Dictating Your Novel by Wendy H. Jones

I listen to a lot of podcasts on writing and marketing. One of these is The Creative Penn by Joanna Penn. She has always held out from dictating her novels but has recently tried this. She is now a convert and her enthusiasm gave me the push I needed to give it a go. Here are my thoughts on it so far.

You can use specialist dictation software such as Dragon Naturally Speaking or Dragon for Mac. This is the most common one used. I have had this in the past but have struggled with it recognising my Scottish accent. You do have to train the dragon, and this can take some time. So for the purposes of the test, instead of using Dragon, I decided to use the dictation software on my MacBook Air. I had heard that this was a good option and I felt it was worth exploring. 

The first thing I had to master was a few basic commands. The punctuation commands were fairly easy to pick up. These included apostrophe, full stop, comma, open bracket, close bracket and all the other common ones. It was fairly standard open quotes, end quotes. So with the basics understood I was good to go. Or so I thought. 

The first thing I learned was that you need to give every command to the software. So the sentence "We need to catch the killer," said Shona. becomes

open quotes, caps on, we, caps off, need to catch the killer, comma, end quotes, said Shona, full stop. 

It took me about an hour to master this and then it came easily. I will admit it felt strange at first but it then became natural. I found myself thinking it when I went back to regular typing. 

Initially it came up with some strange things but it soon settled down. It still threw out the occasional error though as it tried to guess what I meant. Here are a few of the funnier ones.

It couldn't seem to cope with the word murder at all. It changed it into Amanda, mounted and firelighter. Maybe it wanted to change my books into tales of serial arsonists.  I think it might have been because of the Scottish habit of rolling the rrrrr's. 

Works on a firm in town became they have a famine in town.

No expense had been spared became I know Howard had been spared. I am jolly sure Howard was relieved to hear that. 

From the fact became Halifax. 

Now these were funny and as I say it quickly picked up the more used words. Both the computer, and I were soon ticking along nicely. in an amicable partnership. 

Would I use it again? In a heartbeat. The speed of writing picks up and I found myself typing a lot more words in a day. I stopped after every paragraph to sort out obvious problems such as the ones I outlined above, but I still wrote way more words. 

If you have a computer then I am sure you have dictation software on it. My advice to you today is give it a go. You may be pleasantly surprised. If you are already using it, share your experience, hints and tips in the comments below, and we can all learn something today. 


I have tried to use Dragon in the past because of my RSI. I ran into two probs, the first being it didn't pick up my English accent or many of my words. The second is that I just don't compose words and sentences that fast. It disturbed my flow seriously. After having learned to touch-type in my twenties and having used computers for ages, my words flow comfortably from my fingers to the keyboard.

Also I preferred the speech recognition software (forgotten its name) on Windows.
Bill Kirton said…
Good for you, Wendy. I can imagine how much it increases the daily word count. But, while I find it a brilliant time-saver for dictating notes or random thoughts, I just can't do anything 'creative' with it. I'm not sure why but I think maybe my mind needs to move more slowly when I'm trying to get the right rhythms and pacing. That doesn't really make sense, though, because I ought to be able to use it to knock out a first draft. A friend dictated his memoirs and it's an excellent book. I really do wish I could do it but it just won't work for me.
Jan Needle said…
I use Dragon quite a lot, and have done for ages. But when my son bought me a Mac Air he pointed out it had an internal system, which I also use for letters, Facebook, etc (ie, things that don't matter!). I didn't know until today, however, that you could train a Mac or use punctuation commands - I just let it work it out for itself, often with quite silly results. Now I must find out where it gives me the rules. I know Dragon's pretty well, but they're obviously different.

As to actual 'creation' - I always used to write by hand, which I insisted was the only way. Then I forced myself to type (being a touch typist) and found that that was in fact the only way. I'm not wholly convinced by dictation yet - it seems to be slightly the wrong speed, if you can follow that - but I use it sometimes. Perhaps I should try harder.

Since I stopped hand writing, though, one unfortunate side effect is that my (already abominable) hand writing has become genuinely unreadable. I can't even do my signature any more. Brain says no. Would my touch typing go the same way if I started dictating, I wonder? Mmm.
Lydia Bennet said…
This is interesting, don't imacs have built in dictation software, if the macbook air does? So many writers have rsi and also those with eye problems might find it useful. As Jan says, it may seem alien at first but then so did using a computer instead of a biro or typewriter at one time. It might also help if one has writer's block, to bust the block by just musing aloud. Thanks Wendy for this helpful and amusing post.
Oh God, I so could NOT do this! (Although I admire anyone who can and find your post fascinating, Wendy!) I type so fast that I wear out keyboards - demon speed, really. I can comfortably do 5000 words of a novel in a day. In fact from time to time, I've been known to do 10,000. (Although like Eric Morecambe and his piano playing, the words would not necessarily be in the right order!) But when I'm writing, my head has to be completely immersed in the world of the novel, and in the heads of the characters and - even though I'm also a playwright - I just couldn't dictate punctuation. I read lots of stuff aloud having written it though. But the connection between my brain and my hands is so well established, and my typing so non-intrusive that I wouldn't want to disrupt the process.
Chris Longmuir said…
I have Dragon Professional Individual and it has no problem with my Scottish accent which I think is more Scottish than yours Wendy. I did have Dragon Naturally Speaking the Home version prior to this, and although it was good the Professional version is a lot better. I did the upgrade because it was a bargain. The reason I bought it was because my optician told me I had the start of a cataract, that was 3 years ago and it hasn't developed significantly, but at least I'm prepared. I must admit, however, I haven't used it for my books yet, although it's handy for a blog post or emails, provided you know what you're going to say. I must investigate my Macs for the dictation app, I didn't know it was there. Good post, Wendy.
Wendy H. Jones said…
Lydia, iMacs also have the software. I was just using my Macbook air because I was in the sitting room. It was freezing in my study.
Lydia Bennet said…
Ah right, thanks for the clarification!
Mari Howard said…
Interesting inhavevtried dragon and it could not get my accent either. I decided it is too old fashioned RP! However I may try the Mac one as my astigmatism is worsening because of computer use so would prob be worth at least a try. Thanks for raising the subject on the blog
Susan Price said…
Great post, Wendy. I've tried using dictation software two or three times, but I've never been able to get on with it. Despite the training, the damned thing made so many mistakes that I was spending three parts of my writing time correcting. Far from increasing my output, it slowed to a trickle.

But as always, whatever works for you is the way to go. If dictating works for you then more power to your - er - jaw!
Mel Menzies said…
Interesting because, like Rosemary Johnson above, I'm a touch typist. I think all the other commands would seriously hamper my creative flow, though I have used it when dictating from a previously published book, now out of print.
glitter noir said…
I'm shocked and appalled and dismayed. I couldn't have been more so if y'all had written of your passion for boiling live babies for breakfast.

But, seriously, I know I belong to an extinct species of writers who write first in pencil, then type and retype. I had such a miserable experience editing and proofing a scanned old novel of mine that I cringe at the thought of even trying Dragon.

Good post, Wendy.
Ann Turnbull said…
We're not all extinct, Reb. In fact, recently, when I was away from home and computer, I not only wrote as usual in pencil but then made a fair copy in pencil so that I could read it. I'm just so grateful not to have RSI or poor sight at present. Thanks for the useful post, Wendy.
glitter noir said…
So good to know I'm not completely alone, Ann. :)

Popular posts

A Few Discreet Words About Caesar's Penis--Reb MacRath

Navigating by the Stars

The Splendid Rage of Harlan Ellison - Umberto Tosi

No, The Times Journalists at the Hay Literary Festival, Burglarising is Not What It's All About, says Griselda Heppel

Meddling Lemons by Susan Price