Tag Archives: Writer’s Block

Guest Post: Overcoming Writer’s Block with Automatic Transcription by Jason Kincaid


Thank you to Jason Kincaid from Descript for the following article:


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 gut that pairs poorly with the jug of coffee you drank earlier.

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.

Here’s the core idea: 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.

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 it more casually. And I’ve found it increasingly useful for generating a sort of proto-first draft: an alternative approach to the painful process of converting the nebulous wisps inside your head into something you can actually work with.

I call this process idea extraction (though these ideas may be more accurately dubbed brain droppings).

Part I: Extraction

Here’s how my process works. Borrow what works for you and forget the rest — and let me know how it goes!

  • Pick a voice recorder. 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.
  • 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.
  • For me, these recordings run anywhere from 20–80 minutes. Sometimes they’re much shorter, in quick succession. Whatever works.

Part II: Transcription

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

A little background: over the last couple of years there’s been an explosion of tools related to automatic speech recognition (ASR) thanks to huge steps forward in the underlying technologies.

Here’s how ASR works: you import your audio into the software, the software 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 (better yet: Airpods) so you can worry less about where you’re holding the recorder.
  • 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.
  • I have a lot of ideas, good and bad, while I’m thinking out loud and playing music at the same time (in my case, guitar — but I suspect it applies more broadly). There’s something about playing the same four-chord song on auto pilot for the thousandth time that keeps my hands busy and leaves my mind free to wander.

The old ways of doing things — whether it’s with a keyboard or pen — still have their advantages. Putting words to a page can force a sort of linear thinking that is otherwise difficult to maintain. And when it comes to editing, it’s no contest: QWERTY or bust.

But for getting those first crucial paragraphs down (and maybe a few keystone ideas to build towards)? Consider talking to yourself. Even if you wind up with a transcript full of nothing but profanity — well, have you ever seen a transcript full of profanity? You could do a lot worse.

This article is originally published by Descript.

Video of the Week #79: Unblock

Video of the Week #79: Unblock

Have you made your Creative Goals for 2017? If you’re a writer, here’s a suggestion about how to achieve them:

In the Meme Time: Do You Live Here?

In the Meme Time: Do You Live Here?

Found on Twitter:

writer's block

In the Meme Time: The Block

In the Meme Time: The Block

Found on Facebook:writer's block

How do you fight back? See Top Ten Ways to Fight Writer’s Block. Do you have another way? Share in the comments below.

In the Meme Time: Fear

In the Meme Time: Fear

This is true for other artists as well: painters, sculptors, quilters, songwriters. . .fear-is-a-prompt-not-a-block

Comix 3

Comix 3

© 1996 Washington Post Writers Group

Comix 3-2

Top Ten Ways to Combat Writer’s Block

Top Ten Ways to Combat Writer’s Block

Let’s face it—writer’s block is a universal experience among writers. We all deal with it at one time or another. As discouraging as it is to face a project that defies you to start or make progress, you can prevail unto victory. Here are some strategies that work for me.

  1. Persevere. That means don’t give up. Think Winston Churchill. This is hard, but imperative. (By the way, perseverance has applications in all other aspects of life, especially work, sports, and the arts. And parenting.)
  2. Write every day. Even if you can’t seem to write a word on your project, write something. Write a shopping list or a to-do list. Write a stream of consciousness. Write a Facebook post. Write a breakdown of your project into easily accomplishable tasks. Write pages that you know will never show up in your final project. Just write something—shoot for at least 500 words. Practice daily writing as a discipline. Take Jeff Goins’ 500 Word Challenge. You will build impetus and fight inertia.
  3. Believe in your project. You have a message, or at least a story to tell. And even if it’s already been done, no one call tell it the same way you can. Remember why you are doing this. If your only motive is money, that’s probably not enough to sustain your work. While we all have bills to pay, that’s no reason for your manuscript to exist. You should want to touch people’s lives, encourage and uplift them, help them, educate them, entertain them. If your project doesn’t have a meaningful purpose, it doesn’t deserve your effort. Have a project worthy of hard work. Then work hard.
  4. Do something mindless. Physical movement helps, but I prefer something you don’t really have to think about, like ironing or walking. I used to walk every morning. I learned to take a notebook with me, because invariably something intriguing would pop into my head that I would forget if I didn’t write it down. It’s challenging to write while you’re walking, but you can do it. Or capture your ideas on your smart phone or a portable recorder.frustrated-writer-2
  5. Make a story board, or write an outline. Try taking 12 index cards, one for each phase of The Hero’s Journey. (Click here.) Then write down your scenes on the appropriate cards. While you are not bound to this sort of a framework (and Stephen King produces book after book without bothering with one), it can show you how to fill the holes in your project.
  6. Write out of sequence. Maybe you know what the next-to-last chapter of your nonfiction book needs to cover, but you just can’t make progress on chapter five. You don’t necessarily need to write each page in order. If you’re stuck, try writing a particularly vivid scene that will occur further on in your novel. You will probably have to throw most of it away later, because details will be all out of whack. But what you write may give you clues about the progression of your story line. Getting words on paper is the important thing. You can always rewrite later.
  7. Think about improbable next steps for your work-in-progress. Maybe your 1800’s character witnesses an alien spaceship crash. Or maybe the next chapter in your economics book should be about the history of tic-tac-toe. Don’t knock it–I sometimes get usable ideas from this strategy. Or write a minor character’s back story. This is more useful than it sounds, because if you do the work of getting to know him, he will behave much more believably in your story.
  8. Don’t aim for perfection—at least until after your first draft is done. Perfectionism is the mother of procrastination. First drafts are supposed to suck. They’re the raw material for your rewrites. Every writer rewrites. Don’t edit as you go. Instead, get the whole thing down. In his book On Writing, Stephen King recommends writing your first draft, then putting it in a drawer for six weeks while you work on your next project. Then go back and read the draft, see if it holds together, and make any major corrections and changes before starting at least two very serious rewrites.
  9. Give your subconscious the assignment of figuring out the next part. Before you go to sleep, or as you start a brainless task, remind yourself that you need to figure out how you’re going to get around your blockage. Some writers find it helpful to reread their last few pages before they go to bed. My friend Gloria Jean, a ballroom dancer who designed and sewed all her dance dresses, kept a sketch book next to her bed. She saw dance dresses in her dreams and drew them when she woke up (sometimes in the middle of the night!) while they were still fresh in her mind. You might keep a pad and pencil by your bed so you can record ideas (sometimes shockingly bizarre) that come to you in your dreams.
  10. Above all, never, never, never give up.

Do you have a blockage-busting strategy that works especially well for you? Please share in the comments below.