LB: Dictation, Not Siri, is the Bane of Writers

by Larry Brody

Just ran across this at The Atlantic.Com and it did something that becomes more difficult each day. It made me think and, better yet considering my chosen, much-loved profession, it made me write:

Siri, Take This Down: Will Voice Control Shape Our Writing? – by Robert Rosenberger

Do our writing means change our written ends?

In the future, you will talk to your computer. Voice, the predominant mode of human-to-human communication, has been migrating to silicon for more than a decade and is now poised to hit the mainstream.

Already, voice interfaces have become commonplace in the telephone customer-service industry, have long been of assistance to the blind, and are increasingly used by doctors for transcribing patient information. Even your less-tech-savvy relatives may have seen, for example, the recent profileof Nuance Communications in the New York Times. Nuance is the big fish in the small pond of dictation programming development, and the force behind Dragon, the highly-regarded though still expensive dictation-software package, as well as Siri, the iPhone 4S personal-assistant application, and the Ford “Sync” system’s voice-command interface.  Google’s concept video for “Project Glass” includes voice-to-text translation.

So it seems as though our voices may some day displace our keyboards and mice as the primary means through which we manipulate our computing devices. But while to command by voice is one thing, to write by voice is another, and the question remains whether — or how — this shift in technology will shape the words we “pen.”

Read it all

The question asked here is a good one, and the story of the evolution of writing instruments from pens to mobile phones is worth reading.

But I can answer the question without going into history, culture, technology, or philosophy because during my career as a writer, producer, and occasionally editor I’ve used, or worked with other writers, who’ve used every writing mode possible. And because of that I’ve become pretty good at spotting what most writers are using to get their words out because there definitely is a difference in the writing.

Writers who write on yellow pads and give the result to an assistant to type usually are satisfied with the first phrasing/dialog that comes to mind…because erasing or crossing out or otherwise changing what’s there on the pad is so inconvenient. The result is that, in the case of a television script, their officially delivered first drafts are not nearly as clever or polished as they could be.

Writers who write with typewriters tend to be more careful, but they still end up accepting less original language…usually in the second half of the script, when they’ve gotten tired of all the retyping and given up revising anything but a word or two at a time.

Writers who write with computers – and screenplay formatting software – are most apt to have everything looking perfect, giving the reader the sense of, “Oh boy! A script!” and their work tends to be tighter and more thought out than anyone else’s because making changes is so easy.

As for Siri, well, I don’t think we’re there yet, but “Dragon Naturally Speaking has been around for almost two decades, and it’s always easy to spot those who use it or a similar program: Line after line of alphabet soup AKA typo city, even in the most carefully proofread drafts.

Of course, speech recognition software isn’t the only way for writers to work without having to actually write down the words. Dictation has been with us since the first scribe, and while I don’t want to comment on the literary merits of, say, the Bible, or medieval illuminated manuscripts, I can say without qualification that in my experience the award for “Least Carefully Thought Out and Disjointed Teleplay” goes to the writers who thrill to the sound of their own voices as they yak, yak, yak their scripts to death. This is the crowd that weaves in and out of story, scene, character, and dialog without ever realizing their work has totally lost whatever focus it began with.

And it’s even worse if the writer has any condition even vaguely resembling ADHD.

My advice: Stay away from dictation in all its forms. Ditto writing by hand (or thumb). If you want to write something worthwhile the very least you should do is:


Author: LB

A legendary figure in the television writing and production world with a career going back to the late ’60s, Larry Brody has written and produced hundreds of hours of American and worldwide television and is a consultant to production companies and networks in the U.S. and abroad . Shows written or produced by Brody have won several awards including - yes, it's true - Emmys, Writers Guild Awards, and the Humanitas Award.

4 thoughts on “LB: Dictation, Not Siri, is the Bane of Writers”

  1. Strange, Lawrence, but on this one I couldn’t agree with you more. In fact, the simpler the typewriter, the more used the ribbon, the better the script. Although I believe in doing the ‘FADE INS AND OUTS’ in bold script just so you know where you are in the story. gs

  2. At long last we seem to agree… except for one point. I feel “the less used the ribbon, the better the script”. In fact, I’ve read many scripts, too many actually, where it should be against the law using the ribbon at all! gs

  3. Just like those who clung to typewriters as the home computer came in, I may be the last to use a keyboard when everyone else is talking and gesturing in front of their computers. I am very comfortable with it and even though I was never taught how to type without looking at the keyboard, I have learned it just from the hours I have spent writing.

  4. I use dragonspeak–and its quirks and glitches turn my sweet little romances into porn. It will probably be another 2 decades before they fix all the glitches, but its an excellent way to vomit the first draft onto the page. Then I let my fingers do the hard and most satisfying work–editing.

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