact, the hardest part.
I discovered, with no little surprise, that I think my stories in print. I need to see the page, and it’s not just a matter of putting the words down, but of putting them in the right order, and in the right SHAPE.
I need to see the lines on the page, their shape, the paragraphs, in order to project forward what I am writing. I can’t explain it any better. I think it’s because I spent most of my time reading, and I’ve sort of acquired a visual perception of the story.

On the other hand, while I am used to reading out loud at least part of what I am writing to check if it sounds right, in these cases I treat punctuation as rhythm, expressing commas, full-stops and so on as pauses. In my dictation, I tend to do the same, but instead of getting me a comma, my half-beat pause will generate a turned-off app.

Another drawback is pronunciation.
This is where all the bitching by my old English teachers about “the perfect Oxford pronunciation” comes back with a vengeance: the Google AI is smart, but not that smart, and it will get you wrong more often than it gets you right, especially if you have an accent. Damn elitist software!

After a couple of surreal results trying to dictate in English, I switched to Italian, because hey, it’s my native tongue, right?
Well, sorta.
First, because the Google AI is a lot dumber in Italian than it is in English. I guess it is because it’s been less trained, that is, fewer people use the dictation tool in Italian than in English.
But second, I do have an accent in Italian.
It’s the same accent that caused a girlfriend of mine, many years ago, in England, to ask me what had caused me to spend a lot of time in he south of the USA, and that gets me labelled as Swiss when I speak French.

My Piedmontese accent makes me sound like Bugs Bunny or a southern belle (or Van Dyke Parks, if you are into music) in English, and as a Swiss from Lousanne in French, and simply confuses the Google AI’s socks off in Italian. The poor thing tries to interpolate, and usually the results are hilarious.

And yet…
All first drafts are rubbish, and as a way to unload a story directly onto the page, as fast as possible, and be done with it, dictation is really good.
Afterwards, a revision is needed – redo the punctuation, correct the misspellings, in general rewrite the text. But then again, a revision is always needed, so there.
So, it’s really faster? Yes, it is. I can’t guarantee the 5000 words per hour that Chris Fox’s book promises, but it really speeds up things. Once I got started, I easily hit 3500 words per hour, and kept at it for two or three hours easily (with brief pauses to drink some water).

But there’s another thing that’s interesting – if you are doing this on your smartphone, you can do it anywhere as long as you have cell coverage and traffic. This means going out for a walk and talk to yourself, and then get home and find the text ready to edit.
You can actually dictate a blog post or a chapter while you are in the queue at the supermarket, as long as you’re not worried by the weird looks the people will give you. But the use of cell phones has sort of brought us into other people’s living rooms and offices, no matter whether we like it or not.
Or you can just turn the thing on and dictate your story while huddling under your covers on a cold winter morning, or late at night.
And in the end everything’s saved on the cloud, in Google Drive, so that you will not lose your text.

So, all things considered, I think I’ll experiment a little more. While flash fiction and blog posts are still probably faster to be done the old way, and novels require a whole different approach and degree of organization, mid-lengths short stories can be drafted in two hours flat.
This is good, if you need to write a lot to pay for your bills – starting with the phone data transfer.

Author: Davide Mana

Paleontologist. By day, researcher, teacher and ecological statistics guru. By night, pulp fantasy author-publisher, translator and blogger. In the spare time, Orientalist Anonymous, guerilla cook.

5 thoughts on “Dictation, or, how I hit 3500 words per hour and kept going

  1. Seems like an awful lot of work to me. But then again, I’m hellishly lazy.


  2. Fascinating. I’ve often wondered about trying this, but I AM worried about looking like an idiot talking into a device, plus I’d hate to be overheard by my husband if I was doing it at home. Writing my first draft is intensely private and even though I know he wouldn’t listen (or care about what he heard), I’d still feel like he was standing over my shoulder reading what I was “writing”. Still, the speed is something not to be scoffed at.


Leave a comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.