Old Tech, New Tricks: Using Standard Tools to Enhance Writing and Editing

While so much of writing and being creative has remained the same over the millennia, the tools we use for writing and editing have changed dramatically in just the last century. While most people use technology for writing and editing, many are using it differently, allowing increased productivity and improved self-editing.

Today, we’ll take a quick look at ways authors can use standard technology tools to enhance their writing and editing.

Speech to text. There are programs you can purchase that are highly capable of converting your dictated voice to text. But if you’re new to the process, I’d recommend starting by using a free program on your computer or phone. Note that free programs are not always the most accurate, but paid programs take time to learn your voice and speech patterns. The good news is, speech to text can increase your productivity. It can be a quick way to get scenes out of your head and onto paper. Try dictating a scene on your drive to work. You can just dictate straight words, but it will require more editing on the back end. Or you can dictate with basic punctuation. Most programs will do basic punctuation, if you speak it, including “comma,” “period,” and “new paragraph” (to insert a paragraph break). For example, saying,

“He wrapped his fingers around her neck as she slept comma and just when she opened her eyes in shock comma he squeezed period. New paragraph”

would result in that sentence being punctuated with two commas and a period, and then a double-spaced line break to start a new paragraph. These programs (paid and free) are not great at additional punctuation, like quote marks and semicolons, but there is a work around, if you prefer to speak with them. Or you can just add them later. Even with brushing up punctuation later, you can get a lot of bang for your buck with dictating using speech to text programs. A 15-minute drive can yield 1,000 words or more. For some perspective, it would generally take me 30 to 40 minutes to write a scene of the same length on a computer. This cuts the time at least in half. Even if you add the punctuation cleanup, it’s not as long. Also, if you’re dictating because you’re in a place where you can’t sit and write, then your comparison is how much you got done to what you would have completed otherwise: nothing. So, it’s a win when you’re in the writing phase and the goal is to get content on the page.

Find & replace. This is standard tech on all word processing programs for a reason. As an author, you can use it to help with self-editing. Is there a phrase you overuse, and you know it, but you can’t stop? Use the find feature to ferret out all the times you’ve fallen into that trap and examine the context. Sometimes, it will be fine. Sometimes, you’ll need to rewrite it. Now, in the previous point, I mentioned that there was a workaround for the fact that speech-to-text programs do not recognize semicolons and quote marks. When I complained to my 11-year-old daughter that neither my Dragon software nor my phone converted the word “quote” to an actual quotation mark, she said to me, “Just say quote, and do a find and replace. Duh.” I give you this same advice (minus the “Duh”). Speak the marks you need and do a find and replace. I suggest saying “quotation” because that’s less likely to appear in your actual text as a word than “quote” (which a character might say in dialogue).

Chart word count data. Word count has been around for ages, but you can do more than just look at the total words for the story. One interesting thing to do when in the editing phase is to open a spreadsheet and chart the word count for each chapter. Doing this gives you a quick look at how long each relative chapter is. And while there are no hard and fast rules for chapter length, seeing a visual representation of chapter length can give you a sense of whether any of the chapters are out of whack. Perhaps Chapter 15 is supposed to be super short to add to the tension. Or perhaps it’s missing something. If you notice that chapter 26 is 3,000 words longer than every other chapter, it’s time to go in and evaluate why. Does the chapter need massive cuts? Should it be split in two? Or is this just the bomb chapter that has to be 3,000 words longer than all the others?

Spell and grammar check. Again, this one’s an oldie, but always do it before sending something off to others. Nothing bugs me more than seeing errors spell check would’ve caught. Obviously, spell check can’t replace a good editor, but it does help immensely in catching stupid mistakes. It can take time; it took 45 minutes for me to spell and grammar check a 53,000 word draft I’d written. A fair amount of the hits are names that the spell check doesn’t recognize, but a good number are things that are silly, like wrong homonyms.

Have your device read to you. Many people advise reading your work aloud to hear problems in the writing. The reading aloud can uncover any turns of phrases that sounded great in your head but don’t actually work when said aloud. While reading aloud yourself is awesome, you know the material. You know how it’s supposed to sound. It’s entirely possible you’ll gloss over something, or you’ll read it the way you intended it, not the way it is. Hence, having the monotone electronic voice of your computer or smart phone read to you. All devices have text to speech, as it’s a tool that visually impaired purchasers need. You can use the tool to hear hiccups in your speech. The synthetic voice that doesn’t know what to stress or where to add inflection will give you a raw listen to your work. If something isn’t working, you won’t hear it. One writer I know suggested having your phone read to you while following along on the computer so you can pause, and fix problem areas right then and there. We’ve got a tutorial on using the Microsoft Word Speak feature here, and if you have never used the accessibility features on your computer or phone, here are two articles that might be useful: Getting Adobe and MS Word to read to you and Make Your Phone Read Everything on Screen Out Loud.

Author: RJ Crayton

RJ Crayton is a former journalist turned novelist. By day, she writes thrillers with a touch of romance. By night, she practices the art of ninja mom. To learn more about her or her books, visit her website or her Author Central page.

16 thoughts on “Old Tech, New Tricks: Using Standard Tools to Enhance Writing and Editing”

  1. Good tips, RJ. I heartily endorse the read aloud plan. I’m currently having my series made into audio books, and with the first 2 books so far, my narrator found 2 tiny typos that had eluded many, many readers. It really does make a huge difference to read it out loud. Good post.

  2. Thank you RJ for the great reminders. I’ve heard of Microsoft Word converting text to speech but then forgot about it. I’ve also copied the link to Lynne Cantwell’s excellent post on the subject.

  3. I know about all this stuff, but I’m Not Using It!!
    Thanks for a much-needed boot in the butt. I’m now going to massage my ego by having my computer read me my latest masterwork. And show me all my mistakes 🙂

  4. Excellent tips, thank you. I used a paid speech-to-text program when I had tendonitis; the accuracy was hit or miss, and I’m still amused by what I’m finding in those dictated old manuscripts. But at the time it meant the difference between writing and not writing. Read aloud is also a great tool.

    1. Yes, speech to text is tenuous with its accuracy. And I find you have to do a lot of cleanup if you don’t punctuate. It’s still better than no writing if you’re sidelined by tendonitis (been there!).

  5. Thank you for this excellent, very useful article. I think of a colorful friend who wanted to write his biography, but didn’t know how to type or use a computer. Too bad he passed away unforfilled; it would have been a best seller, for sure.

    1. Yes, my daughter is full of useful tech tips that she shares in a way that makes me feel like I’ve never turned on a computer. When she told me what Ctrl+Shift+T did, it blew my mind [it reopens a tab you’ve accidentally closed in Google Chrome. I think it also works in Microsoft Edge].

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