Sunday, January 13, 2019

Talking to Myself: First Steps Into Dictation Software

I have always been a fairly fast typist. Ever since I first learnt to put my fingers on the home keys and type without looking at them, I've picked up speed from there. I can now type without looking at the screen, never mind at my hands. And when I wore most of the letters off the keys of my last keyboard, it didn't matter to me at all.

But, I'm intrigued by the daily word counts that people who use dictation software seem to be achieving on a regular basis. Last year, I purchased a copy of Dragon on eBay, but sadly, despite the seller’s assurances, it was not compatible with my Mac. I even tried using the dictation element of Word, but ended up shouting at the computer when it consistently mocked my accent by mishearing things. I swear it was doing it on purpose.

Nevertheless, I was still intrigued by people who tell me how much they can get done during a limited period of the day just by talking to their computer rather than sitting with their fingers at the keyboard. You Lie. (That last bit the computer’s response to me giving the instruction “New line.” Hmm, is it passing comment, I wonder…?)

Yes, in case you haven’t get guessed, I’m using dictation software to write this blog. It’s my first attempt. Please bear with me.

I finally decided it was time to bite the bullet and give it a whirl, if your pub all be mixed metaphors. (Translation: if you’ll pardon all the mixed metaphors) I contacted a friend of mine who I know uses Dragon software and asked her opinion of it. She told me that she thought it was wonderful, but that last November Dragon stopped supporting their software for Mac, and now it’s stopped working. This greatly infuriated her, as she’d also been using the Voice app on her phone when she was out and then plugging it into her Mac when she got home and letting the two talk to each other. I’m not quite sure I'd be happy doing that—I think my devices might start plotting against me behind my back.

I've also found it a bit difficult when I tried using the dictation element in Word in that I kept stopping to wait for it to catch up with me. This, in turn, made me slow down and became an ever-decreasing circle. But, I recently watched a video interview with romance author, Danielle Norman. Danielle said that when she first started to write she had a form of cancer that meant it was very painful for her to physically type by hand. Dictation software was her only option and therefore she persevered.

She gave some excellent advice. First of which was to eat the elephant in small bites. Start small. Don’t go out and spend hundreds on expensive recording devices and software, but use the speech-to-text app on your phone to make short notes and go from there. Think out loud when you’re sketching out a chapter or scene, and then use that as a basis before you write.

I think that was supposed to be 'eating an elephant' not 'an elephant, eating'
courtesy: Pixabay
One of the best things Danielle advised was not to watch the screen while you talk. In fact, to turn away and not look at what you’re doing at all, which saves you getting distracted by the speed at which the words are appearing or not appearing on the screen in front of you. I’ve been talking this blog without looking at the screen, and have been staring fixedly at a spot on the printer by the side of my desk. It’s only when I went back to it later that I managed to see what I've typed and what I haven't.
New line (One “new line” it can cope with, but when I wanted two in a row, that clearly confused things.)

This was the first time I've tried using Google Docs and the Voice Typing element of that in order to dictate and I'm quite impressed with it so far. It seems much better than the dictation element of Word, which I tried previously. That could not get its head round my accent at all.We just ended up having arguments with each other, and when dictation software doesn't answer back that means it gets very passive aggressive. But, so far with this it's really rather good and I think I'm going to have a determined trial with it.

For one thing, it doesn't pick up the “ums” and “ahs” and the stutters but it does seem to catch the words and write them down, occasionally it mishears things but then, occasionally I mistype things so I can't hold that against him. (Hmm, I’m sure I said “it” at the end of that sentence, so VT has a gender as well as an agenda…) 
New line. (Yes, I know!)

OK, so occasionally I have to be quite sharp with it because I say “new line” and it just types in those words instead of doing the action but it does seem to guess when you want to put those words in the middle of a sentence and when you actually want it to take it as a command. Danielle suggests that you don’t worry about any other forms of punctuation except ‘new line’, to simply keep talking until you reach the end of a scene or chapter, and then to revise immediately—presumably so, in case of mangling, you don’t forget what it was you actually said.

For instance, the next bit of transcription I have is: ‘proxy slight note of irritation in my voice keeps it clue’. (Honestly, I have no idea what this was supposed to read.) But considering my somewhat mongrel accent, I think it's coping remarkably well. So, the question is, can I get this to work as a means of speeding me up writing the latest book? Well, that will be an interesting one to discover. I'm going to experiment with this over the next couple of weeks and will report back.

It wasn't entirely straightforward setting this up to work on my Mac. The Voice Typing element of Google Docs is apparently not compatible with the Safari browser, so I’ve had to open up Chrome instead. But, I’m using the internal microphone of my MacBook Air and, so far, so good.

Yes, it does seem to respond that little bit better if I get snappy with it—maybe that smooths out my accent a bit? And the text does appear on the page in fits and starts, so I definitely have to look at something else when I'm writing, but actually, that's no bad thing, because quite often I'm trying to write from notes, so I can concentrate on those instead.

Danielle said she writes about 6000 words over the course of an hour or so and then tidies them up, so she ends up with probably 3000 words or finished relatively Polish text (OK, that should be ‘polished’—she doesn’t write in Polish) in a morning. If I could do the same I would be a very happy bunny.

Danielle Norman
So, my question is, do you use dictation software of any form? Do you speak your requests into Google, or speak text messages while you’re in the car? Do you use it because you've got wrist problems or shoulder or neck or back problems? Do you use it to save time? Do you swear by dictation as a method of writing or, if you haven’t tried it, would it be something you’d consider? Have you tried it and gone back to writing by hand? I’d love to know!

This week’s Word of the Week is glossophobia, which means a fear of public speaking. It comes from the Greek, glossa meaning tongue, and phobos, fear or dread.


  1. I'd have to stop listening to music while I write - although it could lead to interesting results if my words get mixed up with some lyrics.

    1. Hi David. No reason why you couldn't listen to music while you're editing the stuff you dictated and getting it into shape? I love listening to music while I'm working, too, so I sympathise.

  2. We sometimes have to transcribe interviews at work. My manager is trying out some software that will, apparently, do the transcription for us. I shall be interested to see how it copes with accents because goodness knows, even WE struggle with that!

    1. Hi Lesley. I would have struggled with deciphering some of this if I hadn't only just dictated it. Having to make sense of something spoken by someone else, and auto-transcribed without a human ear being involved would be a whole different ball game, methinks. Good luck with that.

  3. Z, I sometimes dictate, rather than type messages and emails. I have used Dragon on my phone to capture something that occurs to me as I am walking along (We New Yorkers, and Florentines, do a LOT of walking. But since I cannot write anything much at all without music playing, I am afraid dictating wouldn't work when I am at my desk. Right now, for instance, Cecilia Bartoli is singing Rossini in italian the background. If I were dictating, what came out might loo genitor..ah si compensoi with other words voglio mai..

    On the subject of gender, I have said here before, I do believe that all computer software is masculine in nature--as it has traits that, to my way of thinking, are much more often found in the male personality than in the female. Like purporting be helping and not really doing so.

    1. lol, Annamaria, you might think that about your computer, but I couldn't possibly comment.

      In France last year, I relied on Ms Google for navigation, with the voice commands turned on. Her Franglais accent was wonderful. At one time she intructed me to take the "perry-ferricker" which turned out to be the périphérique.

      David Beckler also pointed out the problem of not being able to listen to music, but what about having music on headphones and dictating into your computer's inbuilt mic? I'll have to try that one...

  4. I thought maybe glossophobia was the fear of leaving out details (as in the fear of glossing over things...) Oh well.

    I wonder how well the voice transcription works with names of people and places, particularly ones invented by the author and which aren't in any dictionary.

    And no, I've never used it, other than a few brief experiments on my phone. I lean too much toward perfectionism when I'm writing: I hate writing a bunch of crap and then going back to fix it. I'd rather write it right, right from the get-go. Of course, that's a problem when what you're writing is crap. If you know what I mean. :-)

    1. Oh, yes, EvKa, I know that feeling well! The name problem was one Danielle mentions. If the name is an awkward one, she suggests you just say "Hero" or "Heroine" and go back to do a Find & Replace later.

      And yes, I prefer writing it once and getting it as close to being correct as I can, but at the same time I know that I write a lot faster if I'm working from notes, so I'm almost looking at my dictated words as my notes for what I'm about to write.

  5. Oddly enough I use it for the opposite reason as you, so to speak. I use my phone's simple note taking/dictation feature to make notes when reading an ARC for review purposes. So it doesn't matter too much if it messes up. It does amuse me sometimes with it's corrections. Much be the same "guys" who are taking my dictation on the text feature. Yes, I have been burned by text dictation, on texts to son. I learned VERY quickly to check dictation and to whom I plan on sending it.

    1. Hi Maureen. Predictive text sabotages me on a regular basis, so I can imagine what it must to when you're trying to send a text using dictation. What particularly annoys me is when it doesn't recognise a word, it appears to leave it unchanged apart from underlining it. As soon as I've hit Send, however, it changes the word to either what it wanted it to be, or just deletes it altogether. But that's on my phone. This is the same phone that, when I hit the mic icon and asked it to call my sister on her mobile number, paused a moment and then announced it was navigating me a route to Mobile, Alabama. I was in the UK at the time...

  6. Zoë, you've struck upon topic that runs to the essence of how I discovered I could write. For nearly twenty years virtually every document or bit of correspondence I created I did so by dictation. It's how law offices functioned. HOWEVER, that was just the beginning of my process in creating a document. At least a dozen rewrites followed, often bearing little resemblance to the original. My secretary deserved battle pay. THEN CAME WORD PROCESSORS. I had leaned to type in high school, but lawyers didn't use typewriters when they had secretaries--until the computer keyboard came into fashion.

    A magical thing happened: I found myself doing first drafts that required very little additional editing (affidavits and letters, not fiction). For some reason, when I type, the words flow differently than when I dictate, and to return to dictation I could not imagine.

    By the way, there is a psychological/physiological explanation for that. Psychologists have told me that people are wired differently. Some who write poorly in longhand, are completely different when typing and/or dictating. Alas, Dragon is not for me.

    1. Hi Jeff. I've always argued that because I touch-type quickly, there wouldn't be as much benefit from dictation, but actually I managed to plot out the notes for my next chapter tonight in about 20mins, which I've now printed out to use as the basis for writing by hand. I've always found I work faster from notes than when facing a blank screen, so I'll see how I go. At the moment, I'm just experimenting with ways to speed up and streamline my process. If I can talk myself a set of chapter notes in less than an hour, and then set to work, I think it might make things a lot easier.

      I know what you mean, though. I think more fluidly through my fingers than I do through my mouth. Anyone who's ever tried to get me to explain something to them probably knows this well!

    2. As long as it works for you it makes sense. I just don’t work efficiently in dictation mode. Finger fluidity is my mode for writing. Spoken words my mode for exercising glossa.

    3. Yes, I did wonder if I could use dictation software to make a more comprehensive record of the crime writing workshops I give occasionally. At the moment, I rely on bullet points to prompt me, and just talk around those points.

  7. Nope, no way. When I was recovering from the neurological fall out if the spinal fracture I tried this software- it didn't speak Scots at all. No swearing and every time I said 'Sean McTiernan' ( name of major character ) , it wrote Make Tea With Anne. And that made a different book!

  8. Hi Caro. I'm intrigued to know what might have happened if you'd actually said, "Make tea with Anne." A friend has just reported that he's tried using Google Voice Typing and it gets all coy when he asks it to use sweary words, putting in the initial letter and then a line of asterisks.

    I've heard that Dragon will learn your voice (but haven't tried it, I admit) and Danielle recommends that you train it by reading aloud from your latest finished book, so it gets to know the kinds of words you use and how you speak/write.