In Focus: 3 elements to consider, I outlined three elements that affect your focus during a writing session: the task itself, how you are feeling, and the context. I have written a series of follow up articles going into more detail about what that framework looks like in practice.
I use the term “optimize” purposefully. Your goal is not to achieve some ideal state of focus that you can replicate every time you sit down. Your focus will vary based on the particular combination of task, feelings (physical & emotional), and context. Your goal is to optimize your focus for this session given what you are working with today.
This post focuses on the first element: the task, specifically the task of getting the draft out of your head. Writing is a way to get what is in your head out there on paper so that other people can engage with your ideas. We also use the term writing to refer to particular ways of doing that. Among parents and teachers there is a whole debate about whether kids have to learn to write with a pencil or pen, just in printed letters or in cursive (sometimes called joined up writing), or if it’s okay for kids to just go straight to typing. As an adult who writes all the time, you are baffled to think that there is any debate about whether typing is actually writing.
So what do you think about dictation?
This is a serious question brought to my attention by a participant at a workshop who has been diagnosed with ADHD and finds it really hard to focus on writing. We talked over lunch and I asked them to tell me more about their experience. They described a process that began with creating all the figures needed for the article (the person in question is an engineer, their publications always have figures), going to their coauthor and talking through the figures as a prelude to the two of them agreeing what the paper would say. The hard part was actually writing out all that stuff.
Dictation seems like an obvious experiment to try in this situation. This particular workshop participant had no trouble talking about what the paper needed to say. Either recording the conversation with their co-author or just doing the same explanation of the figures right into a microphone should work about the same way. Dictation is probably best suited to the first draft or to major redrafts where you are basically writing new text.
Dictation also allows you to write while moving. One of my partner’s colleagues dictates all of their drafts because they find that walking greatly improves their thinking and writing. Moving more is generally good for you, but more importantly, your brain works better when you are moving. I’m sure you’ve noticed that if you are stuck in your writing or analysis and get up and go for a walk or go to the gym or something, you end up having all sorts of aha moments. Moving also helps prevent the sorts of injuries that sitting hunched over a desk writing can cause or exacerbate, injuries that will stop you writing.
How to do it
We live in an age when dictation is more easily available than ever. Medical doctors and lawyers have been using dictation for years but then they could afford to hire transcription services. Transcription services are still available and both human and machine transcription is available online. (I like temi.com for machine transcription and it’s very affordable. Human transcription is more accurate but also more expensive.)
Specialist programs like Dragon have been around for a long time and appear to be available in multiple languages. (I first heard about Dragon back in the mid-1980s when I worked with a woman with a visual impairment). They work best if you take some time to train them to understand your voice. Most computers now have a built in dictation option. There are apps available for smartphones and tablets. Some word processing software also has this option built in. (For example, Google Docs has dictation in the tools menu if you use it in Chrome.) Poke around in the tools menu or help files of your preferred word processor.
The quality of the microphone will make a difference. Using your regular phone headset instead of the built in microphone on your laptop makes a difference. If you decide that dictation is going to be an important part of your process, you might want to invest in a really good headset.
Make some basic notes or an outline, or compile the figures and diagrams, then start dictating. If you are using speech to text, you’ll need to also say the basic punctuation (at least full stop/period and new paragraph). A transcription service (human or machine) will put in punctuation based on your speech pattern.
If you get distracted by the words appearing on the screen and are tempted to correct as you go, change your text colour to white while you are dictating so you can’t see them. Then select all and change it back to black when you are done. Do a quick edit to fix any obvious mistranscriptions and add in a bit more punctuation and you have your (shitty) draft.
What does all this have to do with focus?
If you are struggling to focus, trying to achieve a similar output by a different means is always worth experimenting with. Whether your difficulty is related to something like ADHD or you’ve just found that your typing can’t keep up with your thinking when you are getting that first draft out of your head, dictation might make it easier for you to stay focused long enough to get that draft out.
Dictation isn’t the only method to try. Some people find writing longhand works much better for first drafts. Some people like to freewrite in sentences. Others find that writing increasingly detailed outlines works better.
Optimizing focus means thinking about what works best for this particular writing task. Dictation doesn’t have to be the only method you use. But it is worth experimenting with where it helps your process.
This video by Joanna Penn covers various reasons to try dictation, common reasons to resist trying dictation, and lots of tips for how to do it. She also has links to other resources in the notes.
This article was first published on 15 March 2019 as an email to subscribers of my Academic Writing Studio newsletter. It has been edited. The opening section is common to all articles in this series. I will be publishing future instalments of this series on Focus to the newsletter first. If you sign up for email about the Academic Writing Studio, you will receive one email a month on this topic or other topic related to your writing practice and one email on the last Friday of the month prompting you to review your accomplishments and adjust your plans for the month ahead. Sign up for the Academic Writing Studio newsletter.