Write it or dictate it?

September 18, 2012.

A communication issue is rising which has not arisen for many, many years.  That issue is, should you write out your thoughts or should you dictate them?

I say it is not arisen for many years because the widespread use of secretaries who took dictation and transcribed it for all levels of managers is a long gone practice – disappearing in the mists of time, along with suits and ties in the office and keeping business records in cuneiform.

The increasing sophistication of Dragon Naturally Speaking  now raises that question. [Disclosure: I am now using and have been using Dragon for number of years with increasing amounts of pleasure and success]

It is a legitimate question.  You may not believe it, but, we speak very differently from the way we write.  For some truly awful examples of this, consider business or political speeches you have heard that sound awful given by people that are actually just interesting to listen to one-on-one.

For most people, writing a document takes more time than dictating.  The written document is more tightly organized, and the sentences tend to be shorter and crisper.  The dictated document tends to have longer and somewhat rambling sentences.

On the other hand, the written document is often the victim of the author’s overuse of technical or other highfalutin language, an effort, perhaps subliminal, to demonstrate superiority in education or erudition (you can do it on Dragon as well!).

The dictated document is just that, a close reflection of the way we speak, which is casual, and less pointed.  At its extreme, however the spoken word can be extremely blunt, verging on the offensive.  Very few people will purposefully write using the kind of abrasive language they would not think about using when speaking to a other person.

So what is the best way to proceed?  Probably, it is to combine the two of them.  By that I mean type out the headings first, a shorthand way of typing an outline, for the document that you intend to write.  But instead of putting the headings as declarative statements, make each one into a question.

Then look at the questions: do they cover all the topics you want to cover in your report?  If so, begin dictating your answer at the appropriate place in the document.  If you find that your train of thought leads you to another topic while in the midst of one topic, simply pause, move the cursor elsewhere and continue dictating.

When you are done, first read through it just after you save it and before you go on to something else.  It is at that time you will pick up those few mistakes that a dictation program makes in transferring a word from your lips to your page.  Trust me, if you wait even several hours, you will not be able to understand what you intended to write.


Then, if possible, put it aside.  Go back later and then run a spelling and grammar check before anything else.  That will force you to correct odd sentences and paragraphs, and complete partial expressions.

Finally, go through it slowly, first, from the beginning to the end.  Eliminate those long, to your mind interesting, one sentence paragraphs.  Either combine paragraphs or cut the three, four and even five line long sentences into several sentences.  Believe me, your audience will appreciate it. And so will you, rereading it in several months.

Once you have read it to the very end and are satisfied with it, read it from the end to the beginning.  I do not mean literally backwards.  I mean, start with the last paragraph.  Does that last paragraph make sense?  Revise it, if it does not.

Do this gradually. When working back to the first paragraph in that way you will find those times when your casualness of approach through use of the dictated word has enabled you to skip the colder logical connections that writing first generally forces you to do.

Don’t forget about the headings. When you are done, make sure each section answers the question heading it and then convert the question to a statement that summarizes what you actually wrote.

By the way, I did not say that the writing was easy. To write, you must first have something to say.

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