Writing With the Dragon: A Voice Recognition Primer

So you’re a writer, and you’ve heard about voice recognition software. Perhaps you’re considering using it, because it sounds like a pretty nifty invention. Then again, you may have maimed yourself along the way and need alternative ways to get your stories out of your head and onto paper.

Most people who get as far as trying out voice recognition software are either curious or desperate. If you’re curious, you can probably skip ahead to the next paragraph. If you’re in the desperate category, as I once was, I can already hear the arguments forming. “Voice recognition? No way! I think with my fingers, not with my mouth.” Many writers get apoplectic when you even suggest the smallest modification to their routine. Hogwash, I say. The human species is incredibly adaptable, and the muse will not leave you simply because you have changed your ways. It’s plain stupid, not brave, to put up with and add to your pain when there are options. Trust me on this, I’ve been plenty stupid and wasted a lot of time not being able to write, which turns me into an unhappy, nasty, insomniac.

There are a lot of things to keep in mind when considering voice recognition software. I use Dragon NaturallySpeaking, but most of these tips are applicable to any recognition program.

Modify your expectations – it won’t be perfect, especially not right away.

Many people expect voice recognition software to be absolutely perfect from the get go and are then quite disappointed by the results. You will have to spend some time training the program to recognize your voice before you can even start to use the software. Initial training isn’t difficult or time consuming; these days it can be completed in as little as five to ten minutes. Since no two people pronounce everything exactly the same, the program has to tailor itself to the individual voice, so each user has their own profile. A good program will continue to learn and adapt after the initial training as the voice profile is used and corrections are made. I don’t expect my current software to recognize me with 100% accuracy. Maybe some of the upgrades down the way will, but until then, I expect to make corrections during my dictation, and with practice there have been fewer. Despite the need for occasional corrections, it is still faster than I used to type on a good day. Again, don’t expect to be fast right away. Remember, learning curve.

Train yourself, not just the software

Historically, speech has not been my preferred option for communication.  In using Dragon, I’ve had to train myself to speak properly. I’ve learned to enunciate, at least when I’m dictating. I’ve also learned to speak stories in complete sentences. This may sound frighteningly basic, but for those of us who are biologically wired to create via the written word, speaking a story is a new and clumsy process. Story tellers and story writers are not the same thing.

The first story I wrote with Dragon was an exercise in academic torture. Each sentence and phrase came out about three words at a time with great long pauses in between as I tried to figure out what I was doing. I’ve never had to think so hard when writing before, or since. Dragon NaturallySpeaking is designed to recognize natural speech, so you don’t need to talk slower than usual. The software uses context for selecting the proper homonym. It also uses context to attempt to catch misrecognition so you don’t have to make as many corrections. My slow and stilted style from the first few months gave the Dragon quite a challenge.

While you may not have the ideal set up, get as close to ideal as possible.

If your system comes out on the low end during the initial sound test, double check the microphone. How far is it from your mouth? Adjust it, and try again. Placement can make a significant difference. Are you talking into the right side of the microphone? Mine was rotated about 45 degrees off for the first six months or so, and since it recognized my speech with reasonable accuracy I didn’t check it for a long time. The recognition improved a lot with proper orientation. Also make sure you’re plugged into the right jacks on the computer. Most newer computers don’t give you a lot of options in this department, and sockets and plugs tend to be nicely color coded.

I’m using Dragon NaturallySpeaking Preferred version 10. Processor speed and memory are the two most significant factors and hard drive space is less of an issue these days, although voice files can get pretty big. I also started out with the freebie microphone that came with the software, but upgraded to an Andrea USB microphone with built in sound card. The advantage is that its sound card is designed solely for speech, while a regular sound card has to try to manage everything from video games to symphonies, resulting in lower quality speech processing.

I use Dragon in LibreOffice Writer, though it’s not fully compatible. I can run basic commands, but can’t control the entire word processor by voice. If I wanted to use Microsoft Word (which I really, really don’t), it would allegedly be fully compatible.  I’ll also use the built in Dragon Pad and copy/paste everything over to Writer when I’m done with the session.

Know when to save. 

Every time I close Dragon, it asks if I want to save the changes to my voice files. If I say no, any corrections I made to misrecognized words or new words and names that I taught it during the session will not be added to the voice profile. Generally you want to save your voice files as often as possible. I also keep an offsite backup since I’ve trained the software to recognize a number of unusual, foreign, and science fiction specific words. If I have a sore throat, stuffy nose, or a cold, I don’t save my voice files. I’ve not gotten around to creating a profile for my sick/asthma writing days, but this is a good option, particularly when you have an ailment that tends to linger or come up routinely.

Don’t give up. 

I would never say that it is easy to learn to use this software, and I constantly challenge people who claim it is. But it’s not impossible. People who naturally think in a spoken form will have an easier time of it. Expect to correct errors (and remember that it’s not always the fault of the program). Rewiring your brain takes time, but it’s good for you.

Tips for Starting Out

  • To prevent voice strain, always have something to drink on hand, and actually drink it. I use a straw so I don’t have to keep adjusting the microphone. Don’t try to speak unusually loudly or quietly, and take breaks.
  • When first starting out, do it when no one else is home. You’ll feel less like someone is reading over your shoulder.
  • Limit external noises such as music or fans. I’ve found that Dragon gets annoyed when my dogs bark.
  • Don’t dictate right after eating, especially if you have had chocolate or dairy products which can coat the vocal cords. Gargling with salt water or drinking grapefruit juice sometimes helps.
  • Let yourself be amused. If Dragon makes a mistake, laugh. It’s not the end of the world.
  • Do not bite your microphone when you get mad at misrecognition; it hurts.

Other notes:

Dragon NaturallySpeaking recognizes two forms of speech. Natural speech for when you are dictating, and command speech for your instructions to the program. Commands work best when issued separate from dictation. You will develop a command tone of voice.

Some of my favorite Dragon commands include:

  • “What can I say?” To provide a listing of verbal commands
  • “Correct that” To bring up a correction box for the the last chunk of text dictated
  • “Scratch that” To remove the last chunk of text dictated from the document
  • “Go to sleep” To turn off your microphone until you use the “wake-up” command
  • “Click file save” Which will give you the file drop-down menu followed by a virtual click on save.

Some of my favorite Dragonisms (errors in recognition) are posted on this page (cause this one was getting too long). It’s good for a laugh.

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Author of adult and young adult speculative fiction (fantasy, science fiction, dark fiction)

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