As a writer, I’m generally open to new ideas. I have always adored writing since I was small, but there’s still no doubt it can sometimes be a chore – both mentally and physically taxing – so I’m all ears for anything that makes that process easier, more efficient and more streamlined, as long as it doesn’t have a deleterious effect on quality.
As of yet, they haven’t invented an implant that can read straight from my brain and produce nuanced text on the page or screen. Although I’m sure Google are working on it and that someone else will shortly after be trying to weaponise it. But dictation tools have come a long way in recent years.
The Dragon range are the market leaders for this and, having never done it before, I recently embarked on a small experiment with their software to save my aching wrists from unnecessary grief.
I know writing isn’t as physically demanding as manual labour but, after more than 20 years as a journalist and magazine editor, dragging a mouse around and typing all day long, my wrists are in no fit state to work simultaneously on three or four books, keep up with email correspondence and do freelance writing all day. And blogging too.
I bought the software online (you can get a physical copy – some even bundled with mics, but I just went for the digital download) and picked a microphone headset that had good reviews from people who’d used it for dictation. You can have a handheld mic if you choose to, but I was looking to free up my hands. Free-standing mics are good too, but I wanted the flexibility of a headset and was more than prepared to look like a complete idiot in the comfort of my own home.
Training the software is relatively easy. They have some scripts for you to read while the software learns how you say certain words. I was delighted with the accuracy only ten minutes after I started. You’ll never get 100%, but then I make touch-typing mistakes galore too, so it’s swings and roundabouts.
I was pleased with the process too. There’s no doubt that it’s initially strange to leave your keyboard untouched and sit there talking to yourself. At first I had my eyes on the screen all the while, but after a few hours I was confident enough in the accuracy to sit back in my chair, glass of wine in hand and stare off into the distance. Yes, there’ll be errors in the book, but this is only a first draft, after all.
“It’s initially strange to leave your keyboard untouched and sit there talking to yourself”
Within a couple of hours, I’d dictated a 2000 word chapter of a non-fiction project from minimal notes. Two more hours later I’d got a second 3000 word chapter done. I kept my throat lubricated with Bordeaux.
The initial difficulties – forgetting to say ‘new paragraph’ or ‘open bracket’ – were soon forgotten. It becomes easier the more you do. As the project is non-fiction, there is little dialogue – I imagine that could be quite tiresome to do via Dragon. But that is one of its beauties – it doesn’t have to be the only thing you use. Don’t get into the mindset of either/or, but consider it a complementary tool for you to use.
I can see me using Dragon on days when my wrists hurt, or on days when I’ve been freelancing and I’m sick of the glare of a screen. I can see it being great for quick brainstorming. I can think of other occasions – dialogue, again, or when working with complex figures – where I’d prefer to be hands on.
“The dog is baffled as to who I’m talking to all the time”
I’m also yet to use its transcribing function, but I think that could be useful too. If you’ve got a modern smartphone you can use an app like Voice Record Pro and dictate into your phone when you’re walking, cleaning, having a bath or gardening. You then transfer the file to Dragon and it’ll transcribe it for you. I’ll report back on that once I’ve given it a go.
So, here are the key benefits:
– Less wear and tear on wrists.
– Less time spent staring at a screen.
– 5000 words in the very first session.
– Excellent accuracy – some words need to be trained better, but can also be put down to me having, as a former colleague once said, a voice like ‘a man lifting a fridge’.
– Not many more errors than I get when touch typing.
– I’m making more progress because I’m not tempted to go in and constantly correct typos or mistakes. When I type, I try and correct any errors as I see them, and get derailed. This is more stream of consciousness.
– Works well with Scrivener – I’m not worried about dictating something that doesn’t fit with the current section/chapter, as I can easily move it around afterwards.
And the negatives:
– Can feel unnatural initially, but I’m sure that’s a matter of practice.
– Occasional lulls where I’m struggling with what to say. I’ve already realised I need to have some structured notes to hand to make the most of this process.
– Will require more editing than typed work, definitely.
– Feel like I work in a call centre.
– Wife laughed at me when she got in from work and saw me wearing the headset.
– Unnerved dog who is frankly baffled as to who I’m talking to all the time.
– I suppose I could drink wine when typing.
This is very much an overview. If you really want to dig into Dragon, go to Scott Baker’s site. I discovered Dragon by hearing him talk about it on Joanna Penn’s podcast (you can find the interview here) and as well as excellent books on the topic, he also blogs about it, reviews hardware and more.