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Using Dictation to Write a Book

dictation Aug 17, 2019

The late Barbara Cartland was a prolific writer, even in her eighties she was writing 23 books a year including A Virgin in Mayfair, Cupid Rides Pillion, The Frightened Bride, The Elusive Earl, The Disgraceful Duke and The Knave of Hearts. 

She reclined on a red velvet sofa in the opulent library where, every afternoon, she'd  dictate the next 6,500-word chapter of another book to her literary secretary.

“It’s less ponderous than writing."

She completed a novel on average every two weeks.

Alexandre Dumas (The Count of Monte Cristo) was also accustomed to dictating his novels to a secretary before they were fashioned into his acclaimed works. Stendhal dictated The Charterhouse of Parma to a secretary from Nov. 4 to Dec 26 1838, over 50 days.

Henry James used a secretary to transcribe his spoken words, ushering in a new era of productivity for him which culminated in The Wings of the Dove, widely regarded as one of his finest works. In the spring of 1897, rheumatism in his right wrist worsened and writing became painful. From then on, his routine was to dictate fiction in the morning hours to an assistant and make revisions in his own hand to the typescripts in the afternoons. 

“I know that I’m too diffuse when I’m dictating... It all seems,” he explained, “to be so much more effectively and unceasingly pulled out of me in speech than in writing.”

Not only did James come to write more readily by the sound of his own voice, but eventually he required the accompaniment of the typewriter’s taps as well (his habit became so specific that the machine he used had to be a Remington—other makes, such as the Oliver which was too quiet for his taste, didn’t “work”). The scene of writing had become a place of sound.

Leon Edel, who wrote a five-volume biography of James, drew a line between the dictation and style of the late novels, “After several years of consistent dictating, the ‘later manner’ of Henry James emerged” with the effect of being able to hear “the spoken voice...henceforth in James’s prose, not only in the rhythm and ultimate perfection of his verbal music, but in his use of colloquialisms, and in a greater indulgence in metaphor."

Henry James was a stutterer. There are no transcripts or audio recordings of James speaking, but we have a quasi-transcript in Elizabeth Jordan’s teasing imitation, which she wrote down as follows:

‘Eliminating—ah—(very slow) eliminating—ah—eliminating nine-tenths —(faster) nine-tenths—nine-tenths of—of—of—(very fast) what he claims (slower) of what he claims—(very slow) there is still—there is still—there is still (very much faster) enough—left—e—nough left (slower) to make— to—make—to—make—a remarkable record (slow) a remark—able record, (slower) a remarkable record (very slow, with every word heavily emphasized).'

For James, once he was habitually in the practice of dictating, speaking was writing and writing was speaking. He told W. L. Phelps that he hoped his writing would become oral (again) in the hands of his readers.

'Drawn off into a corner of the room by Henry James, I spoke of testing a written style by reading it aloud; that I had found many passages in Browning which seemed obscure to the eye were transparently clear when I read them aloud. To my surprise, he became excited. With intense earnestness he whispered in my ear, “I have never in my life written a sentence that I did not mean to be read aloud, that I did not specifically intend to meet that test; you try it and see. Only don’t you tell.”'

For James, the test of 'poetry' was in the viva voce treatment. His brother, the philosopher, William James distrusted his brother's method: he called it rum, queer and perverse, condemning Henry James as a 'curiosity of literature'.

Dostoevsky dictated many of his novels to a stenographer - Anna Grigorievna. Under contract to produce a book to a tight deadline, and having gambled away his publisher's advance,  he was contractually bound to pay off the advance if he failed to produce the work. His friends and family convinced him to put out a classified advert in a newspaper for a stenographer to take his dictation. Reader, he married her.

Winston Churchill was a dictator. 'A History of the English Speaking People' in four volumes was almost entirely dictated. He employed Patrick Kinna to take dictation straight on to the typewriter; there was a problem, however, as his typing was so fast the keys jammed, so a special portable typewriter was acquired with the keys shaved. Churchill bought an advanced Dictation machine in the 1940s, which purportedly was voice activated and the keyword was a profanity of which he was especially fond. Its manufacturer even today credits the great man thus: The Dictating Machine Co was founded in 1934 with the assistance of Mr Winston Churchill MP.

Dan Brown, author of the Da Vinci Code, reportedly dictates his rough drafts using Dragon software and edits at the computer.

Dictation software with voice-recognition sensitivity has come along way in recent years. You can dictate as fast as 160 words per minute! If you're on our recommended word count of 500-750 a day you could be done in 5 minutes. It doesn't bear thinking about does it? Personally, I prefer to loaf and idle and navel-gaze and ponder. But if you've got 'the voice' in your head and are writing a first-person narrative this method could help you capture the vitality of the narrative.

So, when it's time to hit the writing road and get that first draft down, maybe using dictation software is the fast lane? 

What do our members think of dictation software?

V Reeve, Australia.

Recently, I used Dragon by Nuance’s Speech app to write the first 2,500 words to a section of narrative, and it came out very well. It took less than fifteen minutes to dictate and probably twenty minutes to edit those 2,500 words into something presentable. I wouldn’t work like that all the time, but it’s great to have it up your sleeve and get ideas down as and when they come to you. Unfortunately, this app is no longer available but there are similar products out there. Of those available, I like Dictate Speech to Text. Both Dictate and Speech2Text will follow basic punctuation instructions: new paragraph, full stop, comma. I’m going with Dictate. It’s key features:

  1. it keeps up with my rapid-fire speech;
  2. though it makes mistakes because of my accent, I can decipher these readily enough (i.e., nothing so loopy that I can’t figure out what I said);
  3. it converts speech to text very rapidly, it seems to be less than a second behind the speech;
  4. the layout of the text is good (a full screen);
  5. the icons and operating features are easy to understand, and
  6. you can email the text or send it to Notes to edit.

I have an Aussie accent, and most apps have Australian English as a language option. Speech2Text doesn’t have Australian English. I tried the GB English and European English, and it seemed to cope as well as Dictate’s Australian English. To my mind, Dictate and Speech2Text are on par in the translation function.

The other apps I trialled were Speech2Notes and Mic or VoiceDictation but I haven’t been able to get Speech2Notes to work on my iPhone or iPad Mic or VoiceDictation is dreadful. It takes forever to translate short phrases and then it stops so it's no good for long stretches of dictation.

C Guthleben, UK.

I write longhand with a Pilot gel pen in Muji lined notebooks. I’m very particular about it. I like the way the ink flows on the smooth paper. I like the way my ideas flow from brain to page without a squiggly red or blue line to distract me. The only drawback is that I have to keep on top of the typing up. I left the typing of my first Novel in Ninety Days until the end and it took me almost as long to type it as it did to write it. This second time around I’ve learnt my lesson. I write in the mornings and type up in the afternoons.

Except I don’t really type. I use speech recognition software. I tried the free ones that came with my laptop but literally could not get a word out of them. I went online, researched the reviews of the paid versions, and bought the one that came out on top. It’s Nuance Dragon Naturally Speaking Premium version 13. I went old school and bought the CD version but it comes as a download too. Mine came with a headset microphone but I bought a freestanding one that plugs into my laptop – a Snowball Ice.

Dragon software learns as it goes. You don’t have to do spend hours training it to get used to your voice. It recognises different accents too. The commands are straightforward and there are tutorials, prompts and a toolbar. It’s easy to add unusual words and names. It really couldn’t be simpler. I can dictate thousands of words in an hour. As with most software, I suspect I am only using a fraction of its capacity. If I wanted, I could make my whole laptop hands free.

My purchase was timely as I fractured my shoulder soon after I bought it. Luckily, it was my left shoulder so I could still write, but there is no way I could have typed a ninety thousand word novel with one hand. The habit has stuck. I’m doing rewrites now and find I dictate anything longer than a couple of sentences.

A friend has just been advised by her agent to read her novel aloud. By using dictation software, I have already done that. As I dictate, I pick up repetitions and know when a sentence is overcomplicated or too long. My typed version becomes D1.5.

A couple of gripes:

·       You have to read over what you’ve dictated. It’s best to do it as you go, when you still know what you were trying to say. It gave me condom for quandong, for example.

·       Some words are impossible and it’s faster to type them yourself than scream them over and over into the microphone.

·       It has some annoying habits: writing to for too; capitalising words that might be surnames, such as black. ( A computer program is only so smart.)

I highly recommend it. I can’t imagine writing a novel without it. Just remember to send it to sleep before you answer the phone.

E French, USA.

Three important goals were solved with quality dictation software:
  1. I wanted to work writing into my busy schedule of long workdays, household and family obligations and health and fitness needs. 
  2. Some nights when I finally sat down to write, all I was left with was stiff, formal writing - a remnant of my corporate job. I wanted to relax into my first draft and write natural, flowing prose.
  3. I'm determined to write a first draft that isn't rule-bound. I wanted to leave the editing for future drafts, but the temptation sometimes got the best of me.
The winning combination I discovered is using my Bose noise-cancelling headphones (which feature a very powerful microphone) with an app called Dragon Anywhere, by Nuance. Yesterday I dictated a scene while cleaning the kitchen and loading the dishwasher. Today I dictated more than 1500 words while on the elliptical at the gym. Granted, I was the crazy woman talking to herself, but I'm okay with that.

Although I'm still in the free trial phase, and despite being very sceptical at first, I do believe I will pay the $15 a month for Dragon Anywhere. I spent some time this morning comparing the writing I did on the computer to the writing I've done via dictation. Not only am I writing more with dictation in a shorter period of time, I'm much happier with the results. The software works like a dream with only the occasional mistake. One difficulty is getting the software to recognize unusual character and place names. There is a "learn word" function in Dragon Anywhere, but I haven't had success with it yet. It gets the name Saskia right 100% of the time, but Anka (my protagonist) ends up as uncle 90% of the time and Anke the other 10. 

I've just dictated the second paragraph of this review using the standard iPhone dictation service and the Dragon Anywhere software. Take a look at them side by side. I think the difference is incredible!

So it seems Dragon has the edge on other dictation software.

You can save $20 off Dragon Professional Individual with the code NOVELRY20 at checkout.

Buy Dragon Professional Individual UK here.

Dragon Professional Individual US here.

Buy Dragon Anywhere UK here.

Buy Dragon Anywhere US here.

Then settle down in your library, recline, and sample the truffles as you create your great work - I leave you with the opening lines of Barbara Cartland's 'Temptation of a Teacher' her 227th novel.

'“I am sorry, Lady Arletta. I am afraid it gives you very little time.”

“Very little, Mr. Metcalfe.”

Lady Arletta Cherrington-Weir gave a deep sigh and her blue eyes were wistful.

Mr. Metcalfe, a precise middle-aged Solicitor, thought that, if it was in his power, he would do anything to sweep away the worried look on her young beautiful face. He had known Lady Arletta since she was an infant in a perambulator and had watched her grow up, becoming in doing so lovelier year by year.

He thought now that it was impossible for any young woman of twenty to be more enchanting and so completely unselfconscious and unaware of her own attractions.'

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