Dictating Your Book Manuscript Won’t Work, and Here’s Why

IMG_1396For years I attempted to create book manuscripts based on transcripts of interviews with clients. In most cases, I failed. This disappointed me and my clients—most of whom liked to talk much more than write.

Eventually I discovered the reason for my failure. It was masterfully explained by Richard Mitchell, author of a wonderful newsletter titled The Underground Grammarian.

In The Leaning Tower of Babel, a book of essays culled from The Underground Grammarian, Richard noted that writing is the medium par excellence for crap detecting, while speaking is frequently a medium for crap producing:

There is a big difference between talk and writing. They are not merely optional ways of expressing the same substance. Talking is normally a social act; writing, unless it is simply copying the given, must be private. It needs…time, solitude, a visible record, and attention.

How we speak, in the press of the moment, is usually the result of habit. How we write, in solitary thoughtfulness, can be the result of choice.

Alas, what I forgot when trying to force books out of rambling speech is captured in the second sentence of the above passage.

The lesson: If you attempt to avoid writing by relying exclusively on dictation and interviews, you risk boatloads of bullshit. As someone who’s read hundreds of thousands of words in interview transcripts, I can verify that while speaking, mostly we are not saying anything. We are doing much to establish rapport and build relationships. But producing ideas? Eh…not so much.

Speaking can work when you want to generate rough material. Just plan to revise it heavily. For creating content that survives the test of time and changes the world for the better, there’s no substitute for the often plodding and sometimes painful craft of editing.

For more details, see this and this. Also check out all 15 volumes of The Underground Grammarian as well as Richard’s four books, which are available for free. Prepare to be offended (possibly) and forever changed.


  1. Transcribing dictaphone interview records is always boring for me 😦 But dictaphone can be very convenient when taking notes and capturing thoughts (collecting THE STACK 🙂 “on foot” – during long walk.


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