6 Tips for Dictating Your Writing

Blue Snowball mic

by C.K. MacLeod

Updated.

Dictation has become increasingly popular with writers who want to improve their writing productivity. As a writer and editor, I struggle with achy wrists from too much typing, tapping, and mousing. I know I'm not alone. To save my wrists, I've decided to take dictation for a spin. Here a few tips for using dictation, if you decide to give it a try:

Try it with short-form writing first.

Email is a great way to begin. Email a trusted friend who will forgive you for any fumbling and inexplicable wordiness. When I first dictated this article, it was a beast of a thing. Before I took out my editing hatchet, that is.

Work from an outline.

Take three minutes to plan what you want to say. A short, point-form list should do the trick. If you understand where you're going, you're less likely to wander into a verbal thicket.

Remember to speak out punctuation.

Say “comma,” or “period” when you want to insert punctuation. To start a new paragraph, say “new line.” It feels awkward to speak out punctuation, but it gets easier with time.

Think before you speak.

Your mom was right. Thinking before you speak is not only wise, but it makes for more accurate voice dictation. Monica Leonelle, author of Dictate Your Book: How to Write Your Book Faster, Better, and Smarter, recommends pausing while dictating, and then speaking in phrases instead of word by word. For some reason, speak recognition engines record phrases more accurately than individual words. So take time to gather your thoughts. With voice diction, awkward pauses are okay!

Get ready to edit.

If your dictation is wordy or disorganized, you will spend more time than usual editing your writing. Because speaking and keyboarding involve different neural pathways, and may engage different areas of the brain, your writing and speaking styles may differ.

When I first learned to write, I needed to conserve my words—in other words, to not write like I speak. Now, in learning dictation, I need to learn to speak more like I write!

Use editing tools.

Dictation may help you get more words on the page, but you’ll need some objectivity to help you decide which words should stay there. Revision and proofreading tools can show you where your writing needs pruning.

Final Thoughts

I've found that dictation works best as a first-draft exercise for getting first thoughts on a page. Once those thoughts are there, I can use my keyboard to make them intelligible. So, add dictation to your repertoire of tools, but don’t feel it has to replace the keyboard.

There are lots of options for trying dictation. I've written about Windows Speech Recognition  and Google's Voice Typing on this blog. Keep checking back for more reports on my adventures with dictation.

Image by Vincent Diamente

Dictate Your Writing with Google’s Voice Typing

Blue Snowball mic

by C.K. MacLeod

Dictation has become popular with writers who are interested in improving their writing productivity. Google recently introduced “voice typing” for Google docs, so writers can dictate their writing while on-the-go.

As a writer and editor with achy wrists from too much typing, tapping, and mousing, I decided to take voice typing for a spin.

From the get-go, Google Voice Typing is dead easy to use. Open Google Docs, go to the Tools menu, and click on Voice typing. An orange microphone icon pops up in the left menu bar. Click on the icon and begin speaking.

Google Voice Typing

Voice typing had no problems picking up my Canadian accent. In fact, I was surprised to discover that it produced far fewer pronunciation errors than I had expected. If there were any errors, they were mine.

I am, admittedly, less fluent when my writing is produced by mouth, instead of with my fingers. But I remember a time when keyboarding felt disfluent to me, so dictation may be a skill I can learn with practice.
Here’s my quick review of Google’s Voice typing:

Pros

  • Free for anyone who has a gmail account
  • Easy to use
  • Surprisingly accurate from the first use—at least for my Canadian accent
  • Cloud-based

Cons

  • Doesn’t recognize commands for open and closed quotes, ellipsis, and semicolon
  • No spoken editing commands (e.g., delete that, go to)
  • Works best with a decent quality mic (I use a Blue Snowball)
  • Potential privacy issues — who has access to your dictation?

Conclusion

If you’re a writer, and you want to give dictation a try, Google’s Voice typing is a nice, basic tool to begin with.

If you’re an editor who’s trying to ease your wrists, you could use Google’s Voice typing to write margin comments (which you can then feed into a text expander) or client emails, but you may prefer a dictation tool with editing features.

Not sure how to begin with voice dictation? See 5 Tips for Dictating Your Writing.

Do you use voice dictation? Tell us about it in the comments below.

Image by Vincent Diamente

How to Ease Repetitive Strain Injury

By C.K. MacLeodGraffiti of words repeat again

Are you participating in NaNoWriMo? Is your wrist starting to ache and your fingers starting to tingle? If so, you could be experiencing early signs of repetitive strain injury.

You're not alone. I've gotten away with the same computer practices I've used for years, without a bodily complaint. Until now. Thankfully, it's not too late to develop new computer-healthy habits.

In dealing with RSI, it's important to do whatever you can to interrupt or reduce the actions that are causing you discomfort. Cycling through a variety of strategies on a daily basis can help. Here's what I’ve tried:

  • left-hand mousing (I typically mouse with my right hand—and yes, the first left-hand day was rough)
  • a new kind of mouse (to change my hand position)
  • a new way of mousing (on my pant leg—a lower hand position can ease strain)
  • a new keyboard, with a different configuration than my old one
  • keyboard shortcuts (to reduce mousing)
  • macros (to automate editing and proofreading tasks)
  • speech-recognition software (to reduce keyboarding and mousing)
  • writing in markdown (to prevent mousing for formatting operations)
  • frequent breaks (with the assistance of Workrave, a free RSI prevention app)
  • roller derby wrist guards (to temporarily immobilize my wrist and prevent further strain—yes, I play roller derby, and surprise! I sustain more injuries from my computer) — use with caution because, as my chiropractor pointed out, "mobility is better than immobility"
  • old-school technology (to reduce mousing)
  • hand exercises (thanks to J Washburn for this tip)
  • physiotherapy (thanks to Ahmed and Mike for sorting me out)
  • chiropractic (for a derby injury—but this will be my first stop if I have the misfortune of of sustaining a computer-related back injury)
  • rest

Disclaimer: I am not an authority on RSI—only a victim of it. But I did query an occupational therapist, a kinesiologist, and a physiotherapist, and they agreed that changing things up is a key to reducing strain. If you have pain in your wrist and fingers, your wisest course of action is to first consult with your physician, physiotherapist or chiropractor.

I suspect that the best way to deal with RSI is to prevent it. What are your RSI prevention strategies?

Image by Feral78

A New Kind of Mouse for Writers

By C.K. MacLeod

Genius Pen Mouse
Genius Pen Mouse

Repetitive strain injury (RSI) can be caused by too much mousing. You can reduce the amount of mousing you do by using keyboard shortcuts, but sometimes it also makes sense to change the way you mouse.

Switch Hands

My editing colleague, Adrienne Montgomerie, suggested I try mousing with my left hand. While that first day of mousing with my left hand was horribly inefficient, it did take the strain off my right hand. Sometimes, though, with the work I do, I need to be precise and controlled with my mouse movements (something my left hand cannot yet do), so I still need to use my right hand, at least some of the time.

Try New Hardware

If you change your hardware, you can change your hand position. So I set off in search of a different kind of mouse, and discovered the Genius Pen Mouse. It's not a traditional mouse—the kind you palm—but it's one you hold like a pen.

Initial Concerns

I'll admit it, I had some reservations about switching my mouse. Could my fingers and brain adapt? The reviews of the Genius Pen Mouse were mixed, and I wondered if I'd be bothered by having to put down and pick up my mouse each time I wanted to use it. For $40 (and prompted by my throbbing wrist), I decided to give it a try.

Pleasantly Surprised

When the pen mouse arrived (start viewing this video at the three-minute mark), it took me about ten minutes to set it up and learn how to use it.The instructions were clear and to the point, and the onscreen prompts were helpful.

It took a bit more time to get my fingers to coordinate the movements for right-clicking and scrolling (left-click is a breeze), and after two days of practice, I'm still developing the finger dexterity required to master the right-click. (If you've studied piano, you'll know what it's like to develop finger dexterity for specific movements). But I'm of the opinion that anything worth learning takes a bit of time and commitment.

Tip: Still can't master that right click? Another way to right click is to hold down the Ctrl key while you execute a single click.

Oh... and picking up and putting down the mouse didn't bother me at all.

Overall Impressions

My overall impressions? The Genius Pen Mouse is surprisingly precise and easy to control. I think it'll be particularly helpful for proofreaders who do PDF mark-ups because you have more control with it than a traditional mouse. It appears to be sturdy, and the price is fair.

In terms of helping with repetitive strain injury: changing hand positions is always a good idea. There's no doubt that I could develop hand strain with this mouse, too, but if I switch between my right and left hand (you can do this with the pen mouse), and switch my hardware to mix things up, I have yet another strategy for reducing hand and wrist strain.

Have you tried something other than a traditional mouse?