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The weird little origami-like folds of dictating your story

Posted September 4 into Writing by John Birmingham

I'm being crushed by deadline. The sequel to Zero Day Code. So naturally in the middle of this, I lost my mind and decided it was time to have a look at my productivity. I bought a book about voice recognition software. 15 Minute Dictation by Sean Platt and Neeve Silver. Although I've been using Dragon’s dictation software for more than a decade now, it was still useful.

Honest! I didn’t waste my time! There were a couple of tricks to using dictation software, weird little origami-like folds of understanding exactly how you hold a story in your head, I suppose, that I hadn't really thought about before. And they were interacting with the way I use the pomodoro method to fuck me up, just a little bit. So I tweaked my method.

I normally work in half-hour bursts if I'm doing something I really don't want to do. That is the beating heart of the pomodoro method. Even if some writing task is completely fucking loathsome, you should be able to gut it out for twenty-five minutes. And by focusing for that small window of time you normally get past your resistance to doing The Bad Thing and the job starts to move.

When I'm working on something that I actually do want to do, I can stretch the pomodoro timer out to nearly an hour. Either 50 or 55 minutes is best. But it's not easy to talk to yourself for just under an hour. Not if you want to maintain steady progress on a narrative. It's always tempting to go back and fix up every phrase or sentence or scrap of dialogue you’ve just written. This is a completely natural process when you're typing. You don't even think about it. The words come out, they could be a little bit better, you tweak them and move on. A simple, intuitive, almost thoughtless process when typing. But not when you are using dictation software.

Oh my fucking God no.

So one of the tips for young players that this book recommended was knowing what you're going to write before you write it. This is an old hack’s trick. It is why so many of us plot out rather than just plunge into the story. You are at your most glacial when you’re trying to figure out what you are writing while you write. But you're even slower if you’re also correcting the grammar and the aesthetics of the language as you go. So slow in fact, that you can lose all of the benefits of dictation, which can be three or five or even ten times faster than composing something by hand.

So what I tried to do was reorganise the way I move through those 55-minute blocks of writing time. Rather than trying to just talk to the software for nearly an hour without a break, I wrote out the entire chapter, paragraph by paragraph, in the form of a one line summary for each par.

I then had a blueprint to refer to while I was ‘writing’ (ie, dictating).

But—and here’s the money shot—I wouldn't just look at the blueprint and try and talk my way through it, expanding each one line summary as I went. Instead I looked at the synopsis of the first par and asked myself “What is going to happen in this?”

I spent about a minute figuring it out, imagining the scene in my head, and all of the dialogue to be spoken in it. I wasn't looking for a perfect word-by-word facsimile in my head of what would soon appear on screen. I simply wanted to know what was going to happen. The story beats of the paragraph, if you will. The narrative waypoints. There’s not many of them in a single par.

This meant I was dictating about two- to three hundred words in the space of 5 to 10 minutes. Repeat the process over an hour and you get about five or six slabs of wordage, totalling 1200 or 1300 words in all.

Fuckin' romantic, innit, eh?

I didn’t edit or second guess myself as I went, I just tried to move as quickly through those short bursts of ‘writing’ as I could - after roughly figuring out where they would go, narratively. A short break followed, five minutes or so, and then I moved onto half an hours editing of the just transcribed copy.

It’s always best to edit dictated sections on the same day. The software is much better than it used to be, but there will still be errors and you’re more likely to clean them up accurately when the composition is fresh in your mind.

A developer who (I think) also writes video game storylines asked me on Twitter how I changed gears between creation and the ‘analysis’ of editing. She found it difficult to switch. It might be as simple a trick as thinking of those short, immediate bursts of editing, not as editing, but simply as more writing. You’re expanding and sculpting and refining the copy you just threw at the screen. I normally add another 25% in volume at this point. Structural and copy editing are different and can wait until later.

4 Responses to ‘The weird little origami-like folds of dictating your story’

Matthew F. reckons...

Posted September 5
+++But it's not easy to talk to yourself for just under an hour.+++

Oh, I don't know, I manage it pretty well when I'm on a task or out walking and have something on my mind and forget there are people around. And then I stop to take stock, or waiting to cross a road, and see all the looks I'm getting and get that sinking realisation that my internal monologue wasn't quite so internal for a little while there.

Anyway. Probably not what you meant. Carry on.

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Doccs is gonna tell you...

Posted September 9
Thank You JB-I’ve been struggling with VR software as part of my work.
Your idea kinda gels with what I’ve learnt that you have to speak in phrases, ie ones you’ve already thought out.

Will give your method a try.

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NBlob mumbles...

Posted September 11
In a previous career I schlepped AV equipment. One day a very casually dressed bloke asked if I minded him working in the back of a room I was setting for a show. Of course, so we each got on with our work. I noticed he wore a headset and would occasionally talk. I assumed a phone call. As I finished up we had a brief conversation. He is/was one of the lord high poo-bahs of the Federal Family Court. He was reading submissions and dictating notes via Dragon. I mentioned I knew a bloke who wrangled words professionally and who was down one arm at the time who spoke to the Dragon. He showed me how it learnt to understand him and the specific arcana of law-speak. He mentioned how unlike Ye olde memorex cassette & typist transcription, he composed each note in his head before speaking. An additional 30 seconds before clicking resulted in a significant decrease in edit & revision. Also some sweet ass tagging methods for subsequent analysis.

So when can we have a Spoilerific Spoily thread on 0DC &/or TCS ?

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Doccs is gonna tell you...

Posted September 12
Thanks Nblob-helps me understand a bit more.

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