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Dictating Fiction

I love to knit, but knitting doesn’t love me. About a year ago, I developed something known as “knitter’s elbow,” which is basically the same kind of tendonitis one gets from playing too much tennis or golf. Unfortunately, elbow tendonitis makes it painful to spend hours using a keyboard or a mouse.

What’s a writer to do? When my tendonitis first flared I was on deadline for A Small-Town Bride with 20,000 words left to make my word count. Since my publisher had already given me extra time, I didn’t have the option of pushing back the deadline without missing my publication spot.

So I reluctantly purchased a copy of Dragon Naturally Speaking software, probably the best-known voice-to-text software available in the marketplace. My expectations for the software weren’t very high, to tell you the truth. I’d heard horror stories about voice-to-text being unable to accurately recognize words or accents. Plus I didn’t want to spend the sixty bucks.

But I sucked it up and bought the software. I’ve used it for more than a year, and here are my observations, tips, and thoughts about the program to dictate fiction.

Microphone Set Up

The software comes with a microphone headset with a stereo connector that’s designed to use the mic jack on your computer.  But for a variety of reasons having to do with the way my PC is set up, the mic jack was not available, so right off the bat I had to purchase a Logitech USB headset, which set me back an additional $40. I also had some difficulty getting my computer to recognize the USB headset. So all in all, I spent several hours pulling out hair before my microphone worked properly. So be prepared for some set-up frustration right off the bat.

Wait, Wait My Brain Doesn’t Work That Way

So after a couple of hours of teeth-gnashing and a trip to Best Buy for the aforementioned headset, I was finally ready to dictate. I strapped on my mic, opened a Word document, and…

Holy crap! I had nothing to say.

This is the hardest thing about using voice-to-text. It’s not the frustrating set up or the accuracy of the software, it’s learning a whole new way of writing.

I’m from a generation where girls learned to type at a young age because secretarial work was often the only work available.  So I linked my brain to my fingertips at a young and impressionable age. Now, years later, I was presented with a blank computer screen with plenty of words in my head but no way to comfortably get them onto the page.

The first time I used dictation software, I had to sit on my hands to force myself to speak instead of type.

My brain needed to be re-trained, and that took time and practice. I had to get over a certain amount of shyness about speaking words out loud instead of typing them. This is especially true when I was writing scenes loaded with sexual tension. I also discovered that my brain-to-mouth vocabulary is different from my brain-to-fingers vocabulary. Using dictation affected my voice.

But it saves time, right?

No. In my experience dictating takes longer than typing, but keep in mind that I type faster than 100 words a minute. I can’t dictate that fast.

First of all, while Dragon Naturally Speaking is surprisingly accurate, I have to speak slowly. Talk too fast and the software will produce gibberish. Plus it has a nasty habit of recording everything, even when I stumble over words.  (Or when someone comes into the room and asks me a question and I respond.)

Equally important, as noted above, I find myself searching for words. I’ve discovered that speaking slowly keeps my mouth and brain in sync, and this allows me to take a little more time to consider my words in a way that I don’t when I type. When I dictate slowly, I use a richer vocabulary and my writer’s voice shines through. When I dictate too quickly, the text sounds conversational.

Editing

At first, I used Dragon exclusively for generating new words that I edited by hand. I did this because editing via voice-to-text required the mastery a long list of editing commands. The learning curve for this is steep, and I frequently got frustrated.

But my tendonitis kept flaring and when the revisions for A Small-Town Bride arrived, I had to force myself to learn the editing commands or face the reality of giving up writing altogether. So I buckled down and learned how to edit by voice.  

It was worth the effort. Not only did editing by voice save my elbow, I discovered that handling my edits using my voice is so much faster than doing it on a keyboard.

This is because the software allows me to search and highlight phrases without using any of Word’s commands for search or find. I simply tell the software where to place the cursor. The commands allow me to insert, delete, or make punctuation changes. Once I learned the commands, I discovered that it was faster to edit by voice alone.

Dragon and Scrivener

Over the last year, dictation software has become one of the many tools I use as a writer. But there is one thing about Dragon Naturally Speaking that could definitely be improved– it doesn’t work directly in Scrivener.

I can dictate words into something called a dictation box and transfer them into Scrivener’s work-space. But I can’t edit any words in Scrivener. So when I’m editing, I have to copy words from Scrivener, paste them into Word, edit them, and then copy the edited text back into Scrivener. This is a pain in the neck.

But I’m wedded to the way scrivener organizes my novels, so I put up with it.

Accuracy and other weirdness

I’m currently writing a book about witches. Dragon Naturally Speaking is surprisingly smart at determining which witch is which. (In fact I just dictated that phrase and Dragon got it right.) More important, it seems to learn as it goes along. For example, one of my characters is named Sheela, and I had no trouble teaching the software this unusual spelling. The software is smart, adaptable, and improves the more I use it.

But don’t try to write a sentence that has the word “spell” in it. Most of the time when I dictate the word “spell,” Dragon immediately opens the spelling box. It’s annoying as hell. None of my witches can work any magic, although the word “potion” poses no problem at all. To get around this, I have to make sure that the word “spell” is dictated in the middle of a sentence. If I hesitate at all, the word “spell” will open a spelling box. I have similar problems with the word “space,” which is the command for moving the cursor forward one space.

 Finally, speaking too fast or mumbling definitely affects accuracy. If I speak too fast, it’s not unusual for the software to confuse the’s and a’s. It also sometimes misses word endings so a verb like walked might show up in text as walk.

Bottom Line

I would highly recommend Dragon Naturally Speaking to any author suffering from repetitive motion issues or tendonitis. Aside from editing, though, I still prefer to write my first drafts using a keyboard. But the software has proved to be a lifesaver when my elbow is too painful to use a keyboard or a mouse. Without it I would never have met my deadline for A Small-Town Bride.

So what about you? Have you tried dictation software? What do you think about it? I’d love to share experiences, and I’m happy to take questions.

(This blog was completely dictated and edited using Dragon NaturallySpeaking software.)

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