by Anne Goodwin
Along with a keyboard and a good dictionary,
fingers, hands, and arms are essential items in a writer’s tool bag.
But long hours in the company of QWERTY can result in significant strain that, if ignored, can lead to permanent damage.
In days gone by, this might have spelled the end of a promising career, so thank heavens for that ingenious voice recognition software that can convert our talk into text.
Too Much Typing Leads to Pain
In my own case, I was proud of my keyboard skills, having been taught by my mother on a manual typewriter in my late teens.
Over the next couple of decades, I typed several essays and two dissertations, and was midway through a third when my fingers began to ache long before my mind had stopped buzzing with ideas. With deadlines to meet, I soldiered on, assuming the pain would pass. It did but, with new projects, along with the rediscovery of my love of writing fiction, the time I could comfortably spend typing gradually decreased.
The time I could uncomfortably spend typing was another matter.
My Doctor Recommended Voice Recognition Software
With the pain extending from my phalanges to my shoulders, I often didn’t stop until I was almost retching.
As I was also using a keyboard in my day job, I was able to benefit from a workstation assessment. While various adjustments were suggested, such as a gel wrist support and a footstool to assist with posture, the only thing that made a significant difference was to stop using the keyboard completely.
By then, I was also experiencing fatigue in my arms when writing by hand and driving.
On the recommendation of the occupational health physician, with advice from the IT department, my employer purchased Dragon NaturallySpeaking for my personal use, and I bought another copy to install on my computer at home.
Fifteen years later, although I can type for a few minutes without discomfort, I’ve never fully recovered. Belatedly, I’ve learned to be more attentive to my body, and am especially careful not to ask too much of my fingers, hands and arms.
Voice recognition software has enabled me to publish over sixty short stories and a novel, with another on its way, not to mention over four hundred blog posts and countless emails. Without it, I wouldn’t be a writer, but it does have its frustrations.
Quick to install and train to tune in to how you speak, it might resemble a super-efficient secretary but, underneath, it has the “mind” of a machine. Like any labour-saving gadget, it requires that you familiarize yourself with its strengths and weaknesses to get the best from it.
If you’ve ever considered forking out the cash for voice recognition software, my own experience might help you decide if it’s for you.
Make Sure to Always Proofread Your Text!
I’m assuming you proofread before submitting for publication, and an editor will scrutinize your work further before it’s released to the world, but what about those less formal sentences and paragraphs?
If you rely on speech recognition software, you’ll need to learn how to inspect your words differently if you want to appear literate in emails, blog posts and tweets.
You’ll be forgiven if you type “thier” instead of “their” in a rushed blog comment; most readers assume your mind outpaced your fingers. If, on the other hand, your software produces the homonym “there,” readers might wonder if you’ve grasped the basics of grammar.
When you’re pressed for time, a cursory glance over your output, as you sprint ahead to the next idea, might not reveal your mistake: we often “see” what we expect and the “their” that was in your mind might be exactly what you see on the screen.
Although the software might make the words appear faster than you can type, the time you need to correct the errors slows things down significantly. In my experience, while the program is quick to recognize the basics of your speech, with the accuracy improving over time, it’s never as skilled as that mythical super-secretary who always gets it right.
Which Voice Recognition Software is Best for You?
Top ten reviews features eight different voice recognition packages, four of which are different versions of the market leader, Dragon NaturallySpeaking—the most expensive, costing thirty times as much as the cheapest.
In addition, Wikipedia lists seven open source programs. While many of these can be downloaded or purchased online, if you visit your local computer store, you’re most likely to be offered a choice between different versions of Dragon.
I’m currently using Dragon Premium, which is in the middle of their product range.
When purchasing a gadget with which you are unfamiliar, it can be difficult to decide whether the various add-ons are worth the extra cash. A remote microphone might seem attractive, enabling you to move around the room as you voice your thoughts, but don’t forget you’ll need to look back at the screen periodically to check that the program has correctly transcribed your words.
Not included in the basic version of Dragon, I find the CREATE NEW COMMAND function particularly useful for the swift insertion of frequently used text into documents. For example, I can say MY ADDRESS and five lines of my address appear instantly on the screen. But, as a writer, you’ll be using it mostly for text documents, so you might want to choose the highest-scoring dictation package you can afford.
While you might expect the ideal time to invest in speech recognition software would be when buying a new computer, this isn’t necessarily the case if a new version of Windows has just been launched. As I learned to my cost when struggling to dictate into Windows 8, although the software is continually updated, there’s always a time lag. If you’re a PC user, it might be worth hanging back until the early compatibility glitches have been ironed out.
If you’re a regular user of a project management tool, it’s also worth checking if it will accept both dictation and correction before you invest in new software. When I tried Scrivener, I found I had to transfer my text back into Word in order to make amendments, which made it less attractive to me as a novel-writing tool.
Beware of Straining Your Voice
In theory, speech recognition software enables you to do everything on the computer by voice, apart from switching it on and starting it up.
You can use commands to browse the Internet and manage your files and photos, but it’s worth considering whether you should. The more you delegate to the software, the more you risk the frustration of errors, as well as passing on the strain from your fingers to your voice.
Writing is generally considered a quiet activity, but if you’re talking rather than typing you need to take care of your voice. Good posture, taking sips of water, and doing warm-up exercises, like singers do, can all help.
But if you feel the tension creeping in, it’s a good idea to take a break, no matter how forcefully your creative juices are flowing. You don’t want to end up speechless when you’re invited to read from your work in public.
As you become familiar with the program, you might discover various shortcuts to reduce how much talking you need to do.
It made a huge difference to my ability to write dialogue, for example, when I discovered that I could dictate a sentence and then say QUOTE THAT rather than saying OPEN QUOTES at the start and END QUOTES at the end of a sample of direct speech.
If you’re able to, you can also make judicious use of the keyboard to save your voice. For example, if I say “new paragraph,” that’s four syllables, but if I press ENTER on the keyboard, I get the same result with just one stroke. In addition, a touch screen computer makes it much easier to manipulate text than moving the cursor by voice commands.
Keep Your Sense of Humor
We’re all prone to getting angry when machines don’t do our bidding. But shouting at a computer impacts negatively on both your voice and your mental well-being, without resolving the problem that got you worked up. So, as with so many things, a sense of humor doesn’t go amiss if you’re relying on voice recognition software.
Just ensure to check that the program hasn’t tried to translate your laughter into words on the screen!
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Anne Goodwin’s debut novel, Sugar and Snails, about a woman who has kept her past identity a secret for thirty years, was published in July 2015 by Inspired Quill and longlisted for the 2016 Polari First Book Prize.
Her second novel, Underneath, about a man who keeps a woman captive in his cellar, is scheduled for publication in May 2017. Anne is also a book blogger and author of over 60 published short stories. Catch up on her website: annethology or on Twitter @Annecdotist.
For Sugar and Snails: