Persevering with the Dragon

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.

girls try out DragonI 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.

22 thoughts on “Persevering with the Dragon

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  1. This is very moving to me, Sara, for several reasons. I thought I was the only one who felt shy when I wrote fiction. It’s a relief to know I’m not. The other is that I had a brilliant friend who was blind. How different her life would have been if she’d only had access to Dragon! She had a clumsy program that would read what she typed to her, but it was necessarily frustrating because Louise was the queen of typos, and Knothead (her computer) would blandly read the typos to her as if they were real words. Aaagh! Slow and maddening, and sometimes very funny. Thanks for writing this.


    1. Thanks, Sheila. I suspect a lot of us feel shy writing fiction. How frustrating about your friend. In fact, Dragon can read things back to me, too, but I tried listening and know that I would have missed a lot of typos if I’d had to depend on that.

      Slow, maddening, and sometimes funny is still right. After all, you read the finished version.



  2. Enjoyed reading this, Sara. Back in the days when I was still “working outside the home,” I set up Dragon for one of the librarians who had severe carpal tunnel. She gradually grew to love it, but every time she came to work with a bad cold, Dragon didn’t recognize her voice! LOL.


    1. I believe it. The other day I told a woman who trains people to use Dragon that when I’d tell it “select paragraph,” it often would select the whole document instead. She asked me what accent I’d told Dragon I had. Accent? I’d picked standard American. She said she thought it might do better if I said southern. It’s true that my parents grew up in deep southern Indiana, and I live an hour south of Indianapolis. Hmmm.


  3. Great post, Sara! I can empathize with you because the Sync system in my three-year-old car STILL hasn’t recognized my Southern accent. Guess it’s just not as smart as Dragon. I’ll have to give it a try.


  4. Interesting post, Sara. Sounds like Dragon has some of the issues that Siri on iPhones has recognizing various accents; the Irish have given up on it. My campus voicemail system sends a Dragon interpretation of phone messages into my email. My students are a very diverse group, many different accents and speech patterns. Dragon’s version of what it hears can be hilarious and confusing, but if I read the garbled messages phonetically I can generally pick out the gist of the message. How many ways are there to say, I missed the test because my car had a flat?

    It’s an interesting new technology, good luck with it.


  5. I’m starting on Dragon myself. I review books, generally ebooks, and my hope is that dragon will help me by taking down comments that I make as I read, page numbers of things I want to quote, etc. I’ve done fairly well, but I got away from reviewing because of some other issues, and when I started back, it was almost like starting again. But I shall persevere, because I think it will be a great help.

    If you’re interested, I read the book I’m reviewing on my Nook, and dictate onto my iPad which is at my side. I am also going to try reading on my iPad and dictating onto my desktop. Ain’t technology fun!!!!!


  6. I heard about this program many years ago. I believe it was used for for paralyzed people at that time. I think it’s wonderful!


    1. I’m told it was developed for disabled people, as you posted, but a lot of other people certainly use it now, as a convenience. Trust me, so long as they work, fingers are a lot more convenient! But I’m glad I know how to use it. Only wish I’d had it when I broke my elbow years ago. Back then, nobody did–I still used a manual typewriter.


  7. Sara, this is utterly wild, mad, fascinating! I’ve a blind friend who uses something like this, and since I’ve a permanent hole in the retina of my right eye with only peripheral vision, I’ve thought of learning a voice method–in case the other eye follows suit. So far so good. But I can’t imagine I’d have your patience. More power to you. You must keep up that great series!


    1. The talking part would work, but the proofreading would still be hard. What Dragon reads back (if you ask it to) might not be quite what you would want to have on the page. I wonder whether other programs are better suited to vision problems.


  8. I have always been delighted that this software exists so that when one cannot type any more it will be available in spite of the limitations it has. I was ONLY excited about it for that reason however. Most of the doctors who used it were already too careless and I remain highly concerned about their lack of proofing or allowing proofing (and the fact that those of us who were careful were not paid as well as those who just let the machine go with it and got extra money for speed. As in your example, it was never the medical words that the software could not catch but the other words, some extremely important ones for health care.)

    I think I have been shy about hearing my words aloud. I have a transcription recorder and player but I have yet to use it for writing.


  9. I wasn’t even sure Dragon was still around. It’s cool to hear that you’ve made it work and like some of your other commentors have said, I’m glad to hear that I’m not the only one shy of my work.


  10. Hi Sara! Your blog really hit home. I’m just starting to use Dragon on a regular basis although I’ve used VR in other contexts over a span of years. Never had any trouble reading aloud (radio and tv work will allay that trepidation) until i started writing fiction. So I resonate with your blog a lot. Be well


  11. Hi, Sara,
    Very nice piece on learning to use this software; loved your ending! Got a laugh out of that. I have no doubts you’ll master it and (even though you’re unsure about how it’ll work right now) be able to write fiction with it. (I still remember when we came to your house when we were buying our first computer when Craig was in grad school and you were showing us how the WordPerfect software worked … you’ve always been ahead of the curve!)

    Mary Ann


    1. Gosh, thanks, Mary Ann! That was a very long time ago, wasn’t it? Now I’m not even close to the real curve. But you gotta do what you gotta do.



  12. Sara, thanks for this info. I tried used another voice-recognition software (Windows?) with not so good results. I will try Dragon, if it’s not too expensive (I live on social insecurity, so finances are decidedly limited.) In my case, I wanted to create digital files of old books that I had done long before the computer age and that I now wanted to reissue. Using that software, I found it easier jus t co type the books into my computer, but I would like to have done it with voice commands. With the recent health issues, I may have no choice – my fingers don’t want to obey my commands, any more than my feet do. Well, I’ve had a good long run, so I can’t bitch too much.


    1. Victor, Dragon tends to run special prices when it’s about to bring out a new version. I’m still using 11.5, but I think it’s up to 12 or 12.5 now–I wrote this post about it in 2012. So google Dragon NaturallySpeaking and watch for the sales. It will go down below $100 at some point again, and maybe lower. I don’t have the full office stuff, which it also wants to sell.

      But to bring out my old books, to which I have the rights back, I had them scanned and then proofed the computer file of the scanned book. My agent helped me arrange that, for the usual 15%, which some folks say you never should pay. The way I look at it, I didn’t have to pay up front, and she’s getting 15% of money I otherwise wouldn’t have had.


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