Speaking Books

There’s an interesting essay in today’s NY Times, “How to Speak a BookThe free NYTimes link maker doesn’t work with this URL because it’s to a special section, I think, so you may need to have registered with the Times., by Richard Powers. It’s essentially a paean to dictation as the means of writing a book. Powers, once a serious computer geek and now a novelist of some renown, dictates his novels to his tablet PC. (He doesn’t say what software he uses but my bet is that it’s Dragon.)

I find the piece interesting but I disagree with him for the mostpart about dictation and writing. He makes the valid point that when reading, and, therefore, when writing, we are aware of the “voice” of the writer — things written must “sound” right in the inner ear; and some folks subvocalize when reading. But that said, speaking and writing are for me very different things, different languages, almost. And although I listen to what I’m writing with an inner ear, I create with my fingers and not with my vocal chords. Indeed, I suspect that the sound of my voice might be quite distracting in fact.

Law and lawyers are ambivalent about this speaking/writing matter, which is why I bring it up here on Slaw. Law has a strong oral tradition and still contains a strong oral component; we speak of “hearings”; the Supreme Court still entertains oral argument; and so forth. But law is written — and how! This tension between speaking and writing is productive, I think, and there’s a vast literature on the subject that I won’t go into here, much of the best Canadian, by the way.Let me, for fun, point you to the CBC archives on Marshall McLuhan, an important writer on the subject. (I also find it interesting that we have a dual track with blogs, some of which are now oral and called podcasts.)

More of the moment is the fact that lawyers often dictate rather than typing text themselves. I often suspect that this is in part because typing is manual labour traditionally associated with people we used to call secretaries and therefore an act beneath a lawyer’s station. I wonder, too, whether the fact that, as Powers calls it, the “digital prosthesis” that connects a writer with the computer is a QUERTY keyboard acts as a barrier to lawyers’ use of computers generally, because if one learns to dictate, one has less incentive to learn to touch type. Hunting and pecking (with thumbs?) is all that can be done on a Black Berry, so it can become the “all thumbs” lawyer’s darling.

I’d be interested in how others create text. Do you use dictation? dictation software? Do your colleagues write or dictate?


  1. I dicate or type work material depending on the complexity of what I’m producing, how much is pre-existing boiler plate, and the speed at which I want the end-product out.

    I know of just a few colleagues who used dictation software at one point. I’m not sure they still do, regularly. I believe none of them are touch-typists. It’s a speed-issue, not an ego matter, as most use the keyboard to make corrections and finalize the work, or give it to an assistant. Which route they use depends on what’s more appropriate for the project. In any event, somebody will have to touch a keyboard to clean up the product of dictation software.

    I’d have no qualms about using dictation software if it was as fast and as easy to use typing or dictating. I tried dictation software years ago. It wasn’t, then. I assume it’s been upgraded.

    I’d be quite happy to dictate if I had “Star Trek” level computer available to listen, transcribe, format, etc., so I could see the text as I want it to look in real-time. In the meantime, I’ve little interest in “speaking” all of the formatting instructions that are still required once one has footnotes and all the rest of the cross-referencing paraphenalia we have in material submitted for publication.

    I type the material I’m writing for publication. I’ll sometimes read a passage aloud if I’m not sure how elegant the syntax is and I’m searching for something better. Mental vocalization doesn’t always work adequately. I’ll also do that, as needed, for passages in facta which are portions that I’ll use as is in oral argument.

  2. A couple of comments…

    Personally, I’m a keyboard fanatic with my fingers often working faster than my head. Not a chance I’ll ever dictate anything, even if I could with any accuracy. I need to see my thoughts, and structure them, as I type. And the style and formality of the writing doesn’t matter all that much in terms of process.

    I’ve watched Lawyers attempt Dragon & via voice for the past 10 years, and haven’t EVER seen a long term & productive implementation.

    I have great respect for those who dictate effectively. I’ve observed 30 page memos dictated with amazingly structure, and only a couple of revision rounds. Is it more effective than typing? I don’t think so, but I can see how years of practice can create efficiency.

  3. What an interesting discussion.

    I found computer ‘writing’ a revelation when I first met it in the 1980s. I have never dictated but the act of writing so that the words appeared on a screen instead of in my own handwriting, changed everything, I thought. The words are malleable – able to be manipulated and formatted. In handwriting I am already half committed to them because I can’t see past my own writing whereas typed and displayed back to me – they are already at a little remove. I think I write much better…

    There are lawyers who think while speaking into their dictaphones and I daresay that – aside from their helpless distance from the finished output – they can use that means effectively too. (To me it looks very cumbersome, however). I think that there has been surprisingly little discussion (that I have ever seen), about how these ‘means’ change the way we think and work. OK, there is death by Powerpoint, and the little book by Tufte on the effect of that on presentation of ideas – but there are huge changes in what we are talking about here. If the abacus was a huge shift in numeracy, these changes must be as significant to literacy.