When I was researching and writing my dissertation, I would fantasize about some magic technology that would transcribe my speech into text, complete with Chicago-style formatting, and I could dictate my research notes and chapter drafts while swinging in a hammock and sipping umbrella drinks. If this sounds somewhat quaint, I should note that I wrote every last one of those 440 pages on a first-generation iMac (BLUEBERRY!) using WordPerfect 8 for Macintosh, and taking breaks on AOL dial-up internet. So speech-to-text really seemed like a pipe dream, given that every time one of my cats jostled the loose phone jack, I’d get booted offline.
Fast-forward fifteen years, and I recently found myself in the same sort of techno-fantasy land. Because I am
batshit crazy embracing scholarly productivity, I’m currently working on an article and two book manuscripts. And while the research process for the three contains some overlap, it’s not a whole lot; I’ve learned that I need to really up my organization game if I want to manage these projects. Like many academics, I’ve embraced Evernote as a digital tool that offers me the best framework for taking, organizing, and archiving my research notes. Whether I’m looking at primary or secondary sources, I can create separate notebooks for each source, or corresponding to a particular chapter in the manuscript(s). Within the notebooks, by utilizing a good tagging system (developed through trial and error, and full of idiosyncrasies), I can even search for particular sources and phrases. With the premium version of Evernote ($5.99/month), you can even search the text of PDFs or any OCR-enabled format as well. I collect PDFs of articles, and use a cam-scanner app on my mobile devices that saves to PDF, so this feature is a GAME-CHANGER. There are a number of ways Evernote can be harnessed as an uber-tool for research; Raul Pacheco-Vega has generously shared his resources on Evernote for Academics (also described here), and he is a total Evernote Ninja. I also found Catherine Pope’s Managing Your Research With Evernote for Windows very helpful (don’t worry, Apple hipsters users, there’s one for Mac, too).
So Evernote is great, and one of its main advantages was that you could click the microphone icon on the mobile app, and it would record speech-to-text voice notes–it only worked on the Android app, not the iOS (sorry, hipsters), though. But I’m an Android guy (because I choose not to pay for apps. but that’s just me), and I was happily recording notes and writing snippets with my smartphone and tablet. It was GLORIOUS. But after a recent update to the mobile app, without warning, this feature went away–you can record voice notes, but it only inserts an mp3 player bar in the note for you to listen to, not a transcription like before. I handled this development poorly. YOU HAVE CRUSHED MY TECHNO-UTOPIAN DREAMS YOU SOULLESS BASTARDS. Just when I was getting into a good flow of reading, dictating notes, and ramping up my productivity to unprecedented levels, it was so cruelly snatched from me. If you think I’m overreacting, well, you should see the notecard files that comprised my dissertation research. DON’T MAKE ME GO BACK TO THE NOTE CARDS PLEASE I’LL DO ANYTHING
Fortunately, I found a workaround, and it only adds one minor layer to the process. So if you’re looking to speed up the research and notetaking process, while keeping a digital repository that’s backed up in the cloud, syncs across all your digital platforms, and is highly searchable, here’s my speech-to-text Evernote hack:
You’ll need to download Google Keep, Google’s notepad app. Google has been putting a ton of resources into their speech recognition capabilities, and Keep really shows the fruits of that labor. It’s almost perfectly accurate, and I say things like “y’all,” and do shit like pronounce “didn’t” as “din’nt.” So I am a good test for speech recognition–and it passes with flying colors. Open Keep, and create a new note. Then select the microphone icon on your keyboard (I suggest using Google keyboard if possible), and it’ll start speech-to-text when you talk into it. I use my phone, because it’s smaller and easier to speak into (since it’s a phone and all), and sometimes I like to pretend I’m a Starfleet officer using a communicator. DON’T JUDGE. Here’s what a note in Google Keep looks like on my phone:
I’ve learned that the speech-to-text is very literal. It will “type” a number if you say it (like it did for “22” in this example), but if I want to denote a range, I have to say it like so: “twenty one dash twenty two.” If you say “comma” or “period” or “parentheses,” it will insert those symbols by default. If you want an ellipses, just say “period period period.” It will not, however, do so for quotation marks, so as you can see above, I denote direct quotations by saying the word “quote” at both the beginning and end of the quoted passage. (And by saying “apostrophe” to set off quotes-within-quotes). Oh, the meta of it all.
Once I’ve recorded my notes (and I usually go by one note document per chapter when I’m using a secondary source), I then use Keep’s settings menu to share the note.
Then, the note shoots over to my default notebook in Evernote, where I can then move it to wherever it is going to reside on a more permanent basis. Note on the screenshot below that I’ve named the notebook with the monograph’s title, and this note here (since it’s the first one in the notebook) has the citation information right up top.
Then I tag the note with the appropriate terms, in order to quickly reference the things I need once I start drafting the chapter. BOOM. Done. No writing, just speaking. YAY.
I also scan through the notes and clean up any mis-transcriptions as I go. Then I go back over them at the end of my reading/dictating session to both review what I’ve done and make sure everything’s in its place and tagged correctly. I also keep a separate notebook of bibliographic information for every source I use. Zotero is also an excellent way to wrangle your sources–especially if you’re engaged in bigger projects like I am. However, it doesn’t have a mobile version, and the handful of third-party apps haven’t impressed me. So I house all of that in Evernote (and copy it to Dropbox, too, since I’m Type-A when it comes to bibliographies. My preciousssss).
So that’s the process–just read, talk, rinse, repeat. Evernote has a bunch of space available via a free account, but I’ve found that I use it enough, and upload enough notes and other documents (scans, etc.) that it’s worth getting the premium version, especially when it enables offline storage of notebooks and such wide-ranging search capabilities within all of my notes. It’s also worth noting that this tends to use a fair amount of battery, at least on my device, so if you’re going to do some heavy-duty reading and transcription sessions, have a battery pack or charger handy. Also, this is all Android-based–but there’s an iOS version of Google Keep, so you
hipsters people who pay for too many apps Apple users should be able to replicate this process fairly easily.
This has been a really useful method for me to both speed up the reading and note-taking process, as well as manage my research notes much better across my various projects. I’m fortunate in that I read fairly rapidly, and speaking instead of writing allows my notetaking to keep up more closely with my reading speed. And anything that helps me keep my various endeavors straight, and thus eliminates a significant potential stressor, is worth its weight in gold. If you decide to try this hack, trust the process and let it work for you–it takes a little bit of getting used to and time to develop your rhythm, but it’s worth the investment. Happy researching!