April 11, 2014

My Dragon and Me

As many of you know since I’ve been talking about this on twitter I recently started using Dragon Dictate version 4 on my Mac. I wrote a lot of books last year and in February of this year I hit send out my latest single title and promptly wanted to cut my hands off.

I took a couple weeks off because fortunately this coincided with my trip to England, but when I got back the pain started right back up again. Everything was starting to feel like a burden, from blog posts to deadlines.

I had a lot of anxiety over this because I had tried speech recognition software before and felt like it was impossible. I have said more than once that my words come out of my fingers, and there’s no way I could say them because that just isn’t the way the process works.

But, dealing with pain and staring down multiple deadlines meant I didn’t have the luxury of being stubborn. Not anymore. The pain wasn’t excruciating, but persistent and present even when I wasn’t working. So the idea of turning around another book quickly was just not at all appealing. I love to write, and my body was making me love it less.

So, I took the plunge and bought the latest version of Dragon when it came out. (Note: as mentioned above I am using Dragon on the Mac and there are some uniquely buggy things that happen on the Mac version, I’m okay with it but there are definitely issues. More on that later)

I want to impress upon you just how much I didn’t want to use speech recognition software. I want to impress upon you just how skeptical I was. But, when I saw that Vivian Arend was experimenting with Dragon and upon interrogating her on twitter got some information about how it was going for her, I knew I had to try it.

My first experience with Dragon was using it for twitter, email, and a set of fairly heavy revisions that required certain scenes to be rewritten. This was a good way to start, because I didn’t expect speed. The revisions were tricky, and I had a lot to wrap my head around. That helped make me less conscious of the learning curve. I didn’t expect these particular revisions to be fast, so I didn’t feel quite as interrupted by the whole process.

One thing I think it’s very important to be aware of is that there is a learning curve. the first time I tried speech recognition software I expected it to feel somewhat intuitive. It wasn’t. Forcing my mouth to say the words didn’t feel natural. And because I spent a couple of hours struggling with it I assumed it simply wasn’t for me. This was a couple of years ago. I kind of fiddled with it, then never went back.

But this time I went into it feeling like I had to make it work. Pain is a really great motivator. The prospect of not having pain is an even better one.

I’ve been using Dragon for about three weeks now and I feel like it’s really working for me. I would absolutely recommend it, even though it’s imperfect. Frankly, I’m an imperfect typist, and the issues with Dragon outweigh chronic pain.

So here is my quick Dragon question-and-answer list. If there are questions I don’t answer that you would like answered, feel free to ask me in the comments.

Do you have to speak punctuation? Yes, you do have to speak punctuation. This was one of the things that daunted me about starting the program. I couldn’t imagine getting to a point where that would feel remotely intuitive. Honestly? I don’t even notice it now. It’s much easier to pick up than you might think. You just have to persist. (Though, I occasionally find myself tempted to start inserting punctuation into daily conversation.)

Is listening to the sound of your own voice terrible? At first, yes it was. So, I employed a little trick that was inspired by the movie the King’s Speech. I put in ear beds, and listened to music. This helped on a couple of levels. I always listen to music when I write and I have established playlists for my books. So this helped me feel like there was an element of the familiar because I had my music. And the bonus was I couldn’t hear myself talking. This made me less self-conscious. After just a few weeks I don’t need the music. I feel much more comfortable with the process, and am no longer cringing over the fact that I’m saying all these words out loud.

Did the words flow at first? No, not really. But it was amazing how quickly they began to. I would say that within a couple of days of using Dragon for almost everything I found my flow. Now, having done an entire manuscript I find that I get in the flow of speaking much the same way I do with typing. I barely stop for a breath. And if I’m in the zone enough that I don’t really have to think.

Is it accurate? Yes, I think it’s impressively accurate. But, when it gets things wrong it gets things really wrong, and I have had some pretty hysterical typos. Part of the reason it can go so badly is the Dragon tries to guess the context of your words. So if one word is wrong, the surrounding words might end up wrong too. Yes, this is annoying. But, I’m a fast but sloppy typist so I’m basically trading a set of common mistakes for another set of mistakes. I have to remind myself that I don’t type every sentence perfectly.

Some of using Dragon effectively has to do with the change of mindset. Certain things take longer with dictation than typing, and I find other things are much faster. I need to proofread a bit more carefully with Dragon, but it gets words down faster. it’s basically a system of trade-offs.

Is it easy to train in new vocabulary words? Yes, it is easy. The book that I just wrote was a sheikh book, complete with made-up country. That meant I had to teach Dragon a lot of names, and place names that don’t really exist. It was a pretty simple process.

Another thing that helps is to run your existing documents through Dragon. It will pick up words you use, and the frequency with which you use them. And if it doesn’t recognize words it puts them on a list and you can go through and train Dragon to understand them.

Would you use it for revisions? I probably wouldn’t use it for revisions that required tweaks. You can edit with Dragon but that is kind of a slow process. First things that needed to be rewritten, yes, I would use it. But not for tweaking a specific thread or making minor changes.

Were you worried it would change your voice? Do you think it did? I was paralyzed with fear about this. I dictated a bit and sent it on to my critique partner with much worry over it not sounding right. She assured me it was fine, so I pressed on.

It was an interesting experience reading over the manuscript I just finished. I was very pleasantly surprised with how ME it sounded. And I’m feeling much more confident in the fact that my voice is my voice, and I’m not going to upset the apple cart that easily.

How about those errors? Well, I’m still working in Pages on the Mac. There are a few funny things Dragon does. One of the errors I’ve had is that it will occasionally generate a random letter, and put it at the end of a sentence. This one letter will stay behind the cursor, and will largely not interfere with what you’re doing. And when I’m done I just delete it. Restarting the program will solve the issue. It’s annoying, but not detrimental.

Another issue I have, in Pages only, is the Dragon occasionally doesn’t automatically capitalize the word the beginning of a sentence. This is also just a minor annoyance in an easy fix.

Dragon also crashes occasionally. But it is never caused my word processor to crash and restarting it only takes a couple of seconds. I’ve never lost work as a result of a crash, just faced a little bit of interruption time. This is also something I can live with.

Most of these errors, as I understand it, are not present on the PC’s version. Now, the PC might have its own errors, but I’m not sure what they are.

What about microphones? I’m still on the hunt for a permanent microphone. I prefer a headset because it allows me to be hands-free and it keeps the microphone at the proper distance from my mouth. It also allows me to stand up and stretch while continuing to work. Right now I’m borrowing my dads microphone and eventually I will have to get my own. đŸ™‚ I can’t mooch forever. But I’m being indecisive.

The microphone you use does matter though, as it affects your accuracy. And strong accuracy is certainly key to feeling satisfied with Dragon. What you want is a noise canceling microphone, and these come in a variety of price ranges. Honestly, in my experience there isn’t a major difference in the accuracy of a cheap headset mic and an expensive one.

Yeah, but how fast is it? Okay, this is where I have to confess I was extremely skeptical of Dragon being faster than typing. As I mentioned above I’m a very fast typist. And when I started, I simply didn’t have the same flow. My brain had to process the words before my mouth could speak them, so there was a bit of a delay in getting it down, whereas when I type I don’t have the same issue.

But, I was wrong. It is faster. For a variety of reasons, on this particular draft I just finished Dragon far surpassed what I could’ve done typing.

First of all, I’m not experiencing the same brain delay that I was dealing with for the first couple of weeks. Now, speaking is almost as instantaneous as typing was. It’s something that requires patience, but it did come.

The other thing is that with Dragon I am not limited by physical pain. In the past I’ve often had very high word count days, but over the past few months that’s been impossible because of wrist pain. My brain is willing but my flesh is weak. With Dragon I’m back at the top of my game. I’m able to write the amount that I used to in a sitting, and not suffer for it after. Moreover, I find I’m able to repeat it the next day because I’m not sore.

That alone is going to make a draft go faster. To be able to put in a heavy word count and not be forced to take the next day off, or not be forced to take it easy is a pretty powerful thing.

And I will confess, I even used it in the car the other day. I opened up Dragon’s word processor and put it out of my view, committing to correcting the errors later, and dictated the final scene of my book during my commute to a writer’s meeting. That’s something that obviously is impossible when you’re typing.

These things contribute to the speed Dragon afforded me. I wrote my latest Presents in about half the time it would normally take me. I even took the weekend off. No one is more shocked than I am.

What are some of the differences? Anything challenging?  Do you miss typing? Sometimes I find I have a hard time remembering details in a book. But because I have to read it back over so carefully for the typos that kind of helps compensate for that.

One of my favorite things about dictating (something I hadn’t even considered!) is that I can stand, put my feet up, pace, lay on the bed…  this actually helps with a lot of things I didn’t even think about. Back pain, sore muscles, sore knees. I love the freedom that it provides.

Yes, sometimes I miss the typing. It’s quiet and it’s its own kind of therapy. But, when I do it a little twinge of pain reminds me why I can’t do it very often. And that, yet again, offsets the learning curve and issues of Dragon. At least for me.

Did you end up dictating the love scenes? Yes, yes I did. And by the time I got to them, it didn’t even bother me. đŸ™‚

As a recap, learning to use Dragon is a process. It’s something that might feel frustrating at first, and probably won’t seem intuitive right out of the gate. But that’s okay. The only way you can get past that point is by doing it. Because of the place I was at with my pain it was an easy  concession to make, whereas in the past I think I would’ve been frustrated with it.

It’s imperfect, but I found my previous system was imperfect.

One thing I’ve learned over and over in this business is that being flexible, and changeable, is important. Over the years I’ve had to train myself to be able to write in the morning when I used to feel most creative at night. I’ve had to learn to type with things going on around me when I would’ve preferred quiet.

And now, I’m learning to dictate when I didn’t think I could.

I think it’s an empowering thing to understand that processes can be changed, and we can learn to do old things in a new way. My own stubbornness and fear of failure almost prevented me from trying this, and if I hadn’t I would still be wearing wrist braces, using ice packs, and I would probably still be working on the book I turned in last night.

So, would I recommend Dragon? Absolutely. You definitely need privacy and as much quiet as you can get (though, often my children are in the house when I write. But I have an office that has a door. And it stays firmly closed and locked.) And that’s going to be more difficult for some than others. But, the car does work. đŸ™‚ And since you don’t have to sit in any one position a bedroom without a desk works as well, as long as you have a laptop.

Edit: Yesterday, I forgot to include this great bit of advice from Vivian Arend. ( I’m paraphrasing, she probably worded it better.) “No one sits down at a computer and immediately knows how to type perfectly. We had to learn how to type. Using Dragon isn’t just talking, it’s learning to dictate. You aren’t going to sit down and do it perfectly right away.”

If you have any more questions, feel free to ask them in the comments, and I will answer them as soon as possible.

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