Podcasts and dictation apps: Reading and writing when you can’t read or write

I spend an inordinate amount of time traveling — more than 20 hours, most weeks — which is miserable: I’d much rather spend that time writing, or at least reading. Although there is no real substitute for actual reading and writing, podcasts and dictation apps have helped me to take back some of that lost time.

Big ole disclaimers: I do NOT recommend doing many of these things while driving. I am a professional distracted driver, and your results may vary. For Pete’s sake, be careful! Also, some of the podcasts use explicit language. Check it before you download it.

Also, although I reference Apple products, it is strictly because I’m Apple-biased. I’m sure that there are comparable apps for other smartphones and tablets, I just haven’t looked for them. Because they don’t run on Apple products. And I’m Apple-biased.

Most of the apps and podcasts in this post are free, or they were when I came into them. Some may have premium upgrades that can be purchased, but I have found the free versions suitable for my needs.

Writing on the go — dictation apps for iPhone and iPad

Ever had an idea that you could not wait to commit to paper, but you’re short paper and pencil when the muse strikes you this way?

  1. Notes and Voice Memos

Quick note-taking at its simplest. If you’ve got an iPhone, you’ve already got two key ways to capture the “can’t wait” idea. I use Notes when I’m able to type something, but I’m just as likely to leave myself a Voice Memo and transcribe it later. There’s something wonderfully freeing about not panicking for paper when you’re driving down the interstate. It’s exciting to hear a story spark that you recorded a month ago; every one of these I’ve acted on has felt just as fresh as the day I recorded it.

Voice Memos for iPad by KendiTech: https://appsto.re/us/JrRTv.i

  1. Dragon dictation

If you’ve seen the ads on TV for the full software version of this, you may be disappointed. But for what I use it for — capturing short bursts of dialog, or rough-drafting a paragraph or two — it works well. You can also use it to draft and send emails when you don’t have hands or time available.

Dragon Dictation by Nuance Communications: https://appsto.re/us/SbHwu.i

  1. iTalk

This swell recording app doesn’t have a lot of frills, but it records flawlessly. Think of it as the mature version of Voice Memos — it records longer and more clearly, and recorded files can be saved and sent in several different formats. If I could find a free app to convert the recorded sound directly into a text file, I’d have found the Grail for hands-free novelists.


These podcasts will inspire and instruct you, each one in a unique way.

  1. The New Yorker Fiction podcast

This is my new favorite, and if you like short stories, it should be yours, too. It comes out once a month. Each 40- to 60- minute podcast features a contemporary author reading a short story by another author from the New Yorker’s archives, followed by the reader talking about the story with the New Yorker’s fiction editor. I usually listen to the podcast 1-1/2 times, once to take it all in, and then, after listening to the reader and editor discuss the work, I go back and listen to just the story. I’ve encountered so many new writers this way, and I’ve been able to connect with works that I might have passed up otherwise. This podcast actually makes me want to be able to read more.


  1. This American Life

If you’re not listening to NPR’s “This American Life,” then you’re missing out on some the finest nonfiction (plus some fiction) writing available. New each week, this podcast is usually the same as the radio broadcast, several stories centered around some shared theme, except that words bleeped out for the FCC make it onto the podcast. Stories range from “real” journalism — a two-part episode tracking several kids in Chicago public schools comes to mind — to poetic retellings of familiar legends, such as a recent deconstruction of Superman from his arch-nemesis’ point of view. As an anthology-type podcast, This American Life is pretty bold with its blurring of diverse styles and genre.


  1. The Secrets Podcast for Writers

This podcast is no longer being produced, but it’s still a good listen. Michael Stackpole, a science-fiction and fantasy writer, talks about the craft of writing. He also talks about making a living as a writer, something he has done by writing adaptions of licensed characters and story lines (Star Wars and Battle Tech, in particular). If you’re wondering how to make money off of the stuff you write, Stackpole has a lot of good info, and I love the way that he talks about genre fiction as manufactured product: even if it follows a general formula,it shouldn’t be stale and uninteresting.


  1. Part-Time Authors’ Podcast

This podcast is also no longer in production, and honestly, never quite fulfilled its promise, but I’m including it anyway. The premise of the podcast seems to be that an established author of children’s books, Genny Haikka, is mentoring a new author, Aaron Robbins, into the world of print publishing. Guest authors were featured regularly. Topics ranged from ghostwriting to pen names to finding an agent, and there’s a lot of good information here. The thing I always loved about the show, however, was the back-and-forth between Genny and Aaron — it was hopeful, it was honest, and it was darn entertaining dialog.


  1. Five Truths and a Lie

This podcast seems to be on hiatus, but there’s a decent back catalog of episodes available. The setup is that six different storytellers tell some “true” story, and after every story has been told, then the one untruthful story is revealed. I’ve included it on this list because this format allows the listener — that is, you, the writer who doesn’t have time to read — to learn a lot about good monologue and dialog, about the mechanics of telling a story that people will feel good spending time with, and even about how to create the details that make for a compelling albeit unreliable narrator. It also produced my all-time favorite oral short story, which is Joey Slamon’s contribution to the “What I Did Over the Summer” episode.


  1. Snap Judgment

This podcast, hosted by Glynn Washington, is still in production, and comes out fresh and new each week. Billing itself as “storytelling with a beat,” the Snap is less concerned with fact or fiction than it is with the rhythms and poetry’s of the oral storytelling tradition, and carrying on that tradition in a contemporary way. More often than not, the stories are true, such as a cave-diver’s riveting account of a botched attempt to retrieve a fellow diver’s remains; sometimes, the stories have truthful elements that have been rearranged for heightened entertainment, such as short memoirs that have been remodeled into brief standup sets; sometimes, they are pure fiction, such as a recent monologue that treated Hansel and Gretel’s witch as the true victim in the story.


I went looking for these apps and podcasts because my on-the-road time grossly exceeds my time available for reading and writing, but I would still highly recommend the apps and podcasts in this post as a supplement to your current reading and writing regimen. Even if I had more non-driving time available to me, I would listen to these podcasts, and I would use my iPhone to take notes and voice memos. There are plenty more apps and podcasts out there to be discovered and listened to – go find them, and use your technology to enhance your reading and writing life!


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