Putting quill to parchment.

Many authors are asked the same questions over and over again. One of these is often Do you write longhand or into a computer?

But however repetitive it becomes, it’s a question worth considering. A commercial novel averages around 80,000 words, and that’s just the final product, not taking into account the many redrafts that will inevitably have gone before.

Let’s consider the different ways that different authors physically externalise their words, and the alternative approaches that could be taken.

Learn to touch-type

One of the best choices I ever made at school was learning how to type with 10 fingers, as it’s a skill that served me well in my working life. There are a couple of huge advantages over using just two or three fingers: your word speed can more than double, and it spreads the effort between all your fingers rather than straining just a few of them.

Be advised that it takes a while to master initially, but you’ll eventually be able to do it without conscious thought. A word about tablet computers as well. These have virtual keyboards, so it is possible to touch-type on these, but you’ll need to keep an eye on your finger position as you won’t be able to feel for the keys.

Choose an alternative keyboard

It’s a well-known story that the QWERTY keyboard was originally designed to slow down typists as the first machines were prone to jamming. It’s less well-known that the jamming problem had been solved by the 1930s. This allowed August Dvorak to invent an improved keyboard to help typists increase their speed by placing the most common letters on the middle row.

Sadly, it failed to catch on widely, but it is available on every major operating system. I’ve used the Dvorak layout for some years and it has the edge over QWERTY in terms of word speed. To increase it further, you could try a chorded keyboard. Clerks of court and TV subtitlers use these to keep up with the pace of normal speech. I haven’t used one myself.

Open your notepad

Unless you’re employing a shorthand system, this slows down your thoughts to the speed of the pen or pencil, and some authors are convinced it makes for higher quality writing. Martina Cole claims to be able to tell when a novel has been written directly into a laptop, while James Ellroy sends his handwritten work to a typist.

Be aware, however, that there’s no backup unless you’re using carbon paper. I’ve been told that a highly regarded author was forced to rewrite a large section of a novel when the paper blew out of an open window.

Be a dictator

Barbara Cartland famously dictated her words to an assistant, sometimes producing around 7000 words a day. Happily, you no longer need to pay someone for this service, as voice dictation is supported by many devices.

When I first tried this in the late 1990s, I gave it up as a bad joke. It. Required. Each. Word. To. Be. Spoken. Individually. Today’s software works with normal speech to a reasonable degree of accuracy without any training, even with my Scottish accent, although I recommend doing some to improve it even further.

I often use Dragon NaturallySpeaking, which can also be used to control many of your computer’s functions. In my experience, the actual dictation is fairly quick; it’s the formatting that tends to take a while.

Unconventional means

Probably most famous user of assistive technology is Stephen Hawking. He uses a switch activated by his cheek to choose words and letters from a computer screen.

But another author had to use a more difficult method. Jean-Dominique Bauby was struck by Locked-in Syndrome, so he could only blink and move his neck in a restricted manner. He wrote every word of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly by listening to somebody physically reading out the alphabet and blinking at the correct letter.

 

There are many ways to put your words out there, and not all of these will work for every author. For me, it’s through necessity that I use voice dictation and handwriting because my fingers are currently strained with typing too much. So until they improve, that’s how I’ll be writing my work.

But I’ve long thought that when you’re forced to take a certain action, you can always learn something useful from it. And that’ll be the theme of next week’s entry.

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Giving The Finger.

As writers, we should all protect our most valuable tools of the trade: our fingers. Lately, I seem to have been using them a little too much. I’ve taken leave for a week, and I’ve seen a physiotherapist. So this post is brought to you by Dragon NaturallySpeaking voice recognition software.

This type of technology has improved enormously since Stephen Hawking was kitted out with a synthesiser. Only today, I found a CD-ROM containing ViaVoice 98. That was a nightmare to use. You. Had. To. Speak. Each. Word. Individually. Nowadays, you can speak in your everyday voice.

Dragon is actually relatively accurate, even though I have a Scottish accent. That said, it reset itself for no obvious reason as I was about to type this entry so I’ll need to recalibrate it. I don’t mind because the calibration text is excellent, including excerpts from 2001: A Space Odyssey and Dogbert’s Management Handbook.

Just as handwriting can produce different results from typing, so can dictation. By speaking the words out loud, you can hear the cadence as you go along, or if you have a new idea while writing, you can record it before it’s forgotten.

One word of caution, though: it’s not cheap. Dragon for individuals starts at £79.99. Happily, if you own Microsoft Word, you already have this feature. Have a look at the Help menu to find it.

EDIT: Since writing this entry, I’ve been advised that the facility is not available in Office 2010 on XP.