Magic Bullets

When it comes to technology, some writers like to believe in the magic bullet — the operating system, the computer, the piece of software that will make all the difference. If only they can find this wondrous thing, it will transform their productivity. I’ve spent as much time as anybody else in pursuit of this particular Grail. I’ve probably tried most pieces of software aimed at writers and most of the common operating systems. It’s never really made a lot of difference. I have found one piece of software I really like (Scrivener) and one that does make a difference but not perhaps for the reasons I would like (Dragon NaturallySpeaking.)

Scrivener makes a lot of stuff easier but it does not make me hugely more productive. I write pretty much the same amount as I normally would, it’s just that what I write is better organized. The software itself is a pleasure to work with. It gives me a lot of control over the structure of a story. I am perfectly happy to write a scene or an extended piece of prose in almost any word processor. If it’s for a novel, I usually end up cutting and pasting it into Scrivener because Scrivener gives me a very clear view of the structure of a large story and let’s me rearrange things with the greatest of ease. It lets me view all the scenes from the point of view of one character say, or set in one location, should I ever need to check such things. It makes tracking daily word count targets and making backups a breeze as well. Does it really make me more productive though? Yes, but probably not by as much as I would like to think.

I have found in some ways Scrivener multiplies the work. It’s not the fault of the software. It’s the fault of me. I will often spend time tagging and viewing stuff because I can and because it’s a way of skiving off from actually writing. And the mosaic way of writing that Scrivener encourages is not without it’s own problems, at least for me. I find that books written in discontinuous sections and scenes require more editing and carefully linking up of those scenes in the final draft. It’s very easy to let things become disjointed when using Scrivener.

Dragon does actually make me more productive for one simple reason. It lets me write on days when my RSI would otherwise make it impossible for me to do so. It is a speech recognition program which transforms talk into words right on the screen. You can dictate 160 words a minute according to the adverts. It’s true too, but you would be wise to take that particular claim with a pinch of salt.

The truth is that if you write fiction you probably already write at a fixed speed. You are in the habit of thinking things up and putting them down at a certain rate. Composition does not happen a great deal quicker because you are talking rather than typing. It takes me roughly about the same time to come up with the words. There is maybe a slight speed gain in terms of not having to do the typing but I certainly can’t dictate fiction at anything like 160 words a minute.

You have to make corrections in order to teach the program to understand your speech. This takes a surprising amount of time. You need to do it less as the program learns but at the beginning you may well find dictating is actually slower than typing. There’s another hidden speed bump that most people don’t notice but you will if you are writing fiction. Speech recognition programs work by relating word orders within sentences and phrases together. Mathematical values are assigned to the most likely words to appear next in a given phrase. This means that the closer your speech is to cliché, the more accurate the program is. As a writer, you tend to be looking for the striking phrase and these, by their nature, are the ones that will be most difficult for the program to understand. You will spend a lot of time correcting your most striking sentences, which increases the temptation to use boilerplate.

I would imagine that speech recognition works well for fiction set in the real world that sticks close to everyday language. It is not without its problems when you are writing SF or fantasy. Because the words I dictate tend to be sloppier than the words I type – I tend to ramble– they take more editing. In the end, I probably end up with just about the same amount of work done if I use Dragon. I prefer to use a keyboard because I feel like my prose is a bit more precise and let’s face it– it’s habit. I’ve been doing it for a quarter of a century. Still, for those days when the RSI is bad, using Dragon beats not getting any work done at all.

Recently I have taken to using any word processor that happens to be available on the machine I am working on (usually OpenOffice Writer or Word in various forms) and dropping the results in Dropbox. I am sure you will not be surprised to learn that I managed about the same amount as I normally would. Like I said I put the words into Scrivener for editing at the end of the day but I will use anything at hand to get a scene written. Making the commitment to write and using whatever is available will increase your productivity far more than any operating system or piece of software ever will. In terms of getting writing done, there is no magic bullet. The most effective way is simply to sit down and write in whatever method suits you with whatever you can afford and is available.

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