When I was employed as a journalist, I spent a lot of time interviewing people. One of the most painful things I had to do was transcribe long interviews using a keyboard.
My fingers ached after spending an hour pressing play and pause and play and pause… and typing what the interviewees were saying.
I tried using dictation software to transcribe these interviews, but I found the software difficult to use and prone to mistakes.
More recently, I’ve been using the dictation software Dragon Dictate to convert speech to text and transcribe first drafts of articles, blog posts, book chapters and more.
Dragon Dictate 6.0 for Mac is easier to use, more accurate, and now it’s part of my writing workflow.
In this post, I’ll explain:
- what you need to know about speech to text
- how you can dictate a first draft of your book or blog post using Dragon Dictate and other diction software.
- the practical tips that make dictation work
Why Writers Should Use Dictation Software
Dictation or speech to text is far faster than typing.
I can type about a five hundred to thousand words in 30 minutes if I know what I’m writing about. On the other hand, I can dictate up to three or four thousand words in 30 minutes.
If you suffer from RSI or get pain in your fingers from typing, dictation is ideal. You can dictate standing up, while walking around the room or even without having to use your hands.
Dictation is also ideal for writing first drafts.
The job of any first draft is simply to exist. When you’re writing your first draft, you shouldn’t stop to edit yourself.
With dictation, it’s harder to edit and write at the same time meaning you’re more likely to hit your daily target word count and get those messy first draft out of your head and onto the blank page.
Dragon dictation software is also ideal if you want to focus on your writing.
You can’t stop dictating, to check your email, browse Facebook or to do something else that has nothing to do with writing.
The Best Speech to Text Software
However, I realise new writers may not yet be up to spending several hundred dollars on dictation software.
Here’s the good news:
The inbuilt speech to text software, in Windows and OS X, is powered by Dragon. You can use it to practice dictating before you invest in premium software.
- To activate speech recognition on a Mac, press the Fn key twice.
- To active speech recognition on a PC, open Control Panel, type speech into the search box and select Start Speech Recognition.
I recommend using your computer’s speech-recognition software to explore the benefits of dictation before spending any money.
So, why pay for Dragon dictation software?
Well, the advantage of Dragon dictation software over inbuilt-software is you can train it to recognise certain words, and it will become more accurate the more often you use it.
Yes, it’s expensive, but consider it an investment in your writing.
Training Dragon Dictate
Before you start using Dragon Dictate, you’ll need to train it (and yourself).
Dragon Dictate includes some tutorials you should complete before you start using dictation software.
These tutorials teach you how to use dictation software as well as giving Dragon a chance to learn how you speak.
The initial tutorial for Dragon 6.0 takes 90 seconds to complete and should get you up and running. The other ones take about ten minutes to complete, and doing these will increase your accuracy.
You can also import some of your writing into Dragon so it can study how you write and learn commonly used words and phrases.
Outline Your Writing In Advance
Dictation software like Dragon Dictate works best if you speak in complete sentences.
Get into the habit of thinking what you’re going to say before you say it.
All of this is easier if you know what your article or book chapter is vaguely about in advance.
You can draft an outline by using a bullet-point list, which is what I did for this post. Alternatively, you could create a mind map.
Whatever your approach, keep your outline near where you’re dictating so you can look at it while you speak.
In the video below, you can see how I dictated an early draft of this post.
On the left-hand side of the screen, there’s an outline of the blog post. In the centre of the screen, you can see me dictating as I go.
Use Placeholder Words
My daughter has a traditional Irish name.
No matter how many times I’ve tried, I couldn’t train Dragon Dictate 6.0 to recognise her name. I tried spelling the name and various other tips and tricks, but Dragon Dictate still insists on mangling it.
So now whenever I’m writing a journal entry, and I use her name, I speak a placeholder word that Dragon recognises.
For example, I call her “Sarah” or I call her “my daughter”.
Then when I’m editing the journal entry, I do a search for the word ‘Sarah’ and replace it with my daughter’s name.
If you’re writing fiction, you could use this trick for one of your characters.
Dictate in a Quiet Environment
The accuracy of your dictation software is determined by the quality of your microphone and the surrounding environment.
I first tried using the inbuilt microphone in my computer for dictation, but my accuracy was below 50%.
Then I tried using a cheap headset that I had in my wardrobe. That didn’t improve the quality much either.
So, I spent just over $100 on a professional dictation headset and that had a dramatic increase in my accuracy.
If you’re dictating somewhere noisy like a coffee shop, your accuracy will decrease too, so it’s best to speak in a quiet room.
Allow Time for a Learning Curve
Like any new skill, it takes time to learn how to dictate a book or a chapter.
It took me some trial and error to figure out how to integrate dictation into my writing workflow.
For example, you have to speak punctuation commands. So, when I want a full stop, I have to say the words “full stop”. When I want to start a new paragraph, I have to say “new paragraph”.
And so on.
You’ll also have to avoid using filler words like “you know”.
Even once you’ve figured out how to integrate dictation into your workflow, know that dictation will change how you write.
I found dictation leads to a more conversational type of writing. Because I’m ‘speaking’, I’m less likely to use bigger words or to turn to complicated language and turns of phrase.
Dictation is ideal for writers who gravitate towards conversational writing (and those who write online).
I imagine literary fiction authors would get less value from dictation.
Don’t Expect 100% Accuracy
Although speech to text or dictation software has improved dramatically since I use it several years ago, you shouldn’t expect 100% accuracy.
Your accuracy will increase over time as the software becomes accustomed to your voice, but it won’t recognise every word you say, particularly technical terms and words affected by your accent.
In the video, you can see some of the mistakes or issues Dragon has with my accent. This is a good indication of the quality that you can expect when starting off.
Tracking your word-count from each session as compared to when you write by hand will help you keep feel motivated about learning how to dictate early drafts of your work.
Other Features of Dragon Dictate
You can also use Dragon Dictate to control your computer.
The software is designed to enable people with physical disabilities to do things like surf the internet, use common applications on a computer and do everything you can do with a keyboard or mouse.
To be honest, I don’t use Dragon for any of these things. I’m more interested in using Dragon to write first drafts and to prevent any problems that I have with RSI.
You can also import audio files into Dragon Dictate, and it will transcribe them for you. I tested this using an audio-file I recorded on my iPhone.
The accuracy was lower than what I could have achieved using my headset and computer, but it’s a useful feature if you’re stuck.
From First Draft to a Published Work
The writer Natalie Goldberg recommends new writers practising their craft follow her mantra to “Keep your hand moving.”
When it comes to dictation, you should keep your mouth moving!
Speech to text or dictation software is ideal for writing practice and for first drafts because you can’t stop to edit yourself.
Now, it’s possible to edit your writing using Dragon Dictate by commanding it to select and replace words. I found this part of dictation slower than editing by hand.
So when I’ve finished my first draft, I teach Dragon a few words and make some corrections using my voice because I want to improve the accuracy of my profile.
However, I do the bulk of the editing and rewriting by hand.
In the end, dictation software like Dragon Dictate is useful if you want to increase your daily word-count, get through a first draft and overcome problems like writing in pain.
It won’t solve all of your writing problems for you, and I’m less convinced about the value of dictation software for rewrites and edits.
However, like any good tool, Dragon Dictate will help get more of the right things done… if you use it correctly.
On Dragon Dictate 6.0
Dragon Dictate 6.0 is more accurate that previous versions, and unlike Dragon Dictate 5.0 it doesn’t crash often. I’m able to use Dragon Dictate in my favourite writing programmes including Pages, Scrivener, Word, Ulysses and IA Writer, and the accuracy appears to be better.
With this new version, I am able to dictate a sentence and then start typing the next one without confusing Dragon (doing this in previous versions caused problems). The user interface has also been streamlined and is faster and less intrusive than previous versions.
My only caution is that Nuance releases a new version once every twelve months meaning there is a noticeable cost of ownership. As I was a Dragon 5.0 customer, I paid USD100 for an early upgrade.
- Great for first drafts
- Gotta love that word-count
- Ideal for anyone with RSI or a disability
- Dragon Dictate 6.0 works great in popular writing applications like Scrivener
- Learning curve takes time
- Accuracy isn’t 100%
- Less valuable for edits and rewrites
- Yearly upgrade cycle may put off some
A Human Alternative for Speech to Text
There’s a premium alternative to Dragon Dictate and the speech recognition software in your computer that comes without any learning curve and near 100% accuracy.
You can use Rev to transcribe an audio recording for a dollar a minute.
To use Rev to dictate your book or writing, prepare an outline in advance, and then record yourself dictating the first draft using your phone your computer.
When you finish dictating this first draft, you can upload the audio file to Rev.
Because the transcribers are real people, you’re less likely to face problems of accuracy, and they only take 24-hour to turn around a document.
Rev is more expensive than using dictation software. I’ve used Rev to transcribe interviews and short posts, and typically a 1000-word, ten-minute file costs me ten dollars.
I worked out it would cost me approximately $700 to dictate a first draft of an entire book. That’s based on the maths of a dollar per minute with a typical book being 70,000 words long.
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