Voice-Recognition Software: Has Writing Found Its Voice?

08/30/2018

I’ve been experimenting with voice-recognition software. It started with a few hours of speaking very carefully into the mic on my laptop, trying to get it to recognize my pronunciation. Once the device was tracking my voice, I began to “write” a story. Write is definitely not the right word. This wasn’t writing, this was narrating.

“I wanted to open my mouth and narrate a coherent story…” Illustration by Josh Quick

After years of pounding on a keyboard, sitting in front of a laptop voicing words that suddenly appeared as digital text seemed a little strange. Still, after a few clumsy starts, the story that scrolled across the screen wasn’t terrible. It was loose and flowing but definitely lacked a formal structure. Still, in spite of the flaws, I thought it was a nice little story—not exactly stream of consciousness, more like scroll of consciousness. At least the sentences were a good representation of the random thoughts and impressions flowing through my head that night. If I’d had a few drinks, the story might have been even better.

Many writers will tell you it’s the creator’s rational mind that gets in the way of a good story. The beauty of voice-recognition software is that once you’re in the flow of narration (and if you can suppress that negative editor’s voice) the story that appears on the page might resemble the one that exists in your head. A story narrated directly onto the screen, or voiced directly into the audience’s ears is, I believe, the essential story without all the structural framework. It’s the story before it’s been crafted and molded into a “story.”

What came out of my mouth that night was more like the stories I might tell a friend. Impromptu, spontaneous, anecdotal. The beauty of voice-recognition software is that it stands ready to record my most fleeting thoughts, half-baked ideas, and fragmentary sentences. And that’s where most of my stories begin, not as fully formed narratives but as impressions, images, things I just can’t stop thinking about.

I had a pretty lofty goal when I installed the software on my laptop: I wanted to open my mouth and narrate a coherent story, from beginning to end, with all its blemishes, defects, and raw energy. I thought that if I could keep my rational mind out of the way, I might create something closer to the origins of storytelling. Even though I knew it was impossible, I wanted to somehow invoke the oral tradition of storytelling. Where every story was waiting, unformed in the mind of the teller, not weighed down by the preconceptions of the craft.

Consider Chaucer: After listening for years to the stories of wandering pilgrims, he was inspired to write them down. But he did more than just transcribe stories—he added his own narrative, changed a few names, altered an ending here and there. And his writings were only possible because of the latest development in technology: the printing press. He may have had the latest innovations at his disposal but he was relying on centuries of oral tradition.

Just as it was in Chaucer’s time, the art of writing constantly evolves and changes. Can we really say our craft is improving? Are written stories more compelling or entertaining than the spoken word? Maybe voice-recognition software is the first step toward revisiting storytelling’s past.

Although I’ve been using the new software for a few months now and I like it, I find myself editing my words before I open my mouth. I tend to form complete, grammatically correct sentences in my head and only then do I talk to the laptop. Old habits are hard to break.

And the more I use the new software the more I question its validity. Is it making me a better writer? Or is it a crutch? Maybe I should delete it, find a crowded street corner, and just start telling my story. See if I can draw a crowd.

Joe Totten (Guest Blogger)

Joe Totten has been a professional writer for more than twenty years. He has helped create advertising campaigns for some fairly well-known technology brands. Companies like Intel, Microsoft, 3M, and Verizon. Several years ago Joe embarked on a desperate journey to write a novel about the American West. Not the American West that has been over-mythologized for the past hundred years, the Real West of greed, crime and casual bloodshed. Joe’s new novel, The Rule of Capture, explores the existential violence and darkness at the heart of the America’s origin story. His book examines the brutal passions and animosities churning just beneath the surface of our national psyche. Joe lives in Midway, Utah with his wife.