Family Article

Book of a Lifetime (the Shooting Star by Hergé)

A Tape Recorder in Central Asia

Tools of the Trade 

Tools of the Trade

I was around fifteen when I started scribbling poems and stories with a Biro into a lined notebook, using as many long and impressive words as I could. I did a lot of heavy crossing out, which I admired as well because it seemed such a writerly thing to do. My father was so pleased that I had taken to writing he gave me my first typewriter, a small Olivetti with an odd, pale italic typeface on which I laboriously pecked out my final versions – but only the final versions. Composing was still done only with the pen.

In the late 70s I joined the BBC World Service as a staff writer – a job title redolent of rolled shirt-sleeves and green-tinted visors. We had ponderous old typewriters on our desks in those days, quite soon replaced by electronic upgrades with a Tippex tape correct facility that could lift up to 15 characters. It was revolutionary.

Soon enough, though, we were networked with Windows, which we were taught how to open and close, how to dance the cursor about the screen and how to move chunks of text. The effect of that, I believe, was to make us all less careful, less thoughtful about how we wrote. Get black on white, lay the paragraphs down and so what if I make a mistake or settle for a clodhopping expression! I can always change it later (so long as I remember). We stooped in front of our monitors, hands clawed over the keyboards, while deadlines got tighter to feed the demands of constant news and – in our case – the explanations of what lay behind it.

By the time I began to write fiction there was no question of reverting to the pen, awkward, slow, in my case illegible. The transition to the keyboard was clearly complete, and final – or so I thought.

A year or so ago I was working, no longer at the Beeb, in an office where the computer setup was an ergonomic disaster and for the first time in my life, I developed RSI. Not only was typing impossible, I couldn't hold a pen either. But I was in the middle of writing a novel and didn't particularly want to have to stop. Somebody suggested a voice recognition programme so I bought, cheaply and online, Dragon Naturally Speaking. I don't know why Dragon, but naturally speaking does exactly what it says on the tin: the more naturally you speak, the more the programme has the confidence to lay your sentences down.

It was remarkably inhibiting to sit there and talk to myself. My voice flattened with embarrassment even though there was no one but me to hear it – except of course for that Dragon. Protracted pauses while I was working out how to be fluent sent him to sleep, and I had to reel his attention back. And then there was the education gap. He hadn’t read as much as I had and when he first arrived he was still a callow fellow with a limited vocabulary, for all he was keen to learn. A further small hurdle was that he was an American, and had clearly had an American upbringing; for all I know he may even have come from a religious background. While I wouldn’t say that he was exactly a prude, he certainly didn’t drink. We had a bit of a tussle when one of my characters referred to some people on a Friday evening London pavement as “pissed”. Dragon was incredulous. “Piste?” he suggested. No, I said, and repeated “pissed”, rather irritably. “Pierced,” he wrote. “Peaced”. The argument went on for some time and in the end I only won it by spelling the word out.

Nonetheless, the more I whistled him up the more he acknowledged the authority of my voice. A few months after he’d moved in a young friend asked if he could come along and "have a go". I settled him in front of my computer, put the headset on him and adjusted it so that the microphone sat exactly as it should just below his lower lip, and told him to begin dictating. Nothing happened. No matter what my young friend said or how he said it, my dragon not only did not even type gobbledygook – he didn’t type anything at all. But as soon as I put the headset on myself, off he lolloped. Naturally, I was delighted. I had suspected that this was a sentient being, loyal only to me, and now I knew it was true.

How much does dictating a book as opposed to writing it alter its nature? The fact that you can see the words as they appear on the screen makes this sort of dictation unlike dictating to someone else, when you either have to keep in mind everything you’ve just said or ask the benighted secretary to read it all back. And you can of course still edit as you normally would. But it would be interesting to know whether there is a neurological difference in the composing process depending on the method of transcribing the ideas. Do the brain patterns of the person with the pen or the word processor look quite unlike those of the person with the mouth? And do they change when mouth takes over from keyboard? (How do I know what I think till I hear what I say?)

And what of the shape of paragraphs, the texture and flow of sentences, the taste of words? Is it possible that the nature of the language we access when we write is not the same as the language of speech, no matter how considered? Can readers tell that a book has been dictated rather than written? And have I noticed the difference between the book that I have just been dictating and previous ones that I’ve typed? (I can't answer that because the current novel, a work in progress, is made up of a series of first person narratives, each of them intended to sound spoken rather than written.) What’s more, it may be that I will never find out because my Dragon has done what he was bought to do – I no longer have RSI and have returned to my keyboard with relief. But I did dictate this piece just to prove the point, though there are still limits to authorial authority: when it came to the P word, Dragon was as obdurate as ever, and once again I had to spell it.