So why am I trying Dragon when I already have a tried and tested method of writing on my Alphasmart Neo?
- I've been told by number of people fiction sounds very conversational and rings true with how I speak in real life, which are taken as a compliment. Therefore it seemed a natural progression to move towards dictation rather than typing. Of course I went to dictate all the time because I do a lot of travel and writing in public. However when I'm writing on my own at home I think I will be using dictation going forward.
- In terms of productivity I've heard that it can double people's hourly word outputs which would be marvellous.
- It’s very mindful and helps with concentration. When dictating you’d have to consciously leave the WordPad document, use the mouse to open an internet browser etc.
- It’s more healthy, and prevents aching arms and fingers.
I watched a really helpful video in Lucy Lennox’s author group, where she talked about why she’d started dictating, debunked some popular myths, and did a great demo. Seeing someone actually do it showed me that it was possible. I’m very much a ‘look and learn’ sort of person. The practicalities of doing it is much more important for me to see than reading about it.
What are the popular myths to debunk?
I can’t dictate punctuation.
When you’re typing, you’re already thinking it, because you have to type it. You quickly get used to saying the punctuation through practice.
It feels funny.
Of course it does. You’ve been typing for most of your life. Who can expect to immediately learn a new skill, which used different parts of your brain and body and straight away feel as natural as your previous method? Practice, baby steps, think about taking a similar approach to how I learned touch typing. Work your way up to dictating new fiction.
I won’t be able to remember the commands to edit etc.
You quickly get used to these. The software came with a card with the most frequently used ones. From the tutorial you soon get used to the new commands. It’s honestly no harder than getting used to a new mobile phone. Much easier in fact.
Editing takes a long time to edit using dictation.
It does. But you’re only doing this for a few times at the start to ‘teach your Dragon’ your voice. Going forward you don’t have to use Dragon to edit, you can use a keyboard (which is so much quicker, but doesn’t improve Dragon’s functionality).
Beware The Floating Window
My Dragon arrived on Monday and I took that time to set it up and installed it on my laptop. The first problem I encountered was the fact that it doesn't work with Libreoffice, which is my usual word processing program. It does work with Word. But I don’t use Word.
If you have a word processing program open that it doesn't work with Dragon, then it automatically opens a window into which the dictation will appear.
This sounds wonderful, however because it is a floating window you cannot save it. The idea is that you simply click transfer and it transfers the floating windows contents into your normal wordprocessing program. On the first day when I was trying this I was distracted clicked transfer and the text within the floating window disappeared.
This was not the end of the world because I was just playing around and had been dictating the beginning of a story which I’m thinking of writing.
The learning point from this is that I don't dictate into the floating windows and instead I dictate all my first draft words into WordPad which comes with any Windows machine since Windows 95. WordPad is a very basic word processing program doesn't even include word count or page numbers however it works perfectly with Dragon including the commands which you can use to edit and teach it.
My plan is that going forward I will I will first draft using Dragon in WordPad and then transfer it into LibreOffice once I do my first self edit. This is not really much different to when I do my first drafts using my Alphasmart Neo dumb word processor/keyboard.
When I was dictating this story it did feel strange because I'm not used to dictating words. I'm used to typing them. Part of this I think is due to the fact that I hadn't really seen this scene in my head and therefore was basically writing into the dark. As a plotter this was really difficult and to be honest even if I had been typing this I still would have struggled.
Starting to fail, or failing to start?
When I had just set up Dragon and my microphone I thought I’d immediately start dictating new fiction. Because why not...
This didn’t go well. Unsurprisingly, after decades of touch-typing, suddenly plunging in and dictating new fiction was awkward. Slow. Clunky with the punctuation. I felt really self-conscious. It was much slower and harder than typing new fiction.
Which made me think of a different approach...
Getting used to dictating and training Denise my dragon
My plan now to get myself used to dictating rough typing, is going to be similar to how I learnt to touch type.
When I learn to touch type I spent about six weeks of evening classes repeating each letter and which finger it was to be used for. This was until my muscle memory became accustomed to it without me thinking. The typing exercises were simply transcriptions of existing writing to get to reinforce the muscle memory and get my brain and fingers used to it.
Once I was unconsciously able to touch type without thinking about which finger was on which letter I was then able to easily write new words of my own rather than transcribing. Basically I was able to concentrate on creating the words rather than the process which I was going through to do it i.e. typing.
At the moment dictating feels a little bit like consciously remembering which finger goes with which keyboard letter. It feels awkward and slightly more difficult than typing. This is unsurprising since I've been touch typing (no looking at the keyboard, using the ‘home keys’ and all that jazz) for about 20 years.
This is similar to any other physical activity such as driving a car. At first you only concentrate on how to drive the car, change gears, use the clutch, indicate et cetera and don't really concentrate on where you're driving because the driving instructor is telling you where to turn. It's only once you get used to driving that the actual act of driving the car becomes unconscious and you are then able to concentrate on where you're going.
The dictation is the actual driving of the car and the fiction I'm creating is the journey on which I'm going in the car. To me it helps to separate the two as I did with my touch typing analogy.
Currently I am practising using Dragon, who I've called Denise, by dictating my already written words into it and then going back to correct them using Dragon. This is the best way to teach the Dragon as it learns rather than you correcting it using the keyboard. This in itself is a skill to get used to because you have to grow accustomed to a whole series of instructions/commands to move and highlight and correct text just using your voice.
In addition I have started dictating sections from published books to get used to saying the punctuation and saying the dictation in full sentences, which apparently helps Dragon with transcription. Today I have done this with four different books including Jackie Collins Jilly Cooper, Joanna Trollope and Marian Keyes! This was no problem because I thoroughly enjoyed rereading these extracts! Although it felt slightly tortuous to correct them using Dragon, I'm doing this in order to teach it better at this stage.
Going forward, for my own fiction, I will do the edit and tidy up using the keyboard as it is definitely much quicker.
At the end of each session Dragon asks me if I'm happy for it to update its profile based on learning my voice and last night it took an hour to do so. I think that today the accuracy has been much better than it has been in the previous two days, which is heartening.
So how accurate is Denise now?
In these four extracts of approximately total of 2,500 words I averaged a 3.1% error rate. This is based on the number of errors I had to correct using Dragon after I had finished the dictation divided by the total number of words for each passage.
Considering this is the third day that I've been using Dragon I don't think that's bad.
Lots of them are homophones – coffin / coughing. Balls / smalls. Some are more complex words like lugubrious, Mid-Mercia, or rude words like tits / tips, f**k / duck.
In terms of equipment, a USB microphone headset definitely gives better results than the 3.5mm jack which came with the software. The only disadvantage of the USB headphones is that I can't seem to listen to music playing on my laptop while I’m dictating. As yet! If anyone can help me with this please do let me know!
In addition the USB headset has a much longer lead which means I can stand about 2 m, which is about 6 feet, away from the laptop and walk around the room while I'm dictating. Which I actually think will be better in terms of flow staring at the screen.
In addition to these great reasons, I have set myself a challenge during a one man writing retreat I've booked by the coast in Suffolk: my plan is to try and write and self edit an entire 50,000 word novel during that week.
Using my Neo I can write between 9,000 and 10,000 words a day but it's really challenging to do this more than two or three days on the trot because I start to get paint in my wrists. During the last budget writing retreat I wrote 20,000 from Friday afternoon to Sunday afternoon. I can do that in short bursts but not for days on end.
I'm hoping that if I double my output and not use my hands i.e. by dictating I will be able to do the first draft in about 2 to 3 days leaving the rest of the week to give it a damn good self edit or three.
So in advance of that will be on social media using #writeanovelinaweek. However while I'm actually at the retreat there is no Wi-Fi, which I think will be an advantage, and I doubt there will be any sort of decent three or 4G signal on my mobile. So instead I wiill write (dictate) blog posts at the end of each day about my progress which I will then post when I'm back and connected to the Internet.