Writing with Sound

I sense that there is a change happening in my writing, because there is a change in how I write. I used to write, like most people, silently. My eyes and fingers worked together to lay down words on the page.

When you compose with your eyes, you read over what you’ve written with your internal voice. You supply all of the missing elements of speech: tone, emphasis, pause, and all the other things that add texture and life to the words on the page.

When I used to write with my eyes, I would become so familiar with the way I read a piece of text in my head that I could not imagine it any other way. I never considered that those invisible auditory elements would not be immediately evident to any other reader. At least, not until I came back to a piece of writing a few days later, when I had forgotten the finer details, the shape and flow of each individual sentence. Then I would inevitably puzzle over a phrase or paragraph until I realized how I had meant it to be read. I found these pitfalls lurking in the writing of others, too—places where the emphasis or tone was important but not apparent, waiting like rocks in tall grass to trip up unsuspecting readers.

Now I write with VoiceOver. It is Apple’s main accessibility feature, which gives immediate audio feedback for every character, word and sentence that I write, and reads me paragraphs so I can remind myself of their flow and argument. It is a multi-sensory experience, since I still see the words appearing on my screen, sometimes zoomed in close enough to read them but most often not. I used to find the constant wash of letters and words distracting and intrusive, but in the few weeks since I’ve started writing this way exclusively, it has become natural and I feel adrift when it is turned off.

When VoiceOver reads every word, line, sentence, and paragraph, it supplies its own intonation, emphasis, and rhythm. Computer voices today are not the abrasive robot voices of the eighties and nineties. They are getting closer and closer to the sound of natural speech. No one would mistake them for human, but developers are focused on improving their realism and fluency in reading long passages. So the computer adds pauses, shifts its tone, and inflects words up or down based on how it interprets the context. All those choices I used to make in composing, usually without even thinking about it, are now made by the computer. The computer becomes a controlling voice in my writing, because if it reads something awkwardly, I often change the text.

Of course, I don’t always cede to the computer. Sometimes it is obviously wrong (like when it pronounces a homonym inappropriately, like “read” as red instead of reed) or its interpretation is clumsily rule-bound (like when it thinks “Mr.” is the end of a sentence). But if the computer’s reading is misleading, ambiguous, or simply awkward, I will often rewrite it. I just can’t bear to hear the voice stumble over the same passage dozens of times as I write and edit, so I alter it to accommodate the computer’s flow.

The big question is, how will this affect my writing? Will it become more stilted or robotic as I adapt to a computerized interpretation of natural language? I hope not. My hope is that the instant feedback will remind me to consider the auditory dimensions of language more carefully than I did before. VoiceOver, imperfect as it is, is an audience that is present and interactive at every stage of my writing process, letting me know what I’ve written and at least one way it can be read. If it makes a mistake, there’s a chance another reader would also have made that mistake. VoiceOver was developed by people, after all, and those people defined the interpretive choices it makes.

VoiceOver is changing my writing, but how remains to be seen. I guess I’ll just have to wait for you, my human readers, to let me know.


My Quest for the Perfect Word Processor: Act Two

Photograph of a winding path through a dark forest. This is a quest, after all.

In Act One of this epic tale, our hero had fallen on dark days. Forced away from Mellel, his comfortable word-processing home, he began to wander the land seeking new possibilities and brighter horizons.

Now we see him revisiting familiar territory. Microsoft Word for Mac 2011 is already installed on his machine, after all. But it too offers only disappointment. Hazardous to navigate and full of unmarked and unlabeled dangers, it is a VoiceOver nightmare. 

He considers other options: Pages, VoiceDream Writer. These are friendly and accessible, but nowhere near full-featured enough for a dissertation. He falls to using TextEdit—at least it works well with VoiceOver. Perhaps he will write his whole dissertation in plain text and typeset it with LaTeX. But of course this is absurd. Navigating a document as long as a dissertation in plain text would be next to impossible. Plus he would have to learn LaTeX, so…

And then at last, on the verge of despair, he finds hope. There is a new version of Microsoft Word for Mac, and it has been substantially rebuilt and reconfigured. Word has always had features galore, of course, and is capable of handling large projects like books and dissertations. In the new 2016 version, the development team has increased VoiceOver compatibility and improved support for Hebrew (as long as the Hebrew keyboard is used). 

Almost all of the buttons, tabs, and menus are clearly labeled for VoiceOver, and navigating the interface is relatively easy. Setting VoiceOver Hotspots for the ribbon and main text pane makes it even more painless. The only problem with this is that the Hotspots for the ribbon are document-specific, so if you have two documents open at the same time, you have to make sure you go to the correct ribbon. 

Navigating long documents can also be cumbersome. You can navigate by page or line, but it would be very useful to be able to navigate within your document structure. The VoiceOver rotor could come in handy here, connecting the headings menu to document headings and allowing users to skip back and forth that way.

The biggest bug in Word for Mac 2016 comes when documents get long and cover multiple pages. If you make changes to early pages in the document that affect later pages, VoiceOver can get confused about what it should be reading . When you use the “Read Line” or “Read Paragraph” commands, it will read the wrong line or paragraph, or start or stop too early. When this happens, closing and reopening the document solves the problem, It is not insurmountable, but it does get very tedious. 

Track Changes and Comments—two critical tools in academic work—are also difficult to use, but these are acknowledged issues that Word is working to improve.

So our hero takes up this tool, imperfect though it is, and sets his hand to the work. But his vigilance remains constant, and from afar he hears rumours of a new kind of tool: a powerful writing suite with deep VoiceOver compatibility. Tune in next time, brave readers, as our hero encounters…the Scrivener.


(This  epic post reviewed MS Word for Mac 2016 Version 15.24. Any subsequent  improvements to accessibility in later versions are not covered)