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2: How do I get started with dictation?

This week, we dig into a conversation our community has been having for a while on dictation. Both Crys and J have had some experience with dictation. They dig into why you might want to dictate, services and tools they’ve used, and Crys shares her #1 tip that allowed her to write 18,000 words in two days to meet a deadline.

Transcript

Crys: Welcome to the TASM podcast, episode two. I’m Crys Cain with my cohost J Thorn. 

J: Hey, Crys. We’ve just doubled our podcast productivity. 

Crys: Amazing. 

J: That’s a terrible podcasting joke you gotta do when you get to episode 2.

Crys:  You have to. I missed the opportunity with the Write Away Podcast. I wasn’t in on the podcasting coolness yet.

J: You are now though, you got the bug. 

Crys: Yeah, podcast number two. So we have a question that’s really more of a conversation we’ve been having in the mastermind group lately. And that is: how can I make dictation work for me? 

It’s been a hot topic in author circles for, I would say, a few years now. What’s been your experience with dictation, J? 

J: Yeah, I don’t, I don’t want to call it a lot hate relationship because that’s too strong in either direction. I don’t feel that strongly about dictation loving it or hating it, but I do have this sort of… I go through phases with it. Maybe that’s the best way I can describe it.

There was a time where I tried really hard to crack the code on dictation and I just… it was brutal. I was stumbling over my words. Nothing made sense. It was taking me like four times as long. And then I kept trying and trying. 

There was one point when I was writing the Dustfall series with Glynn James where I was dictating everything and it was just like flying. And then I went a few years, didn’t use it at all. 

I don’t know. I think it’s easier for me to do with nonfiction. That’s one thing I’ve learned, or if it’s first-person.  If I don’t have to put in dialogue tags and stuff, it feels a lot easier.

So that’s a big thing for me. The other thing for me is that, this is weird, at first, I had to look at the screen to see the words that were coming up. In the same way when I glance up when I’m typing and I see a paragraph and I’m thinking about what’s coming next. 

And then I got to a point, which is where I think I am now, where I don’t even want to look at the screen. I just want to kind of get the words out and not see where they land. So I… 

I’m all over the map with dictation. I know this is probably not at all helpful. I’ve been in all, both ends of the spectrum everywhere in between. I don’t even know how I feel about it right now. 

Crys: I think a lot of people are going to fall there, though. I think that’s going to be a pretty common experience for anyone who’s tried dictation. 

I started… 2017, I think is when I started dictation and I started because I physically needed to. I was having shooting pains up my wrists. And I was so self-conscious, I was in a house with five other adults and there wasn’t a lot of private space. So I had to hide. 

I was blessed. My sister had a recording cupboard in the basement, in her closet, with blankets all around it so I could hide and nobody could hear me. And that was the only way that I was able to start. I forced myself to do it for 30 minutes a day. 

I had had hopes of getting these wild dictation, fast numbers that I’d heard about from like 20BooksTo50k, and it did not happen. I was lucky I got up to about the same as my hands on keyboard writing pace. 

And the words were probably about the same con quality. I also had that thing where I had to look at the screen and that’s still something that’s difficult for me. 

Then I moved out of that house and no longer had access to a very private audio booth and stopped dictating because I just can’t do it when I think people might hear me.

But then this last week I’ve been trying dictation more again as I’ve been having more physical issues. And this last week I had a terrible deadline and I was having trouble… just focusing. I was laying in my bed moping, being very emo and I pulled out my phone and just started dictating into it just to get words done.

I was really surprised that it worked a lot faster for me. And I was hitting crazy dictation levels. 10 minutes would equal about a thousand words. Of course they needed to be edited, and because I was on a deadline, I shipped them off to be dragon tamed by a virtual assistant… 

J: I like that term.

Crys: …most of them. Yes, the dragon tamers. That was entirely worth it for me. I think that’s a process I’ll be using going forward with dictation. 

I think that any writer who is at the computer for a decent amount of time,  and especially writers who produce a lot, ghost writers or anyone who’s writing pulp fiction, like I currently do. At some point, you’re going to need to explore dictation for physical health reasons. 

That’s an opinion of mine. I have bullied a couple people into dictation for health reasons, and now that’s the main reason or main way they write. But it’s… unless you are a person who prefers to express yourself via spoken word, which is not most introverts, I don’t think that the best goal going into it is to get faster word counts or better word counts because I just don’t think that’s realistic. 

J: Yeah, that’s a good point. Daniel was the one who started this conversation in our community. He was doing a lot of writing, I mean, a lot. And I think he was starting to feel some physical effects because of that.

I know from my own health journey that once you start getting physical pain, it’s a great motivator to change your behavior. So I think a lot of people might not even consider dictation until they have some pain or some tingling or some soreness or headaches or something, some symptoms manifest.

And then you try it out. I think too, it’s important to recognize that it takes time. For me, especially for fiction, I feel like the amount of time it would take for me to dictate and then either have it cleaned up or cleaning it up myself is going to be about the same amount of time. So if I’m not having physical issues for me, there’s really not a great benefit. 

Now I will say, in the fall, before the weather turned here, I was working on a non-fiction project and I had been using Dragon on my PC for years, and I have a really good high quality lav mic and the accuracy was pretty good. 

As an experiment, I was sitting outside in the nice weather at the time and I had my phone and I just have a basic voice recorder. I don’t have an iPhone or anything, and I just recorded into that. And then I ran that through Otter.ai, which is a transcription service, and I was shocked at how accurate it was.

And Otter.ai, I think, is like $8 a month. And you don’t need any special equipment or apps or anything. You just can record. I literally recorded into my phone and it turned out pretty well. 

So now I’m kind of like, maybe I’ll go back to that because I would love to get into a situation where I could get outside more.

I know we live in different places. It’s a little harder for me to get outside, but like, when I am outside to be able to go for a walk and dictate or sit in the backyard and dictate, that’s a really good motivator for me to maybe go back to it. But when I have the keyboard there and I’m not in physical pain, it’s hard for me to justify like the learning curve to go back into dictation.

Crys: Yeah. The learning curve is a strong deterrent and whenever anybody tries it for two days and then is like, no, it’s too hard. I’m like, well, you didn’t learn to write in two days on a keyboard. So please remember that. 

J: Yeah. Typing takes more than two days to learn how to do. 

Crys: Unless you’re some kind of savant.

Surprisingly, I actually can’t record outside. Nature is too loud in Costa Rica. We have monkeys and toucans and the ocean and they interrupt the recording very strongly. Problems you didn’t know that you would ever have. 

J: I do not have toucans or monkey problems here. 

Crys: I mean, your loss.

I think that dictation is hopefully going to become my first pass for everything given my recent experience. The number one reason is simply to avoid the physical pain. I do a lot of other work on my computer that can not be done anywhere else, and so having anything done anywhere else is a benefit for me. 

And what it provided me that I don’t currently get with how fast I write books is… I got to have at least a very short deepening pass. And that’s one of the things I’ve missed about writing pulp fiction, putting things out fast. 

Dean Wesley Smith is of the crew that says write fast, don’t edit. And he cycles through, he does edit in a way that isn’t editing in his mind. But he doesn’t do any kind of like deepening and expanding or giant edits phases. And I really enjoy the deepening phase and that’s something I haven’t had the luxury of doing… really at all in the last four years. 

Also because it’s two different styles of approaching the manuscript. I have two different levels of interaction and just like you can take a manuscript and change the font or put it in a different program and see different things, saying the words and then editing the words as I go through them physically… I really enjoyed that process even as painful as it has been to convince myself to tell the story out loud.

J: Do you ever read your manuscripts out loud? Your drafts? 

Crys: It’s a step I would really enjoy doing for non romance. It is not one that I do for romance. I might read sections that I’m having trouble with aloud to see if that sparks anything, but it’s not a full process that I do. 

J: Interesting. Yeah.

That’s sort of a correlated conversation that I was, I know I would be better off if I did that. For some reason I can’t get myself to do it. 

Crys: I really enjoy reading to people. So if I did that, I would probably have to do it similar to how Mary Robinette Kowal does. And she’ll put out a call for readers to sit in on a live stream while she reads aloud to herself.

That’s very much because she’s a performer, she was a puppeteer, she’s a voice actor. And so it’s very difficult for her to not have the performative aspect on multiple levels of her creation. She has people, alpha readers come in right behind her and she does do the read aloud. 

I think that I would really enjoy that process at some point, too, like reading to… Even my son, if it’s something appropriate for him to listen to. I could easily read it to some of my friends and I think they’d really enjoy that. And that would be a fun process for me. 

J: Do you think that there’s… if we take, say non-fiction and fiction and we look at just fiction, are there genres that you think would be better suited for authors to dictate than others? 

Crys: There are certainly genres that are easier. Anything that doesn’t have crazy fantasy and scifi names. But I don’t think that it’s necessarily better… because I don’t…. hmm. I mean, turn that question around. Is there a genre that’s better to be typed? 

J: Yeah. 

Crys: I think it very much relies on the, on the human and not the… 

J: Maybe it’s a question of POV than genre then. Cause like, you know, no matter what genre I write, if I’m typing, “she said…” it’s the same. It’s the same thing.

But if I’m writing in third person versus first person, in dictation… well, I don’t know. Maybe that’s just my experience, but it feels like if I’m saying “I,” it just feels more natural than me saying “he or she, or they.” 

Crys: I think that’s a training issue because I’m thinking about old storytellers when they only had oral storytelling, most of their stories would have been third person, dramatized and.

I haven’t experimented with using different voices for the characters as I’m narrating this story, but that would be something I would definitely be willing to try and see if Descript labels me as five different humans. 

J: Yeah. Yeah. It could be interesting. I think I have one more question for you on dictation.

Do you have any sort of weird tip or trick or hack that you do with dictation that you think most people don’t do or don’t know about? 

Crys: I don’t dictate punctuation. 

I did when I first started, and I think part of the reason that it was so much easier for me this time and also faster, which was a side benefit not a goal, was that I did not use punctuation.

So I’m only telling the story, I’m going back to that old, oral storytelling style and not the technical Dragon style. 

J: And that you’re doing into Dragon, or you’re just doing transcription? 

Crys: I’m doing transcription. When I send it off to a Dragon tamer they generally put it in their Dragon and then they have to add punctuation for me. Descript does some punctuation,  it’s always wrong.

And Dragon I don’t think puts in any punctuation if you don’t say it. And so they have to use their best judgment to figure out what characters are saying what, if I didn’t don’t say who said what. And that’s fine, that’ts stuff I clean up as I go through. 

I love not using dictation. Training myself to use dictation was so painful or, I mean, punctuation. Training myself to use punctuation was so painful. And when I started trying to dictate again, I did try at one point to do it without dictation, but I’d already trained myself to use–I keep saying dictation–punctuation. I’d already trained myself to use punctuation. And it was only this time that somehow I was able to not deal with it. 

And I think the reason I slipped naturally into not using punctuation was that I communicate a lot with voice messages and I stopped communicating as much with text. And the podcasting also, knowing that I’m putting that in transcription later, put me in a mindset where I didn’t have to do punctuation. 

J: Cool. All right. Hopefully we gave people a little bit to think about on dictation, right? 

Crys: Yeah, hopefully. And what is our question now? What do we want to ask our dear listeners? 

J: I’d love to hear people’s experiences with dictation. Good, bad, and ugly. Are you using it now? Are you not using it? Is there something you do with it that that really works for you? I think any sort of insight there might help people who are struggling with it. 

Crys: And I’m always open for tips and tricks on improvement. 

Thanks for joining us this week. Comment below! If you would like to be part of the conversations in real time, you can join us at The Author Success Mastermind

Comments on 2: How do I get started with dictation?

  1. Catherine says:

    I have an old-school dictation method that many of my writer friends think is crazy in the “New Age” of Dragon.
    As a journalist, I have been taping my interviews on a recorder since long before dictation software existed to type it up for me. By listening to and typing up my own interviews, I discovered that the interview recording itself functions as a rough first draft. This allows me to perform content and line editing as I listen and type and produces a relatively polished first written draft.
    This speak-listen-write method also works well for fiction. It is a tool to develop and evaluate a story from multiple angles: oral storytelling, hearing the story, and mentally processing it.
    The speak-listen-write method gives me a better draft than Dragon. It’s also faster overall because I hear the story and edit it in my head before typing it. Editing a written draft is a longer, more tedious process for me. I also maintain a better creative flow because the story seems to magically improve as I type and edit the oral version.
    Like Dragon, this type of dictation takes some practice to master, and you have to be an accurate, fast typist. I probably haven’t given Dragon enough of a chance, but for me, why fix what isn’t broken?
    Bonuses: I don’t have to dictate punctuation, which can hamper story flow. It’s portable, and I can dictate while walking, etc. I don’t have to train my Dragon and worry about strange fantasy names and terms. And hell, it’s FREE!

    1. Crys Cain says:

      I love this process. I think I would get very frustrated with listening to myself (particularly with my long blocks of white space), but I use an extremely similar process with writing by hand and then typing into the computer. I love that natural editing step in the transferring process.

    2. J. Thorn says:

      Yes! I’ve done this too. It takes longer, but the quality is better.

  2. Good show. I’ve played around with dictation, but of course I have an excuse. 😉 My writing time is at the crack of dawn, I’m the only one up, and my voice carries out of my office, across the house, under the bedroom door, and right into my wife’s ears.

    1. Crys Cain says:

      I am VERY self conscious about people listening as I dictate!

    2. J. Thorn says:

      Yep. That’s definitely a concern. I have that with podcasting too.

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