Thursday, December 15, 2005

Taming the Dragon

I promised to post this info a while back, and I apologize to all who have been waiting to hear about it.

I now do most of my writing and correspondence via Dragon Naturally Speaking, Version 8.0 Standard, which is a voice recognition software program that allows me to dictate verbally versus type by hand. This version of the software costs around $99.00 (last price check I made at Office Depot) and supports most current word processing programs (always check out the system requirements before you buy.)

I am typing this blog entry with the Dragon, btw, as I do most of my posts.

Before I get into how great the program has been for me, let me warn you that the Dragon is not for everyone. Speaking your work can be quite different from typing it, and some writers have told me that they were not able to make the transition. Also, if you have a speech impediment, slur your words or have any sort of related voice impairment you may have trouble training the Dragon to understand you. Finally, this is an excellent program, but it can require some work learning it, using it efficiently, and incorporating it into your daily writing routine. My advice to everyone is to find someone who has the software or a store willing to demo it and see how it works before you invest.

The Dragon offers a good demo and do-yourself program tutorial, which I also recommend everyone go through from start to finish. Version 8.0 Standard has about 17 lessons, I think, and you nail the basics of how to run the program by working through them in order. The accompanying manual is also well-written and helps a great deal.

Voice recognition requires you to wear a headset and speak into a microphone. I use the one that came with the software as it works fine with me. Nearly everything you do in the Dragon when it's enabled is by voice, so it's a lot of speaking. After several years of using the software daily I average about 100-120 accurate words per minute; I started out at about 40 wpm with lots of mistakes. I got into the habit of correcting my mistakes as I made them, which helps train the program to recognize your speech patterns, too.

Talking to the Dragon is different for everyone. I imitate Dave Bowman (Keir Dullea) from 2001: A Space Odyssey when he's talking to the ship's computer. Remember Open the pod bay doors, HAL before the shouting part? Like that. Some writers have told me that their accent interferes, but I've not had a problem with that (and Larissa Ione can tell you how bad my southern accent is.) Basically even, steady dictation is what the Dragon recognizes best.

I use a good amount of coined and exotic words in my work, so I've also learned a little trick. It started with Cherijo, which the Dragon kept interpreting as Cherry Joe, Cheery Ho, Sherry Go and a couple of other annoying variations. To save time, through the book I began referring to Cherijo in dictation as Jerry, a more common name that the Dragon easily recognized. When I was done the book, I did a find-and-replace of Jerry with Cherijo. The same thing can be done with exotic words, places, names and such; just make sure the common substitute name you use is one you don't use anywhere else in the work.

I work mainly in Dragon Pad, which is the note pad/word processing program that comes with the software, then cut and paste the work I've done to Microsoft Word for review later during the daily editing session. The program will work fine directly in Word; it's just an old habit I've never shaken. I also take advantage of the auto-punctuation feature which adds in periods and commas automatically to save using those commands (the Dragon can be a bit arbitrary about punctuation with slow or hesitant speakers, though, so this might cause you some headaches if you pause a lot.)

The more you use the Dragon, the smarter and more accurate it becomes, and the more comfortable you'll be with using it. Unfortunately your voice needs a bit of training, too; few people are able to speak steadily for more than an hour or two without courting laryngitis. I do one hour on the microphone, thirty minutes off, and speak about four hours total per work day (the rest of the time I type or handwrite edit notes.) I also find mornings are better for using the Dragon, as I'm rested from the night's sleep; the end of the day and late night tend to be more of a strain on the vocal cords.

I've been recommending the Dragon to other handicapped writers for several years, but I think it can be a benefit to regularly-abled writers too. Sometimes talking out the draft of a scene can help polish it, nail down dialogue, etc. Writers who have no practice reading their work in public can certainly use the Dragon as a sounding board. In ancient times all storytellers had were their voices to deliver their work, so in a way the Dragon allows us to get in touch with our origins.

Anyone have any questions about the program I can answer, or comments about your own experiences with the Dragon or other voice recognition software?


  1. Anonymous11:32 PM

    This is fabulous! I'm not sure I can actually be that steady when I speak, but it certainly is intriguing.

    I think if I can master the habit of speakign instead of just typing that would be so good for me. Cuz I really suck at typing. LOL

  2. Awww! It's taken me years to be able to type at @95-100wpm. Okay, and be smug about it. Now I can do the same with voice?? Hmm...

    Right. I can be smug about that too... since part of my journalism training dealt with radio... and I have an English parent who speaks proper Ingerlish. I wonder if it's available here?

    Off to check...

  3. I'm in a fairly TWEET noisy environment SQUEAK with YELL five budgies, three MUNCH MUNCH guinea pigs, two YELL SHOUT WAAH kids and a SMOOCH wife.
    I've tried speech to text before now without BOOM BOOM BOOM much success because I also like to listen to TADA CRASH music while I work. Then there's the RING RING phone and the KNOCK KNOCK door (who's there?)
    It was back in the Dragon v5 days, so perhaps it's got better at destroying extraneous sounds since then (or else the mike is really, really short range.)
    I type at around 60wpm but voice would be useful when my hands quit for the day. Switching between the two could be a good idea.
    One question - is it easy to transfer the learning files from one PC to another? If I train the laptop I wouldn't want to also train the desktop.

  4. Anonymous2:26 AM

    My CP uses Dragon and has for years, but I've never had any success with it. I've had it through three versions, up to 7.0, I think, and no go.

    I don't have an accent, and I used to be a television news reader, so I speak clearly. It drives me crazy that I can't get it to work for me. Writing, when it's going well, that is to say, in a burst of inspiration, I'd rather be typing. But, when I'm brainstorming, I'd love to be able to use Dragon, because everything's coming through faster than even I can type. Yeah, I used to be one of those 90wpm people.

    My CP says she uses almost a monotone, and she's a Brit, so she has that accent. I've gone through the "training" for me and it several times, switched headsets ditto and still the results I get would be hysterically funny, if I weren't so frustrated I want to throw the computer out the nearest window. I have to remind myself it's not the computer causing the problems. >>:}

    Do you have any idea what my problem is?

  5. Anonymous7:53 AM

    I never considered voice recognition software, but I've now heard a lot of authors admit they use it (and Dragon seems to be pretty popular). The idea seems odd to me, because I can't imagine NOT typing to write. I'm also not sure it would be very effective for me as speaking aloud, for my cats, translates as, "Mom wants me to come over and walk across the keyboard!" I'm not sure my writing would be better with expletives and shouting to get down added into the text.

  6. LOL! Your accent isn't that bad. I mean, words like "cat" and "knit" have two syllables, right? *g*

    The software sounds COOL! I'll work my way up there eventually...right now I've got a digital voice recorder on my Christmas list! :)

  7. Anonymous10:59 AM

    Cheery Ho? *giggles*

    I don't think I'd be able to use voice recognition software to write, at least not if I was still able to type without problems; I think much better when I'm typing than when I'm talking. Also, I think I'd be too self-conscious. I have a hard enough time typing scenes where people die horribly, for instance; I can read them aloud after I write them, but I don't know if I could compose them out loud.

  8. Anonymous12:28 PM

    Hi PBW,

    Thanks for posting this, I was looking forward to it ;o).

    I have used version 4 long time ago and I gave up. Then I used version 7 and I tried hard to train it, but I had no much joy. I was writing my first draft and I was avoiding to go back and edit it (and I was getting annoying mistakes that were completely different from what I wanted to say). I ended up with loads of garbage as when I eventually went back to edit my text, I could not remember what words I wanted to use in the first place.

    I like to persevere so I also bought version 8 and I wanted to use it for my Nano, but after about 4 days I gave up as I was not making the progress I hoped. A friend suggested training Dragon outside the writing sessions, so I don't get so frustrated if it does not work as expected. Now, reading your post, I still think it's a good idea to use it while writing.
    I'm a lousy typist and I'd really like it to work. I believe speaking one's novel instead of writing it could become easier with practice. It should work, but somehow I became disheartned at the big number of mistakes. Maybe I'm not speaking right, as otherwise I cannot fault the hardware (3.0 MHz processor, 1GB Ram, a Platronics headset).
    Once I finish my WIP, I'll have to go back and try Dragon again.

    Best Wishes,


  9. Anonymous1:06 PM

    $99 dollars, eh? I don't think I'd use that program (speech impediment), but I have a brother who'd love it. Right now he uses IMB Speech Pad.

  10. It's interesting that your voice is better in the morning. Most singers hate, hate singing in the morning. I know I have a much wider range later in the day. I guess speaking and singing are different enough that opposite times of the day are better for each. :)


  11. Larissa, see about getting a digital voice recorder that's compatible with the software (check the dragon website for a list or check the recorder's packaging). That would really work to your advantage.

  12. About two years ago, I broke both of my arms in an accident...while in the midst of writing/producing a TV series and writing a novel. Dragon software saved me. It's a wonderful program, but I haven't used it since. My problems weren't with the software -- it was with me. I had a hard time "writing" out loud. I needed the feel of the keys under my fingers, the ability to easily move things around. Everything I "wrote" using the software I rewrote as soon as I got one arm free from a cast (the right arm took many more months before I could write with it).

  13. I don't know if I could do Dragon. i've heard a lot about but the idea of speaking it~eh, my hands need to be more involved. I can see my speaking and trying to keyboard at the same time.

    i just need my hands to write. of course, at some point, carpal tunnel is going to become even more of an issue.

  14. Actually, Dragon in my experience works better if you do not speak with a monotone. Sure, it's rough at the beginning, but it learns as you do :).

    Me, I basically lost use of both hands for several months and ended up trying voice recognition long before the "natural language" versions. What I learned was that no matter how frustrating it is, you make it work when you need to. Trouble is, I haven't kept up with it, though I went through another bad patch and upgraded to Dragon 8. I need to get back into the habit of working with it, both because it does improve my writing and because it's good to have it trained.

    I can answer a couple questions though:

    1) I use Dragon with music going (not loud music cause it's not what I prefer, but music) and my kids fighting in the background (because some days that seems like all they do) and 8.0 handles the background fine. If yours doesn't test out as well, upgrade the mic that came in the package to something more sensitive that can distinguish between the two.

    2) Can you transfer the files? Sometimes the software lets you. I don't remember if 8.0 does, but you can still trick it. The 8.0 files are a bit hidden, in the docs and settings profile section if I remember correctly (okay, so I looked: C:\Documents and Settings\All Users\Application Data\ScanSoft\NaturallySpeaking8), but if you copy them to your new installation in the same spot, it'll pick it up as if done on that computer. I'd do the whole Data directory to make sure you get both the training and the user initialization.

    Sheila, thanks for mentioning this. I've been encouraging a friend through parts of it and it helps to know that even someone as efficient as you are can use Dragon and use it well :). Now to remember to use it myself.


  15. Sigh. And I forgot the most important thing I wanted to say.

    Before I used voice recognition, I avoided places where dialogue should be like the plague, my characters were big time internalizers and my dialogue was awful. Using voice rec, even when I had to Talk. Like. This. Because. It. Only. Knew. Individual. Words. ;) helped me make the connection between real speech and dialogue in my stories. Now, people say I have good dialogue and I just laugh :D.

    Cheers again,

  16. Since I am quadriplegic do too neuromuscular disease, I have been using Dragon products since they were written in DOS. I will tell you now what I have been saying all along, "Voice-recognition software does not work like it does in episodes of Star Trek!" (Unless you count the episodes where the computers are being eaten by some weird nano-virus.)

    When I use Dragon NaturallySpeaking in chat -- where I do not even try to keep up with editing as I go, my friends say that talking to me is like talking to the oracle at Delphi. Part of the fun is figuring out how to interpret what was said!

    Some of them are pretty good at Lisa-speak!

    Of course, I have broken every rule in using Dragon. I go all day -- roughly from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. talking to my machine. When I have a cold, it gets particularly creative in interpreting my speech.

    I have also noticed that when I tried the hardest to be clear to the Dragon, it was most likely to misunderstand me.

    Yes, this as a love-hate relationship, and it's certainly beats watching daytime TV!

  17. Lynn,

    I was referred to your Dragon post by a chapter member as I'm considering buying Ver 9 of Dragon. I tried to find your website or a contact email, but failed.

    Are you still in love with the program? Do you by chance have any feedback you could share with me. Feel free to email me at monicaburns @ (no spaces btwn the @). You seemed happy with the program in your blog post, just wanted to see what version you were using now.

    Thanks! Monica


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