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My Life in the Dragon’s Lair

18 October 2011

Karen Ranney does a lot talking when there’s no one around:

About a dozen years ago, I had a high-powered job at The Big Bank that required I work long hours, and sometimes over the weekends. At the same time, I was contractually obligated to HarperCollins/Avon, and I was facing some pretty fierce deadlines.

In desperation, I started using IBM Via Voice, then went to Dragon Naturally Speaking, beginning with Version 3.  (For the purposes of brevity, will call it Dragon from now on. Also, while Dragon allows you to surf the web, dictate emails, and function hands free, my main use for it has always been dictating my books.)

My initial foray into the world of speech to text technology was not a fun experience. It took me months of dictation before Dragon could learn my voice well enough to transcribe what I was saying without a lot of gobbledy gook. Most of the time, I stared at the page, wondering what I’d said. Maybe it was because of my voice. I’m an Air Force brat, but I live in South Texas now. Consequently, my accent is all over the place. I pronounce some things with a New York flavor, and others in a down-home Dixie twang.

I constantly used the Speech Optimizer functions of Dragon, and dictated until my lips were blue. I experimented with different settings, and grew adept at knowing which days were not good days to dictate – days in which I had an allergy or a sinus infection, and my voice sounded different. The worst day of all was when my user profile became corrupted – two years of work lost.

But yippee, the early days of speech to text technology are gone, to be replaced by Dragon 11 and 11.5. Within five minutes, Dragon had my accent down pat.

Some writers have told me that they could never use a dictation program to write. Initially, I had the same reaction. The act of writing an intimate thing – from your brain to your fingers. But just as my fingers are only a tool to convey the words, so is my voice. And, even though I’m a fast typist, I’m an even faster speaker.

I think the transition is a mental, possibly even a psychological one. I have always read my manuscripts aloud as part of the final editing stage. Perhaps it wasn’t that much of a leap for me to dictate them.

In addition to Dragon on my computer and my laptop, I also use a digital voice recorder (The one I’m currently using is a Sony ICD-MX20 Memory Stick Pro Duo Digital Voice Recorder). With that, and the software that integrates with Dragon, I can dictate in weird places, like in my car at rush hour, in the backyard with my feet up, in the bathtub, on my chaise, at the kitchen table, and scrubbing the bathroom. Yes, I’ve actually dictated in all those places and many more.

I especially like to dictate when I’m working out and my dog is on the treadmill beside me. That thirty minutes in the morning and thirty minutes at night is not wasted time. I dictate blog posts or parts of the new book.

Several writers have mentioned to me that they could never use Dragon because of dialogue. I actually think dictating dialogue is better than writing it. Hearing it aloud eliminates those clunky info-dump paragraphs, or the “As-you-know, Bob” sections. But one of the drawbacks is the punctuation necessary.

In the newer version of Dragon – 11 or 11.5 – you have a choice whether or not to use punctuation while you’re dictating, or allow Dragon to do it for you. It’s listed under Tools/Auto Formatting/Automatically Add Commas and Periods. You’re still stuck with quotations, however.

After so many years of doing it, I never hear the punctuation I’m saying. If you were to listen to me, a paragraph of dialogue would sound like this:

OPEN QUOTES I can’t understand what you’re saying COMMA CLOSED QUOTES he said PERIOD OPEN QUOTES You’ll need to calm down COMMA first PERIOD CLOSED QUOTES NEW LINE

OPEN QUOTES How can you say that EXCLAMATION POINT You never hear me regardless of my mood PERIOD CLOSED QUOTES NEW LINE

Here’s what it looks like as you dictate:

“I can’t understand what you’re saying,” he said. “You’ll need to calm down, first.”

“How can you say that! You never hear me regardless of my mood.”

Surprisingly, it was easy to get used to saying the punctuation and even easier to ignore it. The only drawback to using Dragon with punctuation is that you have a tendency to speak that way to people for the first few hours after a marathon session.

Now that I’m no longer at The Big Bank, I still use Dragon for my first drafts. I have a goal of 7000 words a day, and I’m not sure if my hands could stand that kind of pounding.

Here are my tips and tricks for Dragon:

  • Buy the best microphone you can afford. (I’m currently using a Plantronics DSP400 Foldable Multimedia Headset which is soft, comfy, lightweight, and folds up and fits in a pouch.)
  • Always back up your User Profile. I’ve had to restore mine twice, even with this new version of Dragon.
  • If you’re having a problem with Dragon recognizing your speech, and you’ve used the tools under Audio, create a new user profile. Make sure you select the available accents if they’re applicable.
  • Train Dragon for words that are uncommon. For example, I write both Scottish historical romance and murder mysteries, and have a varied vocabulary for each. I use the Vocabulary/Import List of Words and Phrases command, which also allows me to train Dragon.
  • Train Dragon for your writing style by going back and having it analyze documents you’ve already written (Vocabulary/Learn from Specific Documents.)

Dragon is a tool, one that I’ve found to be very helpful for three reasons:

  1. I’ve never had the dreaded blank page syndrome with Dragon. I’m forced to start talking about the book and before I know it, I’m writing it.  (Besides, if I remain quiet for too long it picks up the sound of my breathing.)
  2. It also enables me to maximize time. Granted, there are places I can’t use Dragon – for example, standing in line somewhere. But there are more places where I can use it, and I take advantage of those.
  3. Using a speech to text program forces me to know what I’m about to say/write. Dragon helps me stay on target.

And, yes, this was dictated on Dragon.

Karen Ranney


Passive Guy thanks Karen for taking the time to dictate her thoughts about using voice recognition for her writing.

Writing Tools

16 Comments to “My Life in the Dragon’s Lair”

  1. I learn so much good stuff from you! You amaze me with all that you do and the tools you use.

  2. Karen when I first read the topic on Warm Fuzzies, I thought it was about dragons…… Silly me!! I loved hearing about voice to tech – that is so amazing.
    Helen in Ark

    • I’ve also played around with a virtual keyboard, Helen. It’s displayed on any surface. It doesn’t actually exist, it’s just a visual image. I can’t wait until we plug in the computer to our foreheads. I’m sure that day is coming. Or, at the very least, an embedded computer chip.

  3. Hi Karen,
    No wonder you get so much done! Maybe I should get a micro recorder and record blogs while staring at four empty self-checks. I talk to myself all the time. May as well be productive.

  4. This is a fascinating subject. I never knew that Speech to text was so complicated. It does sound like a great tool for writers of all kinds. Thanks for sharing.

    • Gail – Hopefully, the complicated stuff happens mostly behind the curtain. As a computer problem, voice recognition is very complex and requires a lot of computing power. Fortunately, you can purchase that kind of power for $500 at Costco today.

      • Hi Passive Guy, LOL I would love to experiment but currently my pocketbook can’t take the hit. Thanks for the info. When I do decide to write, it will be the old fashioned way; pen, paper, computer & neck and back aches to boot. 🙂

  5. I used the first version of Dragon and I think the third. I hope it has improved. I gave up on it. It was too frustrating for me. I can tell on a lot of blogs when people use it because I find errors when they don’t check for mistakes. Yours looks great, though.

  6. I am in awe. I am technologically challenged.

  7. Hi Passive Guy, LOL I would love to experiment but currently my pocketbook can’t take the hit. Thanks for the info:) When I do decide to write, it will be the old fashioned way; pen, paper, computer & neck and back aches to boot. :-))

  8. I’ve been thinking about setting something like this up for myself for awhile. i’m sure I could get used to talking instead of typing. I believe there’s a Dragon Dictation app for smartphones and ipods too, which people always carry around with them. Is the quality of those on par with the dedicated voice recorders?

    • Thomas – There is a free Dragon Dictation app for the iPhone – See http://itunes.apple.com/us/app/dragon-dictation/id341446764?mt=8

      I use it a lot for texts and emails, but it bogs down after more than 50-100 words. I don’t think it would work for any serious writing. In addition to evident size limitation, it doesn’t do capitalization or much punctuation, for example.

      Also, I don’t think the app provides for an individual voice file, which is what allows the desktop version to get better and better at understanding what you’re saying.

      On the flip side, the app will give you a sense of what voice recognition is like.

      Someone told me that one of the reasons Dragon made it free is that the data the app generates and forwards to Dragon from time to time (no secret or individual info) has provided an excellent database of how a wide variety of people pronounce words. Supposedly, Dragon used database results in Version 11 to substantially increase accuracy.

      I don’t know if this story is accurate or not, however.

  9. I am really intrigued by the idea of dictation–mostly for the ability to write in a greater variety of places and times. (I doubt I’d ever be able to speak faster than I can type. I’m a very hesitant speaker but I type 90 WPM.)

    I do wonder how well it would work for fantasy authors. I’m imagining placeholder names and copious use of search+replace. I mean, can you imagine dictating the name Kvothe hundreds of times over a manuscript? (Okay, maybe not the best example–most of The Name of the Wind is told in the first person. But I have characters with names like Taia, Mardalan, Feloc, Jaceln…)

    • Clare, I write about Scotland, and the Scottish place names, as well as Gaelic terms, give Dragon fits. What I do is compile a list of all those names and train Dragon before I start. So far, it seems to be working fine.

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