I have recently updated my technical writing process with a new technique: using audio recording apps to get over my writer’s block. I use the audio recording app to talk through a technically complex concept – this helps me gain clarity about the topic and makes writing easier. I also use the app to practice for webinars, podcasts, or presentations I give – making audio recordings of the content helps me get used to my own voice and reduces my nervousness. Recently, I came across this article published by Descript that I think might help me take my audio-recording game to the next level. Reposting it here (with permission from Descript) for your reading pleasure:
Overcoming Writer’s Block with Automatic Transcription
If you’re a writer — of books, essays, scripts, blog posts, whatever — you’re familiar with the phenomenon: the blank screen, a looming deadline, and a sinking feeling in your gut that pairs poorly with the jug of coffee you drank earlier.
If you know that rumble all too well: this post is for you. Maybe it’ll help you get out of a rut; at the very least, it’s good for a few minutes of procrastination.
Here’s the core idea: thinking out loud is often less arduous than writing. And it’s now easier than ever to combine the two, thanks to recent advances in speech recognition technology.
Of course, dictation is nothing new — and plenty of writers have taken advantage of it. Carl Sagan’s voluminous output was facilitated by his process of speaking into an audio recorder, to be transcribed later by an assistant (you can listen to some of his dictations in the Library of Congress!) And software like Dragon’s Naturally Speaking has offered automated transcription for people with the patience and budget to pursue it.
But it’s only in the last couple of years that automated transcription has reached a sweet spot — of convenience, affordability and accuracy—that makes it practical to use it more casually. And I’ve found it increasingly useful for generating a sort of proto-first draft: an alternative approach to the painful process of converting the nebulous wisps inside your head into something you can actually work with.
I call this process idea extraction (though these ideas may be more accurately dubbed brain droppings).
Part I: Extraction
Here’s how my process works. Borrow what works for you and forget the rest — and let me know how it goes!
- Pick a voice recorder. Start talking. Try it with a topic you’ve been chewing on for weeks — or when an idea flits your head. Don’t overthink it. Just start blabbing.
- The goal is to tug on as many threads as you come across, and to follow them as far as they go. These threads may lead to meandering tangents— and you may discover new ideas along the way.
- A lot of those new ideas will probably be embarrassingly bad. That’s fine. You’re already talking about the next thing! And unlike with text, your bad ideas aren’t staring you in the face.
- Consider leaving comments to yourself as you go — e.g. “Maybe that’d work for the intro”. These will come in handy later.
- For me, these recordings run anywhere from 20–80 minutes. Sometimes they’re much shorter, in quick succession. Whatever works.
Part II: Transcription
Once I’ve finished recording, it’s time to harness ⚡️The Power of Technology⚡️
A little background: over the last couple of years there’s been an explosion of tools related to automatic speech recognition (ASR) thanks to huge steps forward in the underlying technologies.
Here’s how ASR works: you import your audio into the software, the software uses state-of-the-art machine learning to spit back a text transcript a few minutes later. That transcript won’t be perfect—the robots are currently in the ‘Write drunk’ phase of their careers. But for our purposes that’s fine: you just need it to be accurate enough that you can recognize your ideas.
Once you have your text transcript, your next step is up to you: maybe you’re exporting your transcript as a Word doc and revising from there. Maybe you’re firing up your voice recorder again to dictate a more polished take. Maybe only a few words in your audio journey are worth keeping — but that’s fine too. It probably didn’t cost you much (and good news: the price for this tech will continue to fall in the years ahead).
A few more tips:
- Use a recorder/app that you trust. Losing a recording is painful — and the anxiety of losing another can derail your most exciting creative moments (“I hope this recorder is working. Good, it is… @#*! where was I?”)
- Audio quality matters when it comes to automatic transcription. If your recording has a lot of background noise or you’re speaking far away from the mic, the accuracy is going to drop. Consider using earbuds (better yet: Airpods) so you can worry less about where you’re holding the recorder.
- Find a comfortable space. Eventually you may get used to having people overhear your musings, but it’s a lot easier to let your mind “go for a walk” when you’re comfortable in your environment.
- Speaking of walking: why not go for a stroll? The pains of writing can have just as much to do with being stationary and hunched over. Walking gets your blood flowing — and your ideas too.
- I have a lot of ideas, good and bad, while I’m thinking out loud and playing music at the same time (in my case, guitar — but I suspect it applies more broadly). There’s something about playing the same four-chord song on auto pilot for the thousandth time that keeps my hands busy and leaves my mind free to wander.
The old ways of doing things — whether it’s with a keyboard or pen — still have their advantages. Putting words to a page can force a sort of linear thinking that is otherwise difficult to maintain. And when it comes to editing, it’s no contest: QWERTY or bust.
But for getting those first crucial paragraphs down (and maybe a few keystone ideas to build towards)? Consider talking to yourself. Even if you wind up with a transcript full of nothing but profanity — well, have you ever seen a transcript full of profanity? You could do a lot worse.
A few weeks ago, I was invited as a guest on one of my favorite podcasts: 10-min Tech Comm. Check out my episode about why and how tech writers should work on their technical skills:
PS: Tom Johnson is hosting a poll based on the podcast. Cast your vote here: https://idratherbewriting.com/2018/08/10/how-much-time-devoted-to-learning-tech-is-needed/
In May, I announced a hiatus from blogging because my parents were visiting me in New York and I wanted to spend quality time with them. We had an excellent summer in the city – I have never seen them so relaxed and happy! Now they are safely back home in Pune and I am back to my routine.
The hiatus proved more beneficial and necessary than I expected. Not only did it cure my homesickness, but also gave me a chance to take a step back and rethink my purpose for this blog and its future. You see, the reason I started blogging consistently in 2018 was because I had a lot of things to say about life as a Technical Writer and the blog seemed to be the best medium to share my thoughts and experiences. But now I find that having this blog as my only platform is pretty limiting. I have so many more things to share, but not all of them fit the content structure of a blog post. Some topics are better suited to video content, while others need more long-form content, such as a full-blown course or even a book. Some topics are about my knowledge gaps that need collaboration with other content creators in the tech writing space.
So that’s what I want to do next – experiment with different content platforms that best suit the topic I want to discuss. I still want this blog to be my central platform, so I will continue writing blog posts and link to other content as and when I create it. I hope you find this experiment helpful and entertaining.
Until next week, happy creating!