The L&L Blog  /  Scrivener

Write with Your Voice: How to Use Dictation with Scrivener

You can save time and prevent repetitive stress injuries by dictating texts with Scrivener.

I'm writing this article with my voice. I'm talking to my Mac, and the computer is magically converting my voice into words on a virtual page. I don't have to type, I don't have to hunch over my keyboard. I can sit back with a cup of tea in my hand and talk.

Dictating is a different way of writing that you can use effectively to change the way you work. Here's how you can dictate with Scrivener.

A brief history of computer assisted dictation

As early as the 1950s, computer scientists have tried to find ways to convert speech into text. Understanding speech involves complex computer models and powerful processors. In the 1990s, speech-to-text software started becoming available for the general public. IBM's ViaVoice was the first consumer-level speech recognition software, and, while this required extensive training - reading texts so the software could learn your voice - it was limited in its ability and speed. Advances in machine learning and neural networks have made speech recognition a common feature of computing devices. Whenever you ask Siri or Alexa to do something, they use speech recognition to understand your requests.

Long siloed in expensive software - many people may remember Dragon Dictate, which brought high-quality speech recognition to Windows and macOS - this feature is now included with most operating systems. Microsoft calls this voice typing on Windows, and Apple calls this dictation. While these built-in speech-to-text systems lack some of the features that makes Dragon the go-to software for professionals who want to get the most out of dictation, they are free and easy to use.

How to dictate

Many writers over the years have used dictation, and for some of them, the act of dictating changed their style. Henry James' "late style" was greatly influenced by that fact that he dictated his works, because of pain in his writing hand. He grew used to the sound the typewriter that accompanied him as he recounted his tales, and needed its rhythm to keep him going. Barbara Cartland wrote more than 700 novels, dictating as many as 8,000 words a day to secretaries in a couple of hours.

Some writers have used dictaphones, or tape recorders, to dictate their work, which is later transcribed by a typist. Kevin J. Anderson has written more than 140 books, and he dictates into a recorder, which allows him to write while he hikes.

Anderson points out that "dictation is a skill that must be learned," so, if you start working with dictation, don't expect it to be easy. You need to train yourself to tell a story in sentences, paragraphs, and chapters. But you also need to remember that what you dictate is only your first draft.

Apps for dictation

There are a number of apps that you can use for converting your speech to text. At the most basic level, you can simply record your voice with a default app on your phone: Voice Memos on iOS or Voice Recorder on Android. These apps let your record anywhere: when you're out walking, sitting in a park, or garden, or at home.

You may find it useful to record yourself in an app like this, then play it back and type it yourself. But you can also use online transcription services to convert those recordings into text. One of the easiest to use is Otter, which has a free plan that lets you transcribe 300 minutes per month. Whisper, from OpenAI - the company behind ChatGPT - is starting to be used in apps as well.

There are also apps that can perform both recording and transcription. Just Press Record, for iOS and the Apple Watch, and Speechnotes, for Android, are two examples of apps that can transcribe texts you dictate. Otter also has an app that you can use on iOS or Android.

If you use an app like this for dictation, you can then copy and paste the transcription into your Scrivener project.

How to dictate in Scrivener

Whether you use Scrivener on Mac or Windows, you can use these operating systems' built-in speech recognition to dictate directly into your Scrivener projects. On Windows, press Windows key + H to activate voice typing start speaking. On the Mac, you need to turn on dictation in Settings > Keyboard > Dictation, then press a keyboard shortcut. By default, this is the F5 key on a Mac keyboard, which also has a microphone symbol, but you can change this shortcut in the Dictation settings.

When you dictate like this, you have to speak everything that you want to appear in your text. For each operating system, there are a number of commands that you can use. For example, to dictate the previous sentence, I said, "for each operating system COMMA there are a number of commands that you can use PERIOD." The computer doesn't know when you want to punctuate text or start new paragraphs. For Windows, the Voice typing commands section of this page has a list of commands you can use when dictating; for macOS, this list of Commands for dictating text on Mac well help you.

If you have used dictation software in the past, such as Dragon Dictate, you may be used to a style of dictation where you would speak text, correct it while you speak, and essentially try to dictate finished text. This isn't easy to do with the speech recognition features built-in to operating systems, and they don't learn your corrections. Dictating in this manner is about getting the text onto the virtual page, without worrying about refining it. You can do that at the end when you edit.

One tip: if you plan to do a lot of dictation to a computer, use a good microphone. While your computer may have an internal microphone, the audio won't be great, and the dictation will be affected by the audio quality. If you want to be able to move freely, get a Bluetooth headphone with a microphone boom arm.

How to make the switch to dictation

As mentioned above, dictation is a skill that needs to be learned. It's not easy, and it takes dedication. The technical aspects have become simple, but you need to develop the ability to formulate complete sentences and paragraphs in your mind before or as you dictate them. Some writers will find this liberating; it's a different way to write, and you may find that it gives your imagination free reign.

Kirk McElhearn is a writer, podcaster, and photographer. He is the author of Take Control of Scrivener, and host of the podcast Write Now with Scrivener.

Keep up to date