How I Use Dictation for Writing

A few years ago set out to learn how to dictate books rather than type them.

There’s so much to love about the idea of dictation:

  • Dictation is way faster than typing. Most books on the art of dictation (and oh, there are books) talk about hitting 5,000 words per hour. When I’m typing, even in a good flow when I know exactly what I want to say, it’s hard to hit even 1,500.
  • Dictation is great for turning non-writing time into writing time. I spend more than an hour a day walking the dog. I also spend time almost every day sitting in the car. (I no longer commute, but there’s still car time, you know, hashtag L.A. traffic.) Whether I’m walking or driving, typing isn’t possible — I can’t look at a screen nor keyboard. Dictation, however, is viable. It’s possibly the only way to turn some of that time into active productivity.
  • Dictation, theoretically, should be a more pure form of storytelling. Fiction writing is telling stories. So shouldn’t the original storytelling medium — talking — lead to more natural, engaging prose?

So I tried dictation for a while. I practiced and practiced. I learned to talk slower (but not too slow). I even prepared little crib sheets with a loose outline to glance at as I walked.

Unfortunately, it never quite took. As much as I tried, I couldn’t dictate anything close to a polished draft. If I dictated for 30 minutes, it would take a few hours (minimum) to clean up my words. And that was just to clean them up as a first draft. The quality wasn’t good enough.

But… I did find other value in dictating.

  • Brainstorming. If I talk for five minutes straight about any aspect of a book (a plot point, a character, and so on), I’ll magically come up with at least two or three usable ideas. They pop out in the flow of me talking. I’m always skeptical before I start and always amazed when the time is up. So I now use dictation for working through ideas, breaking stories, figuring out character arcs, and everything else.
  • Working out the direction of the story. I fall in the middle of the two fiction writer archetypes: The plotter (meticulous plan/outline before writing) and the pantser (let it rip, see what comes out). I usually have a pretty solid outline before I begin… that never quite resembles the story at the end of the first draft. So telling the story — not because I’m trying to “write” a draft, just telling it without thinking about language or phrasing or trying to produce something in good shape for an edit — helps me work out plot points, character voice, new directions, scene issues, and ideas for twists before I sit down to formally write.
  • Listening to drafts. This isn’t me dictating, it’s listening to an app dictate. I find listening to a draft of your own book (fiction or nonfiction) is a different experience than reading it. It’s easy to skim through sections when reading and miss everything from errors to moments of boredom. I don’t miss anything during dictation. I can note mistakes, rough patches, and where my mind started wandering — many of which I would’ve missed in reading my own rough drafts.

One of my goals for the year was to work on books during five different “reclaimed” moments of the day. One of those moments is dog walks. So far this year I’ve used every evening dog walk to dictate for at least five minutes. And here, after about two weeks, I came up with, worked through, and finished the rough plan for a brand new novel.

My next step is to start dictating the story to work through my “pre first draft” even more — getting the full story outline and plan locked down before I start writing.

You can see everything I did this week as I work toward publishing 100 books by checking out the work log.

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