Assistive Technology Center at College of San Mateo - Writing vs. Dictation
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Assistive Technology Services

Writing vs. Dictation

Some time ago, I injured my left elbow. While not a serious injury, typing was painful, and I had a great deal of writing to do. I was familiar with voice input software, and had a good selection of programs and machines available to me as a staff member of CforAT. Although I had not been using voice input software for my day-to-day report writing, I was confident that the transition would not be a problem.

Since I only needed to input text, I began working with continuous speech dictation program. With some training and adjustment, I managed to attain a 152 wpm input rate with a better than 98% accuracy rate, just as the manufacturer claimed.

However, when I turned to my daily writing tasks (usually multi-page text documents) it quickly became apparent that although I was working hard, and the software was operating well, my productivity was very low. Although my manual typing speed is about 60 wpm, and I was dictating at a nominal 152 wpm, it took me several times longer to complete a report by voice than by hand.

The problem, of course, was that I wasn't writing, I was dictating. Reading existing text, or making up phrases to test dictation accuracy, or just speaking, is quite a different process than composing a document. After years of writing using a keyboard, my compositional abilities adjusted themselves to my typing so that I composed text in my head at about the speed I was able to type it. Consequently, I could sit down at a keyboard to begin composing a document, and type steadily until the document was finished.

This does not occur when I am dictating. I will speak a phrase (at 152 wpm), and then stop. And think about the next phrase, and maybe revise the first phrase, since it is there on the screen. It's hard to achieve any consistent flow of information: hearing my voice distracts me; seeing what I have already produced distracts me; and, ultimately, I speak differently than I write. The compositional process bogs down in very much the same way it did when I was first learning to write. Then I did the same thing, I would write a phrase, stop and look at it, revise it, cross it out and start over, proceeding slowly in little chunks. It took practice to be able to write fluidly, and using voice input sometimes makes me feel like I'm starting over.
Of course, I'm not really starting over. I know how to write, I'm just using a different technique for recording my thoughts. It's getting rapidly better, but it does take practice. A different part of my brain is in use. Learning how to dictate, whether into a tape recorder or a computer, is a separate process from learning how to use voice input software.

Obviously, if you are unable to comfortably use your hands to type, and you need to generate text on the computer, learning to dictate will probably not be an insurmountable hurdle. But if an injury has interfered with your ability to do your job, and you are planning to solve the problem with voice input, it's an issue worth considering. The time it takes to return to productivity may be much longer than the time it takes to learn the software; you may have to figure in the time it takes to learn how to dictate effectively, as well.

This is even more of a issue if you don't need to use voice input, but are considering it because you believe it is "easier" than typing. It may not be easier; it isn't for me, even though the software works perfectly, and does everything the manufacturer claims. The assumption often seems to be that no one would type if they had a smoothly working voice input system, but my experience suggests otherwise. It also suggests that this is a problem that transcends the technology; that voice input will not be a seamless substitute for typing no matter how powerful and easy to operate the software becomes.

Rehabilitation Technologist
Center for Accessible Technology