Many years ago I heard Madeleine L’Engle say to a group of writers that the fingers are the only part of the body besides the brain with gray matter. That may not make sense to some people, but to me, a touch typist since my early teens, it made very good sense. When I’m writing I don’t think “I will spell ‘dog,’” but I just think “dog,” and my fingers know to type dog. The words come out of my fingers automatically. That’s not to say I don’t make mistakes — typos are part of every writer’s life.
Why, you’re asking yourself, am I even telling you this? It’s because I’m trying something new. For the first time in my life, I’m trying dictation. My fingers are having trouble. I figure before they quit working altogether, I’m going to need to know another way to write. And I dearly hope to be able to do it as automatically as I now write with my fingers.
So I’m learning Dragon NaturallySpeaking. In fact, I’m using it to write this blog. Dragon is a program that recognizes my voice and types into my computer what I say. It types exactly what I say. That’s not to say that it always gets what I mean. Dragon makes typos to. As you can see, it couldn’t tell the difference between to and too. For this blog, I didn’t correct that mistake. I wanted to show it to you instead. But most of the time I’ve had to learn commands that will let me fix things that are wrong, whether the mistakes are mine or Dragon’s.
Of course, many of the changes I make are not to correct mistakes. When I’m writing, I’m constantly revising. As far as I’m concerned, revision is at the heart of good writing. Many years ago, if I wasn’t typing, I used to write on a yellow lined tablet. I quickly learned to write on every third line, if you can believe that, to make space for all the changes that I knew would come. Computers make revising much easier. But this is a whole new way to use a computer.
People told me that there was a steep learning curve to using this kind of software, and I believed it. But already, after a few weeks, I’m doing better, and so is Dragon. More and more often, it recognizes the words I’m actually saying. The hard part so far is learning how to make corrections and other changes. I almost have to sit on my fingers to keep from fixing things with them instead of practicing with Dragon.
None of that is what I worried about at first. What worried me was whether I could stand to hear my voice when I’m writing. Writing for me has always been a private activity. Oh, I can write some kinds of things in a crowded room with people kibitzing. Right now, though, I feel hesitant even to write this blog with my husband listening from the next room. Or maybe not listening, but he could if he wanted to. I’m not sure I can write fiction that way. If I’m typing a story, I don’t like someone to stand behind me. Dictating feels like that, only more so.
I’m basically shy when I’m writing. I do a huge amount of editing before I submit anything. What I usually type in the first place is very drafty. When I’m feeling drafty, I cover up. So I hide all by myself and write in private, not letting even myself hear what I’m saying.
It isn’t the same listening to me talk as it is to listen to my characters talk. I still haven’t quite figured out why, aside from the obvious fact that I can’t begin to sound like Fred Lundquist or any other man. When I read a book, whether it’s a book I wrote or a book someone else wrote, I hear the people talking inside my head, and they don’t sound like me. This is the part about dictating fiction that terrifies me. So far, just struggling with the mechanics, I can’t answer that big question.
I’m still fussing with some things. For instance, if my characters speak colloquially, I want to spell the words the way they say them. I don’t want to write “You going out?” if my character would say “You goin’ out?” I fought with the program for several days before I found out how to put an apostrophe at the end of a word. And you know, I don’t remember how I did it. But now if I pronounce going without the G, the program still spells it going, but I have the option in the correction place to spell it goin’. I think I had to put that into the program myself, and I’ll probably have to do the same thing with other such words. At least it’s possible.
One of the inconveniences to using Dragon is that you need to be in a fairly quiet room. For me that means that I can’t listen to classical music or jazz while I’m writing. If I turn the volume way down I can sometimes get away with it. But if someone else is speaking, those words may end up in what I’m writing. It’s not that I mind being alone when I’m writing – I rather like that. Any minute now, though, I’m going to be interrupted by someone who likes to talk while she works in my room. Either I’ll have to quit writing or tell her to quit talking. That can be awkward.
Still, voice recognition software can be kind of fun. The other day two young friends were visiting, and one of them knew I was trying it. “Do you have that new program set up yet?” she asked.
I told her I did, and she was eager to try it out. So we all traipsed into my room, and the children took turns wearing the headset and talking into the microphone. There was considerable hilarity when they read what Dragon thought they were saying. Of course, by that time I had trained the program to recognize my speech pretty well. You first do that by reading selected texts into the microphone, so that Dragon can hear you pronounce what it already knows. But the program had no idea how these girls pronounced things. The resulting gobbledygook cracked them up. They were talking into my computer, but when I read today what the computer had stored, I couldn’t remember what they’d said in the first place.
What I do remember is that when I laughed, Dragon typed it it it it it.
Another time I accompanied my sister to the foot doctor. Just making conversation while he trimmed her toenails, we got to talking about writing. And so I mentioned that I was using voice recognition software. To my surprise, the foot doctor said he was, too. In fact, he was using Dragon to dictate case notes. He told me he thought he and his partner had taught Dragon all kinds of new words. I figured he meant technical words, medical words about feet, but no, he said, he meant the words they used when Dragon got their dictation wrong.
Oh. Somehow I think Dragon already knows those words.