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Dictating as Writing

Speaking is composing, but is it writing?

I have long used dictation software to quickly compose drafts of short stories, plays, essays, and magazine columns. The results tend to read more naturally than when I type directly into a word processor. I am pondering whether or not the dictated documents are "better" because they are more approachable for many readers.

When I type, I aggressively attempt to avoid forms of "to be" and a list of "weak" words and phrases lacking precision. For this reason, I have considered my typed documents superior to dictated documents. After all, we tell our students that writing should be more refined and precise than the spoken word.

Yet, when I read student papers, their attempts to sound "educated" produce jarring prose. In their eagerness to demonstrate vocabulary skills, they instead expose a lack of reading and true word comprehension. Overly complex sentences also reflect internalized models students have developed based on past teacher expectations.

Our students have learned that big words and long sentences are associated with higher grades on writing assignments. Overworked teachers with too many papers to grade skim for these indicators of academic skill and implied intelligence. This is precisely why automated grading often parallels human grading. Computer models based on analyzing teacher graded samples easily mimic the models are students have developed, often without the students realizing they have accomplished this impressive task.

Many writing instructors, including myself, encourage students to read their papers aloud to classmates. Even better, asking another individual to read the paper allowed quickly reveals how artificial and affected attempts at academic writing can be.

By asking my students to dictate short assignments, those not requiring complex formatting, I was able to reveal how their spoken language differs from their typed assignments. The students argued that the dictated papers sounded "casual" – yet they also said the papers were more enjoyable to read. Notice the criticism students are offering of academic writing, without realizing how insightful this critique is. Class discussion led some students to conclude that dictating could be used for first drafts, and then revised for a more "academic" final papers.

Dictation software has improved greatly since I first purchased Dragon NaturallySpeaking more than a decade ago. Early software required speaking slowly and artificially, yet today I can dictate this blog post at a natural speaking speed. The only complications, for me, are attempts to format text while speaking. However, I would rather focus on the words first and the formatting after a document is drafted.

Creative writing is not the same as academic discourse. My characters speak like "normal people" and I do not need to use the language, the jargon, of academia. The more natural my writing, the more appealing it might be to its intended audience.

I encourage instructors of writing, both academic and creative, to experiment with dictation software and consider the lessons learned by students and by us, their professors.

Comments

  1. Related to the "read the paper out loud", I frequently run my technical prose (blog posts, etc) through the text-to-speech function. That helps catch a lot of awkward language that would be hard to discover just by (re)reading.

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