On Being a Dictator: Using Dictation to Be a Better Writer

On Being a Dictator: Using Dictation to Be a Better Writer (Million Dollar Writing Series)

On Being a Dictator: Using Dictation to Be a Better Writer by Kevin J. Anderson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This slim volume is basically Kevin J. Anderson and Martin L. Shoemaker telling you why they use voice dictation for their writing, and the specifics of how they do it. Their techniques differ–Shoemaker dictates while driving a one hour commute to and from work (and emphasizes the safe way to do so), while Anderson usually takes a digital voice recorder with him when he is out on hikes, keeping fit while staying productive. They sometimes overlap methods and Anderson in particular makes use of typing services, which can transcribe at a typical cost of one cent per word or thereabouts. He admits this is not suitable for all writers. A 100,000 word novel would cost $1,000 to transcribe, a hefty sum for a lot of people, especially those new to writing.

Each author also uses dictation for brainstorming, tossing out ideas, character background and more into their recordings. Shoemaker uses Dragon Professional 15.0 to transcribe his recordings and is satisfied with its accuracy, noting that cleanup is always part of the editing process, regardless of writing method.

They cover all the basics–when and where to dictate, overcoming the embarrassment of talking to yourself in public, getting comfortable with the sound of your own voice, and more.

All of this is good stuff, and both writers present their use cases in convincing fashion. The book does lack a certain amount of depth–this is Anderson and Shoemaker relating their experiences, with a minimum of advice, technical or otherwise. Those looking for more specifics on using voice dictation for writing may be better served by checking out The Writer’s Guide to Training Your Dragon by Scott Baker (which still covers the latest version of Dragon as of this writing, August 2019) or Chris Fox’s 5,000 Words Per hour.

Still, this is very much a worthy read, if for no other reason than to provide a little more incentive to making the jump to using voice dictation.

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A tech nerd’s writing dilemma

Or what you do when your preferred writing application goes subscription-only.

I love playing around with software, so looking for a new writing program is kind of exciting in a geeky sort of way. At the same time it can be a convenient excuse for not actually writing, so I am determined to make a choice as soon as I can.

Now that I have eschewed Ulysses (see here for more) I need to pick another piece of writing software to use for all my writing needs and desires. The first thing I need to establish are the must-have features this software will have:

  1. Must let you type words into a computer and save them to disk or “the cloud”
  2. Must work on both a MacBook Pro and Windows 10 PC or more broadly speaking, it must work in both macOS and Windows environments *or* support a file format that is natively supported in both OSes without requiring magic or witchery to work properly.
  3. Must please me in somewhat arbitrary and ill-defined ways
  4. Must not require a subscription. Paid or donate to unlock all features is okay.

Now, let’s review the criteria:

1. Must let you type words into a computer and save them to disk or “the cloud”

This one is easy as literally any program except whimsical comp-sci projects will pretty much let you do this. This does not narrow the criteria down in any way whatsoever, so my inclusion of it here was simply to start the process with a little levity. A tiny smidgen, if you will. Moving on…

2. Must work on both a MacBook Pro and Windows 10 PC or more broadly speaking, it must work in both macOS and Windows environments *or* support a file format that is natively supported in both OSes without requiring magic or witchery to work properly.

This is where it gets trickier. There are some programs that work across both platforms and these are my preference. However, if I opt for a common file format such as text (.txt) then I can write in different programs and the actual work will be the same in each. The biggest downside to this approach is probably the mental shift required when switching off between programs that could potentially work very differently even as they ultimately accomplish the same thing.

3. Must please me in somewhat arbitrary and ill-defined ways

This category covers “nice to have features” that aren’t strictly required but in a way actually are. For example, the ability to set a writing goal is pretty essential for National Novel Writing Month and some of the major programs like Microsoft Word do not feature this, because they focus more on making the writing look pretty, rather than the actual process of putting the words down.

Other nice-to-have features would include:

  • focus mode (highlight a line/sentence/paragraph)
  • distraction-free options (full screen support, etc.)
  • easy to access word counts
  • ability to easily move around scenes or chapters
  • built-in support for cloud services like Dropbox, OneDrive or others
  • and other things

4. Must not require a subscription. Paid or donate to unlock all features is okay.

This is pretty straightforward, unless the chosen program does what effectively amounts to a bait-and-switch by changing their pay model after you purchase the software (as happened with Ulysses, which went from a traditional paid program to subscription). There is an increasing move toward subscriptions (boo) but enough options exist outside the model to allow me to steer clear of it for now.

With the criteria set, let’s look at the pros and cons of some candidates.

Microsoft Word

Pros:

  • supports Windows, macOS, iOS
  • integrates nicely with OneDrive
  • offers web version in a pinch
  • familiar
  • supports indents
  • .docx format is widely supported
  • has a full screen mode

Cons:

  • no options for setting goals
  • no focus mode
  • no easy way to move scenes or chapters (it can be done, just not easily)
  • the WYSIWYG approach can lead to fighting the formatting
  • no built-in support for markdown, though it will auto-convert some markdown to formatting, such as using asterisks for italics.
  • about the complete opposite of a Zen writing program

WriteMonkey

Pros:

  • supports Windows and macOS (Mac version is currently beta-only and not feature-complete)
  • supports cloud services for saving
  • supports indents (Windows version 2.7 only)
  • can auto-generate backup files to a specific location
  • supports distraction-free/full screen modes
  • has focus mode
  • allows you to set both overall and immediate goals, with visual aids
  • word count is always visible
  • many options to customize the look and feel, along with theme support
  • supports markdown and in version 3 offers good visualization of markdown in the editor
  • saves in simple .txt format, making it easy to load its files in other programs (this changes a bit in version 3 but is still possible there)

Cons:

  • Mac version is in beta and lacks some essential features, such as indents, meaning cross-platform support is not really there yet. The workaround for now is to use version 2.7 on a Mac running wither in Bootcamp or through a VM solution like Parallels.
  • UI is a bit fiddly and can be difficult to work around (I’ve gotten past this particular hump, though, having used the program for several years now)

FocusWriter

Pros:

  • supports Windows, macOS and Linux
  • clean interface without billions of distracting options
  • can save to .txt format for maximum flexibility
  • supports setting goals
  • supports indents
  • shows word count
  • customizable themes, including different wallpapers and sound effects for distraction-free mode
  • can save to cloud services without issue
  • will start up with the last opened document to allow you to jump right in

Cons:

  • no real markdown support, though it offers one tag as a divider to separate scenes or chapters
  • maybe a bit too Spartan

Typora

Pros:

  • supports Windows and macOS
  • supports indents (awkwardly, as it has to be implemented by editing a theme file)

Cons:

  • doesn’t offer anything that isn’t also available in FocusWriter or WriteMonkey
  • focus is clearly on technical writing, not fiction

Scrivener

Pros:

  • supports Windows, macOS, iOS
  • supports indents
  • supports goals
  • offers focus mode
  • offers distraction-free/full screen mode
  • shows word count
  • highly customizable
  • allows for easy shuffling of scenes or chapters
  • excellent community support
  • can easily handle large projects

Cons:

  • UI feels dated and can overwhelm with options
  • offers poor cloud support due to the way it saves projects as collections of files. This can lead to corrupt projects.
  • Windows version perpetually lags behind Mac version in development (though files always remain compatible between the two)
  • weirdly forces you to name your project before you can start writing

No indent support

As mentioned above, supporting indents is crucial for fiction writing because a dialog exchange between characters woulds requiring hitting the Enter or Return key all the time and looks weird, as illustrated below:

“Hi John.”

“Hello Sally.”

“How are you?”

“I am swell, how are you?”

“I broke the Enter key on my computer.”

“Oh, that sucks. How did it happen?”

“My preferred writing program doesn’t support indents.”

Both John and Sally cried and bonded over this horrible tragedy.

It turns out that a lot of markdown editors lack support for indents, which was one of the things that made Ulysses so nice.

Here are programs that might have been considered but are ruled out because they lack support for indents or are platform-specific or both:

  • iA Writer
  • Bear
  • Editorial
  • Pages
  • MacDown
  • plus about a billion more

The Big Decision

In the end there are only a few reasonable choices.

Choice 1: WriteMonkey

My preference is to use WriteMonkey because I am familiar with it and it has worked well for me in the past, despite some rough edges on the UI. The main issue here is the beta version works well but lacks any way to use indents, so if I’m writing on my MacBook Pro I need to use a different program that saves to .txt format or I have to use Parallels/Bootcamp.

As it turns out, I’ve actually set up Parallels and while the Windows 2.7 version of WriteMonkey works well enough in it, something about the arrangement makes me nervous. Still, this remains a viable option.

One workaround is to use FocusWriter when on the Mac, as it has a native version of the program. I’ve tested and haven’t noticed any weirdness when switching between files created in WriteMonkey and then edited in FocusWriter and sent back to WM again. FocusWriter doesn’t support markdown but it also doesn’t do anything with markdown in the body of the document, either, so it’s still there in WriteMonkey.

Once WriteMonkey 3 is out of beta this should be a much stronger choice but it’s being developed by a single person, so work is not surprisingly proceeding at a slower pace (the first public beta came out in September after a private beta that ran most of the year).

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 indents

Choice 2: FocusWriter

FocusWriter’s strength lies in its simplicity and its native support for both Mac and Windows platforms. It doesn’t support markdown but perhaps because of this, it offers more fiction writer-friendly features.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 indents

Choice 3: Scrivener

I spent enough time using Scrivener, including writing NaNo novels with it, to learn most of its quirks and workflow. Then I stopped using it for long enough that I’ve forgotten most of that.

If you are simply typing words into the editor it’s pretty easy to use. It gets complicated as soon as you do anything else. The UI is bad.

The good news is its getting a major revamp to version 3. The less good news is that it’s not out yet, though the Mac version is expected by the end of 2017, with the Windows version coming in early 2018.

My biggest issue with Scrivener, though, is the way it saves files. By default it saves after two seconds of inactivity, which is nuts. This can be changed, but still, it seems like a recipe for introducing file corruption by invoking near-perpetual writes.

Along with this, the cloud support is very bad. It can work decently with Dropbox but people are actively told to steer away from OneDrive, iCloud and Google Drive. OneDrive is my preferred place to save things in the ephemeral cloud, so being told it’s not a good idea is a bit of a put-off.

I also lost a large chunk of a NaNo novel a few years ago when I botched the local/cloud saves while using Dropbox. This is mainly on me, but I felt it likely wouldn’t have happened in a different program due to the way Scrivener bundles projects into a multitude of files.

Rating: 3 out of 5 indents

Choice 4: Microsoft Word

The ubiquity of Word is probably the best reason to pick it. Its supported everywhere. You can probably run Word on your toaster now. But it offers few features for a fiction writer that are very nice to have. It lets you write the words and make them look pretty. It doesn’t do much beyond that.

Rating: 3 out of 5 indents

Darkhorse possibilities

There are some web-based editors that can usually work in offline mode if you lose connection (your work is automatically synced when the connection is restored) but I’m very leery of going web-only for my writing.

I could also just use a typewriter. No one ever lost a save file on a typewriter. The trick would be to find one. Plus I hate using typewriters because I’m not Harlan Ellison.

Finally, there’s always a notepad and pen. The very thought is causing my hand to spontaneously cramp, so no.

In the end it looks like the best candidates are:

  • WriteMonkey
  • FocusWriter
  • Scrivener

My plan, then, is to do some testing as follows:

  1. Write a small project in WriteMonkey 2.7 (Windows version) and edit it on the MacBook Pro using both the same version in Parallels and through FocusWriter and see if anything screws up and also if the workflow actually works. I’ll use OneDrive for saving in a specially made folder for testing.
  2. Create a Scrivener project in Windows and make changes back and forth in Windows and Mac. I’ll save in a specially made Dropbox folder (in theory OneDrive should work if the folder/files are set to be available in offline mode but I can’t be bothered jumping through this many hoops. I’m not a good hoop-jumper).

After the week of testing I’ll commit to my decision and go on to great writing glory. Hooray!

Writing prompt 6: The world ends with you?

Exciting news: I’ve added a new category on the blog for writing prompts.

It’s kind of exciting to me, anyway. A little.

Breaking writing prompts out into their own category will make it easier to find them, which will be handy for me and any bots scraping the site for inane exercises based on random writing prompts.

And now, a prompt.

Prompt #6: A mystical but seemingly omnipotent being appears before you and commands that you provide the solution to world peace or all the world will be destroyed. The omnipotent being has given you sixty seconds to respond. What do you do?

Read moreWriting prompt 6: The world ends with you?

A rare and welcome writing update

Something strange and wonderful happened today.

For the first time in many months I sat down and wrote. I decided to take another shot at a writing exercise I’d started on my now-moribund writing site. The story is called “Road Closed” and rather than picking up where I’d left off or polishing what I had already written, I just plain started over.

Four thousand words later I am pleased with how easily the words started flowing once I got rolling.

I’d like to thank Green Day and The Bee Gees for musical inspiration while I clacked away on my mechanical keyboard. Yes, punk and disco, back to back, just as nature intended.

My plan is to write every day and to wrap up this story before National Novel Writing Month begins in 18 days. I think I can pull this off.

Why I failed NaNoWriMo 2011

Here is my sad story. But it has a happy ending, so read on.

There were a couple of things I did wrong in preparation for National Novel Writing Month 2011, the main one being that I didn’t really prepare at all. Sure, I had come up with a few ideas to choose from in October:

  1. Last year’s unfinished project.
  2. A story idea I’d been kicking around for 20+ years.
  3. A short story idea that I felt would cork in longer form.
  4. An idea that was nothing more than a neat-sounding title. Why not?

Why not? In order:

  1. Unfinished project: Maybe it was unfinished for a reason! I scratched this one off the list pretty quickly.
  2. Story idea 20+ years old: I actually think the idea is fine but the story is beyond the scope of a 50,000 word 30 day dash, which I will get to in more detail shortly.
  3. Expanding the short story: the idea is a good one but it requires research. Too much research (see #2).
  4. The neat-sounding title: Yeah, I’m going to write a 50,000 word novel in one month based on nothing more than a neat title. In a fever dream, perhaps.

And thus problem #1: not enough preparation.

November also turned out to be Health Hell Month for me or HHM as I like to call it. When I went to dinner at a friend’s I mentioned I’d been experiencing a sudden health issue. The first word out of her mouth: “Prostate?” Yes, I am a man in his mid-to-late 40s. Yes, the frigging prostate. And then other ailments followed, minor but annoying and I found myself taking a mix of antibiotics (the ones I’m not allergic to), anti-inflammatory agents and dealing with discomfort, outright pain and when everything finally seemed to be mending back together I caught a nasty cold.

Problem #2, then: stupid body.

Another significant issue I had was trying to fit my ideas to the format, the main reason for the deaths of ideas #2 and #3 as outlined above. I didn’t want to write an epic that would go on for 200,000 words then consider myself a NaNo winner when I completed the first 50,000. I have no problem with others doing this, but it wouldn’t work for me. I needed something that could be written quickly, succinctly and with the ending reached before November 30th. My 2009 project was perfect for this — some people get on a late-night ferry, monsters hop on board and a night of snacking and horror follows. Simple, direct. None of the ideas I latched onto this year fit into a tidy little box like the ferry ride of doom. My ideas were too ambitious, effectively sabotaging my effort before I had even started writing. Sure, I might have pulled off one of them somehow if I had persevered but the chance of that happening was pretty slim.

Problem #3 can be thus be thought of as having square pegs and a whole lot of round holes.

I had suspended work on the second draft of my 2009 novel to work on NaNoWrMo 2011 and in that first week of November I found myself wishing I was working on that instead of flailing about with the current contest. This is not the mindset of a successful NaNoian.

And so it was that my mind and body, working together, defeated my attempt to write a slapdash novel in 30 days. And that’s not such a bad thing, really. National Novel Writing Month is a great way for a would-be writer to light a fire under his butt, to get that motivation going, to get into that very simple habit of writing every day, instilling discipline and reveling in the sheer joy of banging out words. But in a way I think I’m already there and this year’s NaNoWriMo came as a distraction. I didn’t need it.

Perhaps I’m just rationalizing my failure but I am confident I don’t need NaNoWriMo anymore as a tool to get me starting to write. I’m already there. How about NaNoWriMo as nothing more than a fun way to crank out a quick book? Sure. But that’s not what I wanted to do during the 30 days of November. And so I didn’t. Not in the way I might have planned, of course, but the destination was the same in the end.

I look forward to continuing to write, whether it’s forum posts, this blog, a short story or a novel. And maybe next year if I really want to write a quickie novel, NaNoWriMo 2012 will be there for me and I’ll use my foreknowledge to actually plan properly. Assuming the Mayans were wrong, of course.

NaNoWriMo 2011 update number deux -or- Not going with the Titanic metaphor (this time)

A funny thing happened on the way to the word processor.

My clever plan to use this weekend to pad out my word count on my NaNoWriMo novel, which I shall henceforth call my NaNovel because the insufferable cuteness of the term beats out having to type NaNoWriMo novel all the damn time, lay in ruins, to writing what the Hindenburg was to safe dirigible travel.

Today, while recovering from the various things that caused me to not write over the past 48 hour period, I picked up a copy of Scrivener,  “a powerful content-generation tool for writers that allows you to concentrate on composing and structuring long and difficult documents.” The blurb on the Scrivener site goes on to say “While it gives you complete control of the formatting, its focus is on helping you get to the end of that awkward first draft.” Awkward, yes. That is a good way to describe the situation I now find myself in.

I impressed myself by actually working methodically through the entire set of Scrivener tutorials (I tend to start skimming/skipping ahead with these things) but am uncertain this will help me with my current NaNovel. It will almost certainly prove helpful for The Mean Mind, the great unwritten novel that has existed in outline form and in my noggin for the better part of 20 years due to its epic scale and large cast of characters.

I shall write more on Scrivener as I start to make use of it.

For this month’s contest, however, I have to consider a few facts. I have a little over 5,000 words written for The Dream of the Buckford Church, the expansion of the short story I chose to pursue on Day 2. Today is Day 7 and that puts me about 6670 words behind. Yikes. To make that up over the next week I’d have to up my daily word count from 1667 to around 2620. That’s actually fairly feasible if I’m fully invested in what I’m writing.

Unfortunately I’m not convinced that I’m any more enthused about expanding Buckford Church than I was on adapting my short story idea for The Capitol Dome into a novel. With 23 days left I feel I must make a decision and act on it tomorrow. If I don’t it’s probably best to cut my losses early and go back to editing The Ferry. Oh the drama.