Woman talking on a cell phone in a cafe

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 stomach. 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.

Have you ever thought of transcribing your writing thoughts, which means talking into an app on your phone while you’re out and about (i.e., NOT in front of a demanding larger screen), then running it through voice-recognition software that transcribes it into an actual document that you can edit, add to, take away from, etc., as you wish. The core idea behind it is that 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.

Woman talking on a cell phone in a cafe

What is Transcription, and How Could it Help You?

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  more casually. I discovered a software program called Descript recently, and am so excited about how this might make my book writing easier.

Here’s how my process worked as I started “writing” my sixth book, and how yours would go if you wanted to try it. Borrow what works for you and forget the rest — and let me know how it goes in the comments below!

Part I: Idea Extraction or Brain Burping

  • Pick a voice recorder. I’ve got an android phone, and I downloaded AudioRecorder, which was very easy to navigate.
  • 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.
  • Tug. 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.
  • Just talk. Press the big red record button.

 

When you’re done, hit the stop button. Swipe right to find the file of your audio recording under “Recordings.” Click on the three dots next to it, then “Share.” I emailed my file to myself, then downloaded the file to a folder where I’d be able to find it easily.

Part II: Transcription

Once you’ve finished recording, it’s time to harness ⚡️The Power of Technology⚡️

via GIPHY

  • Go to Descript.com. Click on the “Transcribe 30 minutes for free” button or, if you’re feeling adventurous, go ahead and sign up. Their prices start at 7 cents a minute or $10 a month. Sign in.
  • Click on “Add New” in the upper right-hand corner.
  • Click on “Upload,” find your file, and “Transcribe.”

 

The white words "Descript" on a navy blue backgroundDescript 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 so you can worry less about where you’re holding the recorder.
  • meadowy forest
    This is one of my happy places.

    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.

 

For getting those first crucial paragraphs down (and maybe a few keystone ideas to build towards), consider talking to yourself. 

Journal Writing Too?

I’ve kept journals since I was eight years old, and they’re really coming in handy now that I’m writing a semi-autobiographical fiction novel. I typically write in my journals at night after the kids have gone to bed, but find that I tend to keep my entries short because I’m so tired. Thus, I’m not creating very rich journal entries. Using Descript would make it easier for me to record my experiences and thoughts about my life. Have any of you ever done that?

Disclaimer: This post was based on an article article was originally published by Descript, and is a partnered but unpaid post.  All thoughts and opinions are my own.