Can you write a book or a novel with speech recognition software?


You have a right to disagree with my previous post Writing with Speech Recognition Software. For many writers, dictating a book instead of typing it just doesn’t work. Maybe you can dictate faster than typing. But that doesn’t matter much if you can’t think faster than you can type. The speed bottleneck is often in your head, not your fingers.

In 2012, YA novelist Justine Larbalestier wrote a blog post Why I Cannot Write a Novel With Voice Recognition Software and updated it three times since. I suggest you take all her complaints to heart – which I did in my previous article. Then, try it anyway. It might work for you.

For some writers, dictation had better work. Some have physical challenges, such as carpal tunnel syndrome, that make it difficult or impossible to use a keyboard. Others have a different kind of challenge – the words flow when they talk, but dry up when they type. Or vice versa. People are different, and for some potential writers, the choice is between dictation and nothing.

At least one award-winning investigative journalist and screenwriter has dismissed the idea of writing by dication, saying “Talking is not writing.” Many modern authors would agree. However, some of the greatest authors of past centuries might be confused. Many classics of ancient literature were created purely by talking. The Greek poet Homer probably dictated the entire Illiad and Odyssey because, according to tradition, he was blind.

The writing process that you lean on today might be unrecognizable to the writers of past ages. And not just because Chaucer did not use a computer. Before paper became common in the 1400s, the typical writing material was parchment, often made from sheepskin. With every draft, a sheep died. Every revision meant increased cost in materials and labor: buying paper, spending time, paying a secretary. When writers had to copy every new draft by hand, they didn’t make draft after draft.

So what did writers do when revisions were costly? They would work out the sentence in their heads first and only then write it down in final form. In those days, this was a universal writing technique, not only for novels and essays, but for every writing task, including letters and personal correspondence. Some modern authors could learn to work the same way. Dictating in complete sentences would work well with speech recognition software today.

Ironically, I give beginning writers the opposite advice. It’s best not to analyze what you just wrote if it inhibits you from writing more. I have advised writers write first, edit later and to turn off their internal editor. But I don’t write that way myself. Hypocritical? No, because my writing isn’t inhibited when I edit as I write. As I work, the voice I hear is not a dismissive critic but a helpful editor. I have a confidence, borne out of long experience, that I will be able to improve the awkward or silly sentences that I so often come up with. Word-smithing doesn’t discourage me, it energizes me.

Of course, in earlier times a dictating writer would use a secretary or a spouse to transcribe their books, because software hadn’t been invented. Some very successful writers have been dictating writers.

  • Mystery writer Agatha Christie dictated perhaps half of her 66 books using a Dictaphone, an office recording device which entered popular use after World War II. As her grandson Mathew Prichard explains, a secretary typed up her dictation into a typescript, which Christie would correct by hand. Would Dame Agatha have used Dragon Naturally Speaking instead, if it had been available? Since she could afford a secretary, perhaps not.
  • For Pastor Max Lucado, who had 100 million books in print by 2010, a best-selling book would routinely begin as a sermon series. He would write out the sermons beforehand (or did he speak them to himself first, as Charles Dickens did with his novels?) As Lucado preached, an assistant sat in the front row with a copy of his manuscript in hand, writing down anything Max added that wasn’t in his original text. Later, Max would edit the books while on “vacation,” or at least, while he was away from his pastoral responsibilities (for which he received no salary). His publisher says he’s never missed a deadline.
  • Today, one well-known dictating author is science fiction writer Kevin J. Anderson, who says in his 2010 article Dictating, Writing, Hiking, “It’s been about fifteen years since I gave up the keyboard and took up a recorder for my first drafts.” That is, he gave up his chair and took up his boots. For example, Anderson wrote much of his series The Saga of the Seven Suns while hiking the canyons of Capital Reef National Park of southern Utah. However, like Agatha Christie, he sends his voice recordings to a typist or stenographer, not to speech recognition software. And he outlines in advance.

After 25 years of this, Kevin J. Anderson must be doing something right: the author of 56 bestsellers, with more than 23 million books in print worldwide, he has been nominated for the Hugo, Nebula, Locus, and Bram Stoker awards. But this writing/hiking technique is not always appreciated. British critic Ian Sales claims The Saga of the Seven Suns contains “the sort of words you pick as you scramble up a hill being chased by a goat.” Personally, though I’ve never been chased by a mountain goat while writing, my initial word choices are still often unsatisfactory. Poor word choices are exactly what I can fix later. I wonder what Anderson’s recordings sound like. Could I guess that he was a best-selling author by listening to them, or would I be amazed at how rough they are? Does he dictate smoothly or in bursts? Fast or slow? He told J. Daniel Sawyer that when he’s climbing a mountain, he does breathe heavily and he loses words if it’s windy.

Other authors seem more jealous of Anderson than critical. Military sci-fi writer Weston Ochse mockingly wrote a blog post Why I Hate Kevin J. Anderson, in which he says, “Oh to be Kevin J. Anderson and be able to tra-la-la through the world instead of sitting at the computer hammering in desperate bursts, hoping beyond hope that my inspiration and creativity won’t be snatched away by Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, email, Gmail. Google+, LinkedIn…” (Full disclosure: in 2005, Ochse won the Bram Stoker Award, while in 1988, Anderson didn’t. He was nominated for it. But Ochse doesn’t rub that in.)

Besides reduction of electronic distractions, another advantage of writing-while-you-walk is the exercise it gives you. That would have helped British writer G.K. Chesterton, whose body mass index of 34.8 (I just calculated it) may have contributed to his early death. Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami rises at 4:00 a.m., works for five or six hours, and runs for six miles (ten kilometers) or swims a mile (or both) every afternoon. Charles Dickens went farther than that, literally. Every day at 2:00 p.m., after writing for five hours, Dickens took a three hour walk. He often put in 20 miles a day, and he was said to do even more walking at night. Since voice recorders hadn’t been invented, he wasn’t writing or dictating, but he was still working and thinking about his story.

Maybe you’re sure that if you dictated your stories or articles, your dictations would sound stupid. For some writers, speech recognition could let them work in ways they never imagined. Maybe this sloppy text sound like something you would dictate…

He… the elderly man…the old man… he was fishing… who fished by himself…alone in a little boat… a skiff or a rowboat, off the coast of Florida, or somewhere in the Gulf Stream and he hadn’t caught a fish for a months.. he had gone, let’s say, eighty-four days now without catching… without taking a single fish… without taking a fish.

Ugly as it is, this may be an example of a new kind of first draft, made possible by speech recognition software. Because if you typed it, your fingers would probably rebel and try to come up with a clean version prematurely before you even got the story out of you. Or else you would be intimidated into developing a case of writer’s block, giving up on your story, and checking Facebook instead.

But what if you read this draft a second time into your microphone, more coherently and leaving out the duds and mistakes? The result might be:

He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish.

If so, you’ve just written the first line of Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea. Good job.

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5 thoughts on “Can you write a book or a novel with speech recognition software?”

  1. I’m not against telling my story. That’s how stories used to be told back in the day – verbally.

    My only problem is I get caught up in how it WORKS, not necessarily the idea of it. My Android phone stops speech-text after about 30 seconds and I end up spending more time hitting the button to have it work again and getting flustered. Otherwise I would have dictated my own book by now and working on a second draft … I blame everyone else for my failures there 😉

  2. I’m able to achieve a 99.9% accuracy while dictating via Dragon Dictation. I wrote up my process for how I accomplish this on my blog, along with step-by-step images.
    After completing this, you should have Dragon Dictation with accuracy of 99%+ (an error rate of 1 out of 100 words). Moving forward you will need to repeat steps four & five, and you too will achieve accuracies of 99.9% (an error rate of 1 out of 1,000 words) or higher.

    Now go dictate your next novel!

  3. I can, have, and do write a novel with speech recognition. Dragon 15.3 works swimmingly.

    A little self-discipline went a long way to learn it. First skill was to think through a paragraph and organize the thoughts, approach, and wording. The second skill was to speak each word distinctly and with an even pace. I try to finish the paragraph before I review the computer screen, let’s not rigidly.

    A third skill was learning to let the thoughts flow and dictate into a portable voice recorder while out and about. Dragon will then transcribe the dictation into words upon my return. It has good enough rejection of background noise that I can dictate on hikes, while walking on a treadmill, or sitting in a moderately quiet restaurant. The accuracy was much lower when dictating in a noisy bar, but even there was passable.

    The idea is to remove all friction between my thoughts of my novel in my head and the captured words in the draft. A major effect is much reduced wear and tear on my typing hands.

    My recommendation is to use voice recognition to write novels, and to assist in their subsequent editing. Much manual typing or writing will still be required in the editing, however.

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