(Not a) Review: On Being a Dictator

I’ve been meaning to make a video about dictation for awhile now. Behold: a video.

My connection to this book is personal on two levels. That may sound a bit dodgy, unless you realize that On Being a Dictator is about writing by dictation, not historic douchebags with mustaches.

First: I’ve been writing via dictation for about ten months at this point, and it’s completely changed everything about my creative life. The process of storytelling has actually become fun again. And dictation is fast—so fast that I’m finally able to exorcise all the ideas that’ve been living rent-free in my brain for the past several years. I’m on my second novel since I started to use dictation, and the quality of my work has improved.

This is the opposite of what I expected. I’d been hearing about dictation for years, but I was always resistant to it, largely because I thought I was the sort of writer who places high value on small word choices and those thousand tiny decisions an author makes that shape a story the way the strokes of a knife whittle a piece of wood.

Speaking into a recorder just seemed too sloppy, too easy. It wasn’t paying writing the respect that it’s due.

The thing is, I think that’s exactly why it works. Many writers I know, myself included, tend to pretend we are performing a sacred duty when we sit down to write. Even if you think that’s the case, it’s a lot of pressure to place on yourself, and it stifles creativity. Dictating is a way of distancing yourself from that pressure. Drafting is always hard, but the blank page can’t tyrannize you if there’s no blank page involved.

The main thing is just to get the words out. You can clean them up later.

The second reason I have a personal connection to this book is because I met the authors, Martin L. Shoemaker and Kevin J. Anderson, at the Writers of the Future workshop last year. Kevin is an NYT bestselling author, and Martin is one of the best short story writers in the business, with sales to Clarkesworld, various Year’s Best anthologies, and a Nebula nomination.

In this book, the two of them describe how they use dictation for different reasons. In Kevin’s  case, it’s mostly to get away from the office and write while he hikes in national parks or on the walking trails around his house. It helps him stay healthy and happy while increasing his productivity.

For Martin, dictation was an act of desperation. He had an hour-long commute each way to his day job, and needed to free up writing time. He describes the technology that he uses to make the process as hands-free as possible.

Kevin, on the other hand, uses a simple button-pressing recorder. The contrast between their techniques and motivations is helpful, especially when you realize that the result is the same: they are more productive and happier with the work they produce.

I owe a big debt to Martin and Kevin for taking time from their lives to pass on these lessons to younger writers like me. One of my personal goals is to get better at verbally saying thank you to the people in my life, not just thinking my gratitude at them. I’ve written to both Martin and Kevin to let them know what a difference their lectures made, and both were glad to hear that I’m a convert—because to them, that’s the whole point. Not just to sell books on writing (they gave this book away for free, after all), but to help others avoid the pitfalls and problems they’ve encountered.

Along those lines, a large part of this tiny book is dedicated to transcription. Both say it’s a waste of time to transcribe your own words. Kevin sends his audio files off to a transcribing business where humans listen to it and type it all down. Martin mostly uses digital programs to automate this process (the main reason for this difference is that Kevin writes while hiking outside, where there’s a lot of background noise, whereas Martin writes in his car with hands-free mikes hooked up to minimize audio disturbances, aside from, perhaps, the occasional road-rage induced profanity).

This is the main place where my writing diverts from theirs. I’m not as experienced (or as good) as either of them, so maybe I’ll change my mind in a few years, but for now, I really value personal transcription. Typing out the words myself forces me to hear them again, to recognize flaws in timing or sentence rhythm, to make small corrections as I go without pausing to rewrite the same paragraphs for hours and hours, like I used to do before I discovered dictation. The transcription draft is almost like a copy editing draft, though of course I do a few more drafts afterwards.

My way takes a lot more time, which is one of many reasons Kevin and Martin are accomplished professional writers while I’m still struggling with my first few sales. On the other hand, I know my writing is better this way than it was, and surely that’s the thing I should be comparing myself against. I know I would still be writing if I hadn’t discovered dictation—but I also know that I would be nowhere as far along, I would be miserable, like I was for so many years, and I certainly wouldn’t have written this blog post.

After all, I’m currently talking into my phone.

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