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.

Me and My Sci-Fi Chair

My office looks like the command center of a space ship. A low budget space ship with a clutter problem, perhaps, but futuristic nonetheless. Many years ago I banished my cheap ergonomic keyboard and kitchen chair and replaced them with a keyboard system.

I literally waited for this keyboard for years. I tested out a prototype in physical therapy in 1995 (not a typo, I’m that old), and after a few moments of typing I knew that I had found my soul mate. Ok. So it doesn’t exactly have a soul, but it’s definitely one of the first things I’d grab in an emergency of the house destruction kind. Unfortunately, as a newly developed device, it was also in a price range that made it unobtainable to a recent college grad and new homeowner. So I waited.

Sometime after I tested the prototype, the keyboard developers joined forces with a chair manufacturer and released it as a combined system known as Interfaces by Cramer. After a while Interfaces was bought by Kinesis and they renamed the keyboard Evolution. Kineses made a desktop model, an under desk arm suspended model, and the chair mounting model.

The Interfaces/Evolution keyboard is a truly split keyboard, not this halfway stuff you find in a standard ergo keyboard, it’s often referred to as a floating keyboard. Half of the keyboard attaches to the right armrest of my chair and the other half attaches to the left armrest. I can put my feet up on the desk and still type, if I were inclined. I’m not. But I could if I wanted to. There’s an integrated track pad, I opted for the left hand version after discovering that you couldn’t get it on both sides (eventually there was a model that had it on both sides). Each armrest is adjustable, and each section of the keyboard will raise, lower, pivot or tilt to the position most comfortable to the user. A not insignificant percentage of the population can’t comfortably pronate their hands (that’s the palm-down position necessary with most keyboards). For everyone else, it’s still a good idea to change your position from time to time. My system allows for all of that.

The chair was a bit of an unexpected boon. I’d always ignored my seating arrangement when writing. At one time I didn’t have a chair at all; the computer was only a foot or two off the floor on a couple of milk crates, so there wasn’t room for a chair. This wasn’t ideal for my back, or so I was told after I developed a pinched nerve. The kitchen chair was better, but what the heck is lumbar support, anyway? Most office chairs I’ve used aren’t suited for six-foot tall people with absurdly long legs. Whatever.

Now when I sit down to write, I am in control. I am the commander of all I see (at least until the computer crashes, proving who’s really in charge). I get delusions of grandeur. I can really put myself on those spaceships I occasionally write about. Who better to enjoy this technological masterpiece than a sci-fi writer? The real bonus, of course, is that I can type for longer periods of time without my arms threatening to secede from the union of me. This is critical because I still do all my editing by keyboard.

Granted it isn’t all roses. This split keyboard took some getting used to. It probably didn’t help that I taught myself to type and didn’t use the right fingers for anything (what is this “home row” you speak of?). It’s a long way to reach for a key on the other side of the board. When I first got started, I often had to watch one hand to make sure it was doing what it ought. It was initially really tough to alternate between the god of keyboards at home and the regular old ergo I use at my paying job. The keyboard and chair take up a lot more space than you’d expect, and I have to be careful not to smack the keyboard against the desk when I turn. 

The most unfortunate thing, however, is that ultimately Kinesis decided the Evolution just wasn’t popular enough and discontinued it. You can sometimes find a used one for sale on E-Bay or Craig’s List; I actually picked up a second one a few years ago this way. I look into it periodically, and so far no one is making anything quite like this, and I fear its eventual demise.

Its nice to enjoy some of the benefits of technology I write about and dream about from time to time. A lot of them could be closer that we realize, but in a capitalist economy, the price point and sales figures may make them quickly obsolete.

Writer Tech

On Saturday I’m moderating a panel at Marscon on technology for writers.  My focus tends to be on adaptive tech for disabled writers, but I’ve also gotten into some of  the cloud based and collaborative programs that are great for critque, editing, and working on a project with other writers.  

What tech do you use that you would want to be sure I bring up?

The Benefits of Writing Tech

I grew up as a writer, it was the one thing I was always comfortable with. As a kid, I claimed I was going to be a pharmacist, just like my dad. But he’d seen my math scores and knew better.

My earliest stories were written in pencil or pen in spiral notebooks. I had atrocious handwriting. Still do, actually. My dad gave me his college typewriter when I was ten, and suddenly my writing gained new clarity. The typewriter was probably twice my age, and it was one of those cheap models with no frills. Frills such as an exclamation point or the number 1. It had no correction ribbon, and whiteout became my new best friend. If I typed too fast the keys would stick together. The carriage return was completely manual. The shift key lifted up the whole carriage with a heavy clank, dropping it twice as loud. My skinny little fingers would sometimes get stuck between the keys, and when I look at it now I wonder that my ten-year old hands were able to bang away for hours at the thing.

The affordable home computer changed the world of writing forever, at least until we have a zombie/plague/asteroid apocalypse. Writers can now concentrate on creating rather than the agony of retyping their five-hundred page masterpiece for the sixteenth time because they’ve made some revisions. Typos are easy to fix. We have the luxury of cut and paste, spell check, and a printer conveniently located in our residence. Many of today’s writers didn’t have to endure the pre and early techno days. Others have locked these memories away behind a tightly locked door with a sign that says do not open until Armageddon. Well, except for Stephen King, who appears to have a fondness for Underwood typewriters.

It’s good to reflect on the changes in the past thirty or forty years simply because it is our heritage as writers. How can we know where we’re going, if we don’t know where we’ve been or how far we’ve come? And it’s good to remind ourselves, when we’ve got a virus or our hard drive has crashed, that there was a time when we didn’t have it so easy.

Early word processors, the dinosaurs, were an improvement over manual typing, simply because you could save your work. My first word processor was called Magic Desk, and it was a cartridge for the Commodore 64. I had to save each page separately. Cut and paste didn’t exist. The five-inch floppies were difficult to take care of, and disk cases were out of my price range. There was no saving to the hard drive in those days. Spell check involved keeping Webster’s close at hand.

Then there came such advancements as Word Star and Word Perfect, the DOS versions. Hitting the wrong key combination could be devastating in those days. What you saw on the screen was not necessarily what you got on printout, but there were a bundle of new features in this state of the art hardware and software. There would be no more manual underlining for me. Insert and type-over were a sheer delight, once I’d figured out which was which. And the cut and paste features were beyond my expectations. I met my first spell checker, and it was good.

With today’s word processors, the art of writing has become streamlined. We’ve removed some of the tedious and unpleasant tasks associated with editing and revising, other than working with the words themselves. We’re no longer required to have perfect spelling, though homonyms are still problematic and grammar checkers continue to suck. We have voice recognition software for those who have difficulty with typing. There are programs specifically designed for writers that help you organize your character, world, and plot details. Publishing continues to work through its massive upheaval, with electronic and print on demand options opening doors for a lot of writers who had no chance with the traditional model (and not because they’re bad writers).

Despite all these advancements, it is still essential for a writer to have a grasp of the language she writes in, or she’ll fail to tell the story she intends to. We still need to practice and hone our craft, trying new things and stretching once in a while to create things that are new and interesting. No matter how sophisticated the programming, technology alone will not make you a writer. It can only aid you in getting the job done. Writing itself has not necessarily gotten easier, even if the peripheral aspects have. That which is truly worthwhile is rarely ever easy, though it’s nice to be able to focus on the words and the story more than the mechanism for recording them.

Adaptation

Artistic individuals often like to make the creative process more mysterious and confusing than it truly is. Many writers, for example, insist that certain conditions must be met in order to write. These may include silence, a locked door, a special location, a specific frame of mind, or even a well-rehearsed ritual.

Ask these sorts of writers to change their difficult ways, and they will vehemently insist that modification is impossible.

While it is true that our own inhibitions may color our writing techniques, those who are truly driven will adjust, should the need arise. The human species has an incredible ability to adapt to nearly anything. We can be found living in the coldest and hottest places on earth. We have figured out how to survive in the driest and wettest climates. We’re quite capable of compensating for our weaknesses, physical, mental, or otherwise. Everyone has heard at least one story of a physically handicapped individual overcoming perceived insurmountable odds. Likewise, we have all heard of at least one dyslexic who somehow managed to make it through high school without anyone ever knowing they were different.

We are resilient, although many of us seem think we are incredibly fragile. Our evolution and history have been complicated and dangerous, and it is our resilience and ability to adapt that have gotten us where we are today.

Change is difficult, and to be honest, most writers won’t do it without good reason. Really good reason. We like our habits, our rituals, and our crutches, although we don’t truly need them. They are like a comfortable old armchair or a favorite pair of jeans. They are the kind of possession that can never be stolen, however, they can be taken away.

I used to be the kind of writer who did everything with pen and paper. When I first discovered the typewriter, I realized that my writing could go quicker and be more legible if I was willing to adapt. I’m a fast writer, the kind who always comes back later to edit, so although typing was a complicated process I was willing to persevere. The word processor was really only a minor modification to my writing technique, making rewrites a lot easier. While the computer confined me to one location, the editing possibilities made it well worth the modification. I still picked up my pen and pad for the times I chose to write away for my computer.

When I developed tendinosis, I was essentially forced to put down my pen permanently. I learned to type while wearing splints and straps, which greatly hampered by hand mobility. I learned to keep my keyboard in my lap. I also found out that taking breaks was a necessity if I wanted to be able to tie my shoes after day of writing. I still like to go on location and leave the confines of my cramped cluttered computer room, and spent many years unable to do so. As soon as I could afford to do so, I invested in a laptop which essentially had no other purpose than to take me places to people watch, world build, and write when away from home.

Eventually, further modifications to my writing technique were required. Between an office job and writing, I was doing more typing than my arms could handle, even with splints and breaks. A writer at heart, I have never been a particularly good speaker. I could barely type quickly enough to keep up with my mind, and my voice lagged woefully behind. Although I had been aware of voice recognition software since the mid-1990s, I had no particular interest in using it for quite some time. It was inaccurate. It wasn’t my “style.” I didn’t have a computer powerful enough to run it anyway. But these were all excuses. I’m a slave to my muse, and have learned to adapt. Starting in 2000 voice recognition became my primary method for writing initial drafts.

For a while these necessary adaptations resulted in my writing being more restricted. It could only happen in the same room, to avoid altering the acoustics and messing with the software.  I had to be alone or it felt like someone was reading over my shoulder. With time and practice, dictation came easier, and I no longer need to banish all living beings from the room, floor, or house. Changing my methods resulted in better control of my tendonosis which has made it possible for me to do a little handwriting or typing on a tablet if I want to work off-site. The path wasn’t easy, and I often resented the need for it, but in the end, it’s made me a better writer and stronger person.

This article was written using Dragon NaturallySpeaking and revised using a split floating keyboard once known as Interfaces by Cramer.