Sunday, 5 February 2012

Maybe I don't want to be a writer, maybe I want to be a dictator!

For Christmas last year my lovely husband gave me the rather practical gift of some software. Not the most romantic present, you might think, but as an IT consultant I spend my days working at a computer. Even on a good day, by the time I get the kids into bed and have some dinner the last thing I want to do is start typing again and my mouse clicking arm is beginning to show the worrying first signs of RSI. I had started scribbling the notes for my burgeoning novel into a book with a pencil, to avoid the dreaded computer, but the fact remains that at some point I'll have to find a way to share my work. Enter the Dragon…

The software he bought me recognises speech and converts it into electronic text. My first attempts produced some amusing results, for example:

Nicole this half a left-handed and there are and blinked hard.

 which was supposed to say:

Nicole gripped the edge of her chair and blinked hard.

Dragon Dictate builds up a profile of your voice, so the more you use it, the more accurate it gets. There are several training modules, set pieces of text that you read which it then uses as a benchmark to recognise your own text when you read it. It's not great at context, for example I write in the past tense so nearly all my verbs end in ED but it quite often writes "walk" when I said "walked". I'm getting better at speaking more clearly, and voicing my punctuation! 

One of the most useful features is that you can upload files of your existing writing, to help it recognise the vocabulary you use. This helps it to make more accurate guesses about what you're saying. For example, one of my characters is called Beth. The program repeatedly failed to recognise this word, however clearly I thought I was saying it. As soon as I had uploaded a couple of chapters about Beth the problem went away. 

Reading in the chapters I had hand written was really quick, but composing the story as I speak obviously takes longer. It's still quicker than typing for me though. In a typical one hour writing session I would get about 500 words done when typing. Now I'm dictating, the same hour seems to yield around 800 words. Maybe it's because I fuss less about how each paragraph hangs together, or spend less time cutting and pasting words around within a sentence. 

I will certainly have to spend more time proofreading the completed chapters, checking for the numerous small errors in recognition that the software still makes. For now, I'm happy to live with those as the improvement so far has been rapid. I may end up using it for everything, even tweets and e-mails (I am dictating this now)  though one disadvantage is that it's difficult to eat or drink at the same time. Even this could be interpreted as a good selling point,  as it will cut my tea and biscuit consumption dramatically!

Sara Boltman