The Literary Style of Voice Dictation
How talking to a computer changes the way you write — and think
When you use voice dictation, how does it affect the way you write — and think?
I’ve been wondering about this, because these days I dictate a surprising amount of my everyday writing.
Specifically, the writing on my phone. When I’m using my laptop, I’m a reasonably fast typist — about 75 WPM on average — so I stick to the keyboard. But on my phone, dictating is often the fastest way to get words down onto that tiny screen. So I talk it out: Hundreds and hundreds of words a day; sometimes thousands.
Most of this is informal writing, mind you. I don’t write journalism or reportage or essays using dictation. But if I’m writing email or chatting in messaging, as with Whatsapp or iMessage or Discord? I’m most often speaking it aloud. The same goes for note-taking: If I get an idea while I’m my phone, I’ll talk out a quick paragraph or two.
If I had to guess, I’d hazard that up to one-half of all words I input into my phone are dictated.
So it’s made me wonder: What exactly does it do to the fabric of my prose, and thus the fabric of my thought? How does it compare to when I write by keyboard?
After pondering this for a bit I think I’ve settled upon a couple of core qualities of voice dictation:
1) It’s like composing new ideas on a old-school typewriter: Think, then write
When I write with a keyboard, it’s a highly iterative process. I think as I go. I begin an utterance — a sentence, a phrase, a paragraph — with some general wireframe in mind, and write a few words. But I’m constantly deleting and rewriting; the backspace is among my most-pressed keys. This is because I often don’t know quite what I’m saying until I see myself trying to say it, and realize: Wait, that’s not quite right, let me fix that.
If you go by the “embodied cognition” ideas of thinkers like Andy Clark, my mind is using the screen — or the…