December 21, 2016KR BlogWriting

Dictating Notes, Instead of Writing Them

During the ancient time historians call Before Smart Phones, or BSP, I used to write all my observations and ideas in a notebook. I’d take trips, walk to work and do slice-of-life reporting, and I’d scramble to get it all down on paper quickly and accurately in a legible way. Then I’d type it later. I didn’t know any better. Way back then in 2013, my flip phone didn’t have speech-to-text dictation. My handwritten system worked but it was unreliable and unnecessarily complicated. That sounds crazy since that’s the system people have used for ages: writing on paper. With their hands. But writing legibly while moving stressed me out as much as it stressed me trying to read my awful handwriting while transcribing notes. Fortunately, things have improved.

I now dictate into Gmail and send the draft to myself. I talk. The text forms instantly, clearly written as if by a tiny transcriptionist inside my phone. All I have to do is transfer the text to a document and revise it, over and over and over, as usual, until I get it right. It pains me to think I didn’t do this sooner.

Handheld recording devices have existed for years, but I used them to record interviews with sources, not myself. Part of why it took me so long to come around had to do with how long it took to upgrade my phone. Part of it had to do with hard copies. My brain hasn’t hardened, and neither have all my habits, but I hung on to the idea of hardcopy notebooks. Notebooks have an artistic quality, which you can see on full display in Moleskin’s marketing campaigns and in early morning coffee shops. What appealed to me was their permanence. I liked the security of seeing my ideas and experiences written down and filed away, because it meant I had taken them out of the unreliable ether and stored them someplace real. Notebooks were reliable. I had plastic bins full of them, dating back to college. As long as you didn’t lose, torch or soak them, the data was safe. Digital data data, all those ones and zeros, felt less certain. But things became challenging.

For years on road trips, I’d set my notebook on the steering wheel and scribble while driving. It didn’t endanger anyone too much, but it did make things messy. The words smeared and lines overlapped. Since I had to watch the road not the page, I wrote without looking, so the words collapsed into unintelligible squiggles and ran on top of each other in a way that often rendered them useless. When I went through my notes, the most common reaction wasn’t, “Wow, brilliant!” It was, “What the hell does that say?” One ex-girlfriend who saw these notebooks worried I had a neurological disorder. Another problem was a common problem: good ideas came to me in the shower. When they did, I’d leap out sopping wet to fetch my notebook, leaving a trail of water on the floor and trying not to soak the bath mat while I squatted in front of the toilet naked, using the the toilet seat as a desktop, writing it down. Sometimes the water drizzled down my arm onto the pad. I can’t stand warped journal pages. Same with smeared ink. Like a squirrel on a highway, I eventually saw the light.

So far, I’ve dictated a few first drafts of some of these Kenyon Review blog posts as the ideas came to me. I’ve dictated the beginnings of new essays, and new paragraphs I needed to insert into existing essays, and this summer I dictated nearly half of the eighty-nine-page journal I kept while helping my dad in Arizona after his stroke. I still use paper journals; I carry a pocket-sized notebook everywhere I go. But when I can’t jot into a notebook or don’t want to, I write hands-free. I drive and dictate, walk and dictate, pee and dictate, even duck into the bathroom at work to whisper-dictate when I don’t have to go. I am in love with this system. It’s so liberating!

Naturally, errors occur. The mic doesn’t catch every word. The software mistakes certain words for others. It doesn’t recognize every name or niche technical term. Sometimes you don’t hold your mouth close enough, or you fail to enunciate adequately. When you speak slooowwwly and cleeeeaaaarrrrllllly on the street, to make sure it catches evvvvveerrrryyyy wwwwwooorrrrddd, you sound unhinged. When you look at your impeccable draft, though, that lunacy becomes an acceptable tradeoff. But my new system still doesn’t always work.

Dictation has screwed me a few times. I’ve spoken lengthy drafts only to discover the software caught half of it. My brilliant ideas, my painstakingly sculpted sentences, lost forever! The mangled text reads like Swiss cheese looks: with missing. Text don’t line nowhere for serving good. Finding half-sentences like that quickly taught me to not only speak clearly, but to periodically check the dictation’s progress as I speak, to make sure every word gets caught. More than once I’ve looked only to find that it had turned itself off. Sometimes magic occurs by accident.

There was one incident when I dictated while walking to work in the morning. My caffeinated mind was sharp. Idea piled on idea and every phrase emerged so clearly in just the right order. Then I looked at my draft when I got to work: jibberish. The software had tossed my genius into word salad. I hid in the bathroom to fume and assess the damage. It was bad. Barely any of it made sense. When I got over my initial anger and reread the text, the nonsense had a definite beauty to it, a different kind of genius. In fact, I liked this accidental version more than my own. It was weirder, funnier and completely surprising. Gone was my logic and clarity. Gone was my insistence on order and chronology. Speech-to-text had moonlighted as a fake poetry generator, using some cheese grader, coffee grinder, food processor power to dice sentences into fragments, spray my pureed prose around as impressions, and mix my voice into someone else’s. The way it stood these strange fragments beside each other created additional juxtapositional power. It’s a shame I can’t share the text. I saved it in a draft email that got erased. No paraphrase would do it justice, just as no human mind could have come up with it. It was magic. Somehow it included something about a tree growing sideways and ferrets, as if it knew me.

Most times, though, the dictation errors are infuriating. Crucial words missing. Whole phrases misconstrued. The essential material lost forever. Then I have to go back and try to remember what I said and dictate it again. Hope it is phrased as well. Sometimes I say it better the second time, making re-dictation a forced process of revision, which is what we writers do anyway. Say it once then say it again to try to say it the best way. In this sense, transcription errors aren’t necessarily a bad thing. Any chance to revise can be constructive. One of my MFA professors advised students resume work on their projects without looking at the previous day’s drafts; just sit down, start rewriting from scratch, and watch how the work improves from memory. The text is in there, she said. You remember what you wrote yesterday. Even though this technique might feel like creating unnecessary work for yourself, if you force yourself to write it again, the text often comes out better the next time. I’ve tried this. She’s right. Revising happens inside your mind as well as on the page. But in my quest for multi-tasking efficiency and convenience, I dictate to get my first thoughts down so I can sit and revise them later, not while talking and walking one more time.

Anyway, sorry to complain. Speech-to-text works most of the time, and it works beautifully. It has revolutionized my writing life. And at least its mistakes aren’t as frequent as Google translator’s, which can transform simple text to jibberish with impressive speed. This recent example comes from a thing I was buying on Japanese eBay. The translation described the product as:

☆ Suntory Old storefront sign-swing type of
large glass bottle will sway back and forth.
There is a little pain in the cap.
Foundation is like a tree, you become a piggy bank.

That’s good stuff. The text makes mine feel thin by comparison.

And in case you’re wondering, I didn’t dictate this. I typed every draft. I was in a coffee shop where some bonehead was standing beside me holding a loud meeting on his phone, yelling about yogurt and distribution channels and cropdusting the whole place with his business, and I didn’t want to be like that.