How do you decide whether to dictate, type out or hand-write a piece of writing?

I have always had a minor passion for writing, and I enjoy the process of settings ideas out and slowly filling them out, trimming them down or deleting them altogether. This is easiest to do on a computer - so easy to cut, copy paste, organise, Google and re-write. Being able to touch type makes this process an almost organic extension of my consciousness.

Hand writing is a different sort of pleasure. I used to get lost in handwriting in a similar way, but often I felt like my thinking slows down to match my hand-writing speed. I would re-write and draw lines to indicate which bit is meant to go in between which other bits. It was hard to transcribe my writing, but fulfilling because it was a conscious editing step.

In the last decade, the only hand-writing I do now is writing meeting notes at work - but even then I love organising the notes as I go, and doodling! Building up small doodles to fill a page feels good too.

Now I have an iPad with a keyboard case that feels comfortable to use for short periods; I can almost thumb-touch type on my iPhone without looking at the keys.. I can easily spend the entire train trip home just writing out a message or blog post. And drawing apps make me feel like an artist, even though I blanch at every creation. :)

And then I discovered Dragon Dictation on my iPhone - and how it gets about 70% of my words correct.. mangling names but getting the bulk of it right. I find myself stopping and starting a lot - both when I type and when I dictate into my phone. But during dictation, the pauses seem more pregnant, more expectant and I find myself stressing out at being unable to immediately go back and change a word or fix up a capitalisation. I can get out short bursts a lot faster only if I am "on track".

And with Dragon Dictation on the phone - every time you hit "stop" you have to wait while it sends the audio up to the server for translation before giving you back the text, which I feel compelled to edit before going on. But at the same time I wouldn't like to use a recorder, because I find the process of transcribing audio to be far too odious, and lacking the potential of being a true editing step because you have to focus on just typing out what you are hearing.

They have such different characteristics. I love hand-writing but prefer typing.. I feel that dictation should be the fastest but can't get into the flow.

In what circumstances do the strengths of each method warrant their use?

  • 1
    I'd probably rephrase this to ask something like "How do you decide whether to dictate, type out or hand-write a piece of writing?"
    – Lexi
    Oct 13, 2011 at 2:08
  • @Lexi, that's a really good idea actually. I wish I could rename the topic.. Oct 13, 2011 at 2:18

3 Answers 3


This is one of those questions where everybody just has to go with their own personal preferences. My last choice would be trying to dictate. I tried Dragon Diction as well, but as you have already noticed, the pauses and the less than stellar word conversion rate make it too tedious.

I have done almost all of my writing by hand and then transferred to Word once I was ready to start editing and working on the second draft. I have tried to write my original work on the computer, but I find myself losing track way too often. I feel that by writing everything out by hand it allows my thought processes to work at a more natural pace.

For those who are into left-brain, right-brain comparisons, I read that handwriting is on the side of your brain that is more creative, while typing is on the side that is more functional. I don't know how true that is, but it certainly seems to work out that way for me.

Another advantage of doing my initial draft by hand is that when I get ready to start typing it, I tend to have a more critical eye on what is written down on the page. I am usually more focused on trying to read my handwriting, so I end up finding a lot more mistakes than I normally would by just reading the typed out version. Ultimately, though, it really depends on what works for you as the writer.

  • Hi Steven - and when you are writing long pieces, do you ever find yourself going back and making significant changes? Do you ever start thinking "oh, if I was on a computer, I could copy and paste that bit over there.."? Oct 13, 2011 at 3:38
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    Nope, that is what the second draft is for. Also, I prefer to write to the end and then go back and edit as I type everything up. If I happen to think of ways to change a scene I will make notes in the margin and then move on. When I start to type it, I will make the changes, assuming I still think they need to be made. Oct 13, 2011 at 11:33

I oscillate between handwriting and typing. I find handwriting preferable for first drafts or for getting ideas out, as I can simply scribble on the nearest piece of paper or notebook, have arrows going everywhere - it's beautifully unstructured. I like it for first drafts as well for the same reason as Steven - it slows down my thought processes, which I find gives me greater insight to the scene I'm writing. Not to mention, there's just something organic about the scratching of pen on paper. It's definitely messy, though, and my pages are always full of scratched out sentences, inserted text and arrows everywhere.

However, if I already have a scene in mind and I know pretty much where I want to go, I will type it out. It's faster and I can get feedback more quickly and easily. I also use it when I want to braindump in a stream-of-consciousness fashion. Again, fast and easy to keep up with everything I'm thinking, though you end up with a huge block of text.

I've never dictated because I find it more distracting when it gets scattered words wrong. If we talk about just recording yourself speaking, I can't do that either as I need a visual medium in order to think properly.

As always, your mileage may vary.

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    I like the idea of writing as a visual medium a lot too. As for dictation, I still have a fanciful idea that one day we will be able to speak naturally and have a transcription app quickly and accurately do its job without referring back to a server. In the right mind set, are we not just as imaginative speaking? With or without a few beers. :) Oct 13, 2011 at 5:43

I've been keyboarding for so many years that my handwriting has deteriorated past "chicken-scratch" into "hieroglyphics." If I write out a thank-you for a birthday gift, it's usually illegible by the third sentence. I literally couldn't write without a word processor. The flexibility and ease of editing, error correction, and brain-to-page is immeasurable for me.

However, sometimes when a keyboard is inaccessible (on the treadmill, in the shower, on the loo), I wind up coming up with entire scenes, sometimes whole pages of dialogue and narration, and I do wish I had Dragon available just to get it down before it gets away.

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    I don't think my handwriting ever progressed beyond chicken-scratch! That's why I have to take my time when I type it out, because I often find myself trying to figure out what I wrote! :) Oct 13, 2011 at 11:35
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    I haven't gotten compliments on my handwriting since my first-grade teacher saw a page of my penmanship workbook (I think it was N) and literally gasped out loud in front of the entire class "Is this YOURS? I can't believe it!" and put five stars on it. I had never done anything so neatly before, and it's been all downhill ever since. :) Oct 13, 2011 at 12:20

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