How to Dictate Your Novel: An Introduction

I love the response that I’ve had to my more technical videos, my latest on Scrivener being the biggest hit. What I love even more, though, are the questions! I feel like I’ve stumbled onto a gold mine of people with questions on the more technical side of the writing life – like more tips on Scrivener or a post on dictation.

So by popular demand, I’m really excited to be talking about this week’s topic! Since I’ve mainly given advice on the craft of writing, I planned to wait until people wanted those more technical videos and that time has come!

As always, you can watch my video below if you’d rather listen to me talk about this topic.

This week’s post is going to be about the basics on dictation. I won’t be going too much into depth on dictation today but I wanted to give a good foundation that we can build off of. If you like this post or have other specific questions, don’t be afraid to let me know! These posts are always feedback driven so if you want to hear about something in particular, I’d be more than happy to do a post on it!

What is dictation.jpg

Dictation is the act of speaking your novel rather than typing it. There are a few different ways that you can convert your dictation file into a document but they all end in some kind of typed version of the words that you spoke. There are two main concerns most people have when they try dictation: their accuracy is low, and they have trouble remember to speak the punctuation. I’ll go over those two issues in a minute!

The process of dictation involves the use of some type of microphone. You could use the microphone built into your phone, buy a cheap one or spend a lot of money on one. I spent about $100 getting an AT2020 USB Mic after using my computer’s built-in mic and a $15 headset I bought at Wal-Mart. I used that cheap headset for an entire month before I could justify spending that much money on a microphone. There’s definitely some cheaper options but I didn’t want to upgrade slightly to have the temptation to upgrade again at a later date. But the important question: did my accuracy improve?

Tremendously! I was actually laughing at how well it did without even training my dragon. My speech is almost conversational, like I’m talking to another person instead of into a computer, and Dragon is able to catch nearly everything correctly. I also don’t have to hold the microphone right up against my mouth – my fiancé likes to “wake up” my mic across the room when he walks in and add some fancy touches to my novel. All while I’m scrambling to turn it back off.

Why try it? I’m sure most of you reading this now have already heard of dictation at some point. But why is it becoming the next big thing for writers to do? Simple. Because you can speak faster than you can type. If you already have your entire story outlined, what do you think is holding you back? The getting-it-on-paper part! And if there’s a way you can go about that faster, then why wouldn’t you try it?

Now that we know the very broad definition of dictation, how do you go about actually getting an editable text document from speech? There are two main ways you can go about doing this.

Speech to text

Software. This usually involves purchasing a specific software to run on your computer that converts your spoken words into typed words. You can use this form of conversion either real-time or submit a saved .mp3 file for processing.

I use the former method for my own dictation. There’s many types of dictation software out there and, of those, I went with Dragon NaturallySpeaking. Since I haven’t used all of them, I won’t be able to suggest one over the other, but I can say that I’ve had a good experience with Dragon.

Yes, dictation can be difficult to get used to and one of the biggest questions I’ve been asked has been: how do I train my Dragon? For those that don’t know, Dragon NaturallySpeaking recommends that you “train” your Dragon to improve the accuracy of the speech-to-text recognition. That issue is another topic in itself, but don’t worry – I will be going over this in the future! I just know it’ll take over this post today if I do it here.

Transcribing services. You can also hire someone to convert your audio file into a document through an online transcribing service. There are literally hundreds of sites out there that can do this for you but most of them work the same way. You submit your audio file through their website and, based on how long your audio is, you’re quoted a price.

This is the case on most websites. Prices can range from $1 per minutes of audio transcription to around $3 per minute depending on how fast of a turn around you want.

I don’t recommend doing this method long-term, though. A few hours worth of dictation and you’re looking at the price of purchasing your own software that you can keep using forever. But this is definitely an option if you’re interested in learning how to speak your story-telling rather than typing it.

The pros.jpg

Output efficiency goes up. In my case, it went way up. I went from averaging about 1,500 WHP to almost 3,000 WPH consistently. When I participated in NaNoWriMo last year, I could get my day’s word count done in no time, and usually the next day’s word count as well. You might be thinking “Vivien, I’m a computer wiz and I type super fast. There’s no way dictation can beat that.”

My response: You’d be surprised. My uninterrupted, no-stopping-to-think-about-the-perfect-word typing speed is about 85 WPM. There’s plenty of people who can type faster than that, but that’s a pretty decent typing speed (thank you gamer days). The average speaking speed is somewhere between 110-150 WPM (source: Google). You’re already looking at faster speeds! And that’s not counting the next pro!

Desire to procrastinate disappears. This is perhaps one of my favorite things about dictation. I don’t know about you, but I can’t speak and check my Facebook feed at the same time. Since it’s more of a physical act, it’s easier to ignore that social-media itch. It’s a hassle to sit back down, turn off the mic and open my browser.

Perhaps it’s just because dictation is a new skill and more brain power is required to do it. Perhaps it’s the fact that you can walk around and move. Perhaps you’re just more focused on story-telling than editing or outlining. Whatever the case may be, it works. I’ll go a solid hour with no desire to Google something or browse Twitter and then my writing is done for the day! Yahoo!

You can walk around while you’re talking. Some call this walk-and-talks. If you’re interested in being a full-time writer for the rest of your life, there’s a lot of health issues you could face sitting at a computer desk all day. There’s a lot of writers who literally have a “go bag” where they pack all of their dictation gear into one bag and then take the dogs on a long hike or go on a walk in a park. I definitely want to try this one day, strange looks included – because hello! You’re talking to yourself. People will think you’re crazy and then they won’t try to start a conversation with you. Win!

My current method involves pacing my living room. I have my laptop on an ottoman in the middle of the room and I can walk around and around and around that ottoman. Does the view get boring? Yep. But I’m too focused on the story that’s playing in my head to care.

You can ignore your inner editor. We all hate it. That voice in our heads that’s screaming at us to make every sentence perfect in your first draft. But guess what? Your inner editor can’t work while you’re dictating. If you do it correctly, you won’t even be reading what you’re saying, you’ll just be making sure it’s picking up on words (so 30 minutes of dictation aren’t wasted). If you’re not reading what you wrote, then you’re not focusing on editing.

Sometimes I’ll hear myself say something and immediately know I’ll want to reword or change it. But I can do that later. The important thing is you’re getting your story out as well as you can and as fast as you can. My inner editor has no room in my brain while I’m dictating and that speeds up my productivity!

The cons.jpg

There’s a pretty big learning curve. A lot of us have been writing stories for quite some time. Most of us have also been typing those stories for quite some time. Transitioning from typing to speaking can be a surprisingly big leap. If you’re fast at typing, you’re probably able to think of your next line while you’re typing the first. You’ve got a rolling tally of the scenes laid out in your head.

When you’re dictating, it’s harder to do that. This usually becomes a good thing as most taters (dic-taters…yes I just did that) feel that this changes their storytelling for the better. “But you have to speak punctuation. I can’t do that!” You already type it so what’s the difference? It does take some getting used to, but even while you’re typing, you’re noting what punctuation needs to go where. It’s just become second nature to you and now you don’t think about it. Trust me, your dictation will get there too!

It can be pricey. Between buying the software and the equipment, dictation can start to get expensive. Unfortunately, there’s just not much wiggle room in this department. You can ask for a microphone for your birthday or the software for Christmas. I got lucky and was gifted both the software and the microphone at two different times, but was already prepared to purchase them myself.

Besides the software, you might find yourself wanting to purchase a longer USB cable if you want more room to walk, a preamp if you’re wanting to buy a non-USB microphone, or some kind of pop filter to improve audio quality. Money is definitely a consideration when thinking of switching to dictation.

The microphone makes a big difference. You can always go with a cheaper microphone, and your accuracy might not be affected all that much. With a $15 microphone I was able to dictate through NaNo with roughly 85% accuracy as opposed to the atrocious accuracy I had with my computer’s built-in mic. 85% might not sound like all that much, but the mic was cheap! I would love it if the software were the key to getting high accuracy but unfortunately it’s all in the mic.

With my AT2020 I’m getting about 95-98% accuracy, meaning I don’t have to spend as much time making sure the gist of my idea is captured. If you want to grin and bear it through a cheap microphone like I did, by all means go for it! I wanted to make sure I would like dictation without spending too much money on it from the get go. If you’re not worried about that, then starting first with a cheap microphone might be a waste of time for you. I’d recommend starting with a nice one for those people!

Clean-up is required. It’s unavoidable. Your dragon might think “ran over” is “Hanover” or “woman” is “women.” These things are usually due to quick or slurred speech (in my case) or just that random 2% that gets away. You might have punctuation that’s incorrect or a word might be missing.

These things don’t happen often, but the fact that they do means you have some cleaning up to do. I tend to clean the previous day’s work before starting on a new scene. You might wait some time to do it or immediately clean up, but it is absolutely necessary. There could only be two mistakes on one page, but two mistakes could butcher an entire sentence (think of the importance of commas in some particularly funny examples).

Dictation for free

A lot of phones come with their own speech-to-text recognition that you can easily try out. The accuracy of this type of dictation is very low, though, so don’t be frustrated if it doesn’t work perfectly. With a free trial, you should be more concerned about the act of dictation rather than the accuracy. The transition period from typing thoughts to speaking them might be too much for some people. If you don’t think it’s going to work for you, then that’s okay. Not everyone loves every software. But if you find yourself transitioning easily and accuracy becomes your concern, then I would start thinking about purchasing.

Another way you can try dictation is through Mac’s built in speech-to-text software. I haven’t personally tried this as I own a PC, but it’s good practice. I don’t know how the accuracy compares to that of Dragon, and perhaps that’s something I can attempt to compare in the future (let me know if that would be something you’re interested in!). But the whole point of it is to see if you think you can get the hang of it one day. Is it a good fit for you? Will you be able to find a quiet enough space to use this method at all? Do you find story-telling to be difficult out loud versus when you type?

While Dragon doesn’t have a trial version, they do have a 30-day money back guarantee. If you purchase it through Nuance’s online store and if you’re not happy with the software, apparently they’ll give you your money back. I say “apparently” because you need to confirm this prior to purchasing your software! It’s your money, so don’t just take my word for it. I mean…I would really like you to, but your money is probably not as precious to me as it is to you. So confirm it before buying! It’s what I would do if I hadn’t been gifted this software.

Holy moly that was a long post!

I hope all of this information was helpful in some way and helps to create a good foundation of knowledge for us to build on later.

The hardest part of dictation is definitely the beginning. If you can get through that, then you’ll find dictation being your preferred method of writing!

I want to hear from you! What’s your experience, if at all, with dictation? Did you like it? Hate it? What’s stopping you from trying if you haven’t?

6 thoughts on “How to Dictate Your Novel: An Introduction

  1. Excellent video! I just wanted to add a few things, as I’ve used dictation in my legal practice for six years, and in writing for one.

    I’m surprised you didn’t bring up the RSI/CTS issue. That’s the reason I was practically forced into dictation to begin with. It can prematurely end a writer’s career, and I can attest to the pain that can flare up. Dictation is great to help with that.

    I always want to caution people about speed increases. I don’t type nearly as fast as you, but I speak around 125 WPH. However, 30-50% of those words end up becoming punctuation. Open quote can I see you question mark closed quote new line, actually has only four words, but you just spoke twelve. I’m still faster, but not by the margins people assume.

    In terms of the learning curve, I think people really make too big of a deal about it. They complain about how poorly they speak in everyday talk, and who would want to read that? It’s an excuse. Dictation is nothing more than an input method. You know what’s hard? Learning to type on a Dvorak keyboard after three decades of QWERTY. Dictation has NOTHING on that.

    Fourth, another thing that a lot of people overlook. PLEASE take care of yourself. Lozenges, special teas (like Throat Coat), etc. Your voice is another tool that, like your wrists, can be overused. I did 200k this past NaNo, 99% of it dictated. I did 85k in the last five days (challenges), including three consecutive 20k days. That’s really hard on your throat, or your wrists, which is why I taught myself Dvorak. But, prevention is key.

    Excellent article and video, and I look forward to seeing more.

    1. Definitely very good points you have! I have heard of some writers who’ve suffered from RSI and switched to dictation – it is a very real issue so I’m glad you pointed that out! I second your point about punctuation counting for those words. Quick dialogue can be very repetitive and lengthy saying “open quote, close quote, open quote, close quote.” I’ll be going more in depth on dictation if there’s anything else you think I should include!
      P.S. I would never be able to do that Dvorak keyboard, that looks like mental torture!

  2. thanks for your excellent article. I just got into this – having read that sci-fi author David Weber uses Dragon now due to wrist injury; I knew Dan Brown used Dragon for years… A great computer that matches the requirements as stipulated by Dragon is key. And you’re right – the USB mic makes a world of difference. Not only is it more accurate, but you don’t have to project your voice as much. You can actually mumble/sub-vocalize – and it picks it up still pretty good. Saves on the energy and allows you get more done. Less tendency to project like a voice actor, which made me feel I had to be “perfect” because I was “performing” rather than composing. I’m ashamed to admit – I typed this comment, though. Never again. LOL. Would you do a short video actually showing your dictating? Any recommendations for ways to get over the learning curve? Refused to cheat by grabbing at pad of paper. Am determined to learn to “verbalize” and save paper, time… sanity. Much thanks!

    1. Sorry for the delayed response! I didn’t even know Dan Brown used it, but I love hearing of well-known authors that dictate as well.

      Actually, next week’s post/video is going to be about the learning curve! I’ve been wanting to do it for a while now, and it’s about time I do another part in my dictation mini-series 😉

      I can definitely add doing a demo to my list! I looked high and low for Dragon demos and there aren’t that many out there. Thank you for the suggestions!

  3. Pingback:Transition Into Writing With Dictation – The Dreaded Learning Curve – Vivien Reis

  4. Hello Vivien. Great article! I was considering purchasing the Dragon speech software and I’m glad I found your article. You brought up a lot of things I didn’t consider, such as needing a microphone to go with the software (which I didn’t realize), getting some kind of extension if I want to walk around, and indicating the difficulty of getting used to the software in regards to remembering to dictate punctuation.

    I wanted to use Dragon as a way to dictate what I’ve already written down in my notebook. For my writing, I prefer to write on paper rather than type. There’s a lot more freedom to me and I don’t edit as much. I can also freewrite without worrying that my words are all of a sudden going to be deleted because I pressed the wrong key.

    However, the problem comes in typing up my notes. Since everything is digital today, stories are almost always typed up on a computer. While I definitely see my work improve greatly when I adapt it to typing, it can be tedious writing the material twice. Would you recommend the method of dictating what you’ve already written down or do you find dictation is better when you’re simply saying whatever’s on your mind rather than what’s already written down?

    Thanks for sharing your experience with dictation software!

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