Ran across a self-help article advising the best way to improve “a slow writing process” is to begin by dictating your content and “begin the writing phase with the transcription.” The first thing, according to the article’s author, is to ask yourself whether you’re a “talker or a writer.” If you tend to be a talker just dictate your story, the author advises.
The better advice, I submit, is that if you are a talker and not a writer, don’t waste time trying to be a writer. Go into radio or television.
Talking IS NOT writing. It’s an effective way for a writer to capture a brainstorm and ideas, and maybe some details of a potentially powerful dialogue on the fly (so as to not forget it before you reach a keyboard or pen and paper), but the advice ignores the fundamental difference between the two forms of communication. Talking tends to be casual and less precise; writing generally demands greater precision. You can see it. It sits there on the paper or screen looking at you and with its imprecisions highly visible.
Talking is sloppier. Recording it preserves that sloppiness and thus requires greater investment of time to make necessary revisions and to clean it up to be presentable, i.e., readable. There’s no mental weakness at play; it’s how the brain works. As a lawyer, I would dictate interrogatories and even legal briefs, but there I relied on a structure and a sort of fill-in-the-blanks process. Creative writing is more akin to working with clay. You have to knead it to make it soft then form it into a rough shape of your idea. Details come at the very end, slowly and with effort. Details require smoothing and shaping to transform a general idea into the specifics of sentences and paragraphs. That can be a messy process and in constant need of revision. In the end, the process inevitably impacts and alters the original idea. This means a writer must be flexible and disciplined at the same time.
There’s a lot going on as you take an idea from brain to paper. Quality is not an element you add to the process; it is the goal of the effort. The more contemplative the process, the more likely the quality of the end product will be improved. There is nothing wrong with sitting down and writing stream of consciousness; it can be exciting and fruitful, but expect to invest a great deal more effort to turn the result into a polished story or essay. To be a writer, you must be a worker, and a detailed one at that.
Transcribe verbatim your dictation and compare it to the product generated when you sit down and compose something on the keyboard. I’ve done that enough times to realize I’m much more efficient when I work directly with the keys. I’ve reached that point where I can no longer take pen to paper and write prose but use them to take or write notes or poetry. I’ve taken to collecting keyboards in the ongoing search for ones with the “perfect” touch.
My chosen technique to write rather than dictate has also to do with my abhorrence with the philosophy to write with speed and fix (i.e., edit) with contemplation. I much rather write with contemplation and incrementally get each draft a bit closer to the final-version quality I desire. Great writers don’t go happily from sloppy to good any more than great thinkers enjoy going from random to precise. They endeavor to make each new first step a little closer to their desired style and quality—to constantly endeavor to improve their efforts as well as their content.
Talking, whether to yourself or to or with others, tends to be a casual process. If you take a course in extemporaneous speaking, part of what you learn is to overcome the informality of conversation and apply a more disciplined structure into your presentation. Informality tends to be our default initial mode when you speak or key the mike on your recorder and start to ramble, probably because your internal editor doesn’t work as well as when it can see words on screen or paper.
The author of the above-mentioned article describes dictating your story as a “different way of creating your written manuscript.” No it’s not. It’s a way of injecting an additional process to get ideas into words that tell story. It has the appearance of adding efficiency and speed, but speed is not a friend to the contemplative element of creating a well-crafted story, and busywork certainly is not. Speed can be invaluable to capture a fleeting thought, but won’t likely produce a contemplative and polished sentence. Such sentences are crafted from effort.
Speed is not the panacea to become a better writer (deadline journalist being perhaps the exception), or anything for that matter, except perhaps, a quick-draw gunfighter. Contemplation is. Speed might let you finish your novel in a fortnight, but it probably won’t contain much literary value.
Back to the article. It lists five ways to “speak your book into existence”:
1) Have your book’s outline pinned down before you begin. If you are that far along, you’re ready to write! So start writing. Don’t put off the inevitable first necessary step.
2) Get ready with a recording device of your choice. Good luck with trying to find something that magically converts the content of your dictation into words on a page. A recording device is handy, but you have transcribe what you dictate into a readable format. That can add a lot more time and effort to your efforts. But is has an interesting impact. Listening to your own words during the transcription process lets you hear the “stuff” that is contrary to a good flow. It’s worth the investment in an inexpensive recording device—Olympus makes a few that are writer-friendly—to see if this process works for you. You might find it helpful, but if you don’t, don’t worry about it. There’s nothing wrong with you, your brain is letting you know its preferences.
3) Speak your content. The author is simply telling you to dictate your story. Great stand-alone advice. But, why interject another process—dictation and transcription—in between you and your first draft? Admittedly, however, that extra stage might work to improve the final result.
4) Get your recordings transcribed. Hire someone to do that, says the author, which means NO editing will take place between dictation and transcription and you lose the value mentioned above in number 2. It also means you will inevitably spend time trying to figure out just what it was you were saying as you try to translate your transcriber’s translation of your dictation. It might be just as useful to find software that translates spoken words into written ones. Ha! The real drawback, however, is that you’re trying to remove an intimate interaction between you and your words in the name of efficiency. A typewriter adds efficiency and still maintains an intimate interaction between you and your words.
5) Refine your content. In English, that means “edit and rewrite” what you have written. So it does makes sense to draft and edit in the first place. Gee, why not just say that? Because there is always a tendency for writers of do-it-yourself pieces to make it sound no more difficult than baking oatmeal cookies.
It’s important for the writer to not confuse busywork with substance. I’ve written before of the importance for you to find, or create, a process that best works for you. This usually requires borrowing, modifying, experimenting—and frustration—before settling on a process and procedure that works for you. Moving to Key West and hammering your stories out on a portable manual typewriter won’t make you Hemingway, and you don’t want to be Hemingway in the first place—we’ve already got one.
Scour the countryside and you’ll find dead horses everywhere. But occasionally, there’s need to beat on one to get a point across: There ARE NO short cuts to becoming a better writer. Improvement comes incrementally and usually in frustratingly small increments. If you approach every effort of writing not just as some piece of individual content but an opportunity to learn and hone your skills, you will likely enjoy, and savor, the incremental improvements.
Of course, if you want to write better, write more. Write contemplatively. A recorder is a handy tool to capture ideas. They—your ideas not the recorder–slip easily free of your grasp and into oblivion if you don’t capture them. In the end, the important thing is to have your story or essay come to life through words. To paraphrase a favorite Simon and Garfunkel song: “Slow down, move to fast. Gotta make the story last . . .” That is what will make you feel groovy!