True confession: I am not a technowhiz.
Which is why, when people talk about dictating their writing, I have visions of the device I used in the mid-1980s to transcribe tapes dictated by bosses who were far too busy to write words on a page. Notably, those guys (back then, men dictated and women transcribed) were considered cutting-edge (a term not yet invented) because they used a machine for dictating instead of having a secretary sitting in front of them with a steno pad.
(For what it’s worth, on more occasions than I can count, I was that secretary with a steno pad. P.S. Transcribing my own notes was infinitely more efficient than typing (on a typewriter) whatever gibberish had ended up on the tape.)
But I digress.
A number of years ago, when I lamented a lack of time for writing, someone suggested that I try dictating. Alas, although the dictation machine was smaller (as were the tapes), the dictated product still had to be transcribed to be even marginally useful.
As a result, I have spent decades writing by hand or on a computer. Since I type nearly as fast as I think, this works well for me. Also, since I’m a visual person, seeing the words on the screen helps me to understand precisely what I’m creating.
But what about those times when sitting in front of a keyboard and screen might not be feasible? Most writers—maybe all of us—can identify times when we’ve been out in the wild, and a brilliant idea has struck. Anne Lamott recommends carrying a pen and index cards for such moments, but what if we’ve failed to abide by this wisdom?
For some, the answer is to record a voice memo. Again, however, this means having to transcribe the audio—assuming, of course, that our magnificent words were not drowned out by wind or road noise.
I’d reconciled myself to the idea that I would forever need to carry a notebook and pen to capture inspiration, and that I would only write real scenes when sitting before a keyboard and screen.
Then, I opened an email from Jess Lourey.
I should begin by noting that I don’t know Jess Lourey personally. A writer friend recommended signing up for her emails, which is why I received the communication in question, entitled, “How I Treated My Don’t-writis (Maybe It’ll Work for You, Too, ?)”. It turns out that Jess had been struggling with writing her next book when she came up with the idea to walk and write at the same time.
At first, Jess was dictating into the Notes app on her phone. This wasn’t something I’d ever done, but the idea of walking along with my phone in front of my mouth wasn’t terribly appealing. I was about to consider this anyway when she announced the zingers:
1. It turns out that if you have Microsoft Office, you can upload the Word app on your phone so that you’re creating regular Word documents you can save to the cloud, email to yourself, or even print if you’re so inclined.
2. Jess bought herself a noise-cancelling earphone/microphone so she could dictate into the Word app and end up with an actual Word document.
Genius. Pure genius.
I promptly ordered the earphone/microphone. It arrived today. (Photo above. Try to ignore the phallic silhouette.) Charging it took minutes; connecting it to my phone via Bluetooth took seconds. I downloaded the Word app and dictated some sample text. Perfect.
Then came the test: would it work in the car?
I should take this opportunity to point out that distracted driving is BAD. If you can’t concentrate fully on the road while you talk—whether to a passenger, a person on the other end of the phone, or Word—you really, really should not do it. It’s enormously dangerous. Seriously: if you can’t do it safely, don’t do it.
(Side note: I believe with all my heart that the driver has full authority to tell all passengers to STFU. When I was an infant, my father threatened to put me out by the side of the road if my mother couldn’t get me to stop crying. I’ve heard this story many, many times. Six decades later, I still don’t blame him a bit. I’d have put me out, too.)
On the other hand, if you’ve demonstrated that you’re capable of talking while keeping your primary focus on the road, the traffic, the traffic signals, and the pedestrians, maybe give it a whirl.
It took me a few minutes to get the hang of dictating. Just when I thought I had it, somewhere between the end of my driveway and the road, recording stopped. Suddenly, losing those ten precious minutes felt like a major deficit.
Then, I arrived at a red light. As I waited for the signal to change, I doublechecked two settings on my phone. Miraculously, my dictation capabilities returned just as the light changed and traffic proceeded.
By the time I ran three errands and pulled into my garage, I’d dictated 900 words.
Delighted, I immediately sent the document to myself via email. I brought in my purchases and raced to the computer. There it was, just like any other email: the one with my new Word document attached. I opened it, downloaded the attachment—and voilà: the few disconnected thoughts I’d had while driving, right in front of me.
It wasn’t a polished document, of course. Word didn’t always understand what I was saying. But there were words—editable words—on a page. A first draft, to be sure. But substantially more than existed an hour earlier.
You may think I must also have dictated this blog post. Well, I didn’t. I’m home, in front of the screen with a glass of wine and a bunch of grumpy cats who want their dinner. Life as usual. But tomorrow, when I drive half an hour to my parents’ home, and half an hour back—if I want to, I can also work on my book. Or maybe (and probably better), when I get home, I can tuck my phone in my pocket, turn on the microphone, and go for a walk as I work out the next phase of the book.
The technowhizzes have undoubtedly known for years how to dictate without needing to transcribe. I’m new to the party, but I got here.
Now, it’s your turn. To recap:
Brilliant! I like the idea of dictating while going for a walk. As a side note, a few years ago, one my attorneys (who had argued successfully before the Supreme Court multiple times) bemoaned the lack of dictation skills in the younger associates who typed everything on their laptops. His feeling was that if they couldn’t dictate, how the hell would they be able to think on their feet in a courtroom. Good to know you have those skills!
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In my experience, dictating is a very different skill from oral argument, but whatever works! That said, I’ve dictated my book while driving and doing housework, so I figure dictating while walking should work. 🤞🏻