Tuesday 22 January 2019

Speaking from the Heart: Dictation Software, by Dan Metcalf

I was heartened recently to see that a story I had begun writing over three years ago in a notebook was actually pretty good, or at least had promise. My heart sank however when I realised that in order to turn it into a book that I actually wanted to present to publishers, I would have to type it up.
I’m a slow writer. Or to be exact, I’m a slow typist. If I was still allowed to hand in a manuscript, scrawled in ink and blood with blotches all over the folio, I would, like Jo March in Little Women (okay, maybe not the blood). But I suppose now we live in the 21st century and writers have to beam their stories over the interwebs like we’re living in a Philip K Dick novel. Typing up a story from handwritten notes is the worst, not least because I have unreadable handwriting. My eyes flit from keyboard to screen to the page, and it becomes slow and tiresome. It would take me hours to type up the story.
And then I remembered something I had heard on a podcast about dictation software. There are lots of different ways of speaking your story aloud, the most popular being Dragon dictation, but a free and simple way of testing it out was Google Docs. If you have a google account for anything, then you already have access to this and you can run it right from your chrome Browser (also free). So with a rubbish netbook, an old hands-free mic from a smart phone and my best BBC announcer voice, I set about reading the story aloud.
I was pretty pleased with the results the story went from this:

To this:

Some glaring errors there, not least the replacement of ‘pookas’ to ‘hookers’ (oops...). The software had trouble with the made-up word ‘grublin’ for which I will forgive it. A way of remedying that I guess would be to just say a recognised word - ‘goblin’ for example – and then perform a quick Find & Replace in MS Word when editing.
I had also tried to include punctuation in my speech. The Google system recognises a few stock phrases that instantly transform themselves into punctuation but not all, and you can add others later in the edit (the phrases in question are ‘Comma’, the very American ‘Period’ for full stop, ‘Exclamation Point’, ‘Question Mark’, ‘New line’ and ‘New Paragraph’). Fairly simplistic, but I cannot vouch for other software such as Dragon, the well-established market leader in this area.
I had a full chapter written in less than ten minutes, with another ten minutes dedicated to editing, which I did in LibreOffice, my word processor of choice. I’m happy with the result:
Once upon a snowfall, when the woodland burst with pookas and nymphs, a lonely grublin sat on its stump and grumbled.
It grumbled because that's what grublins do. They are happy (or unhappy, as the case may be) to sit in the woods and complain about things.
It's too scrimping cold,” it muttered to itself. “Never known a winter like it.”
But it had. It had known no fewer than four hundred and thirty-six winters in its lifetime and each of them had been as cold and bleak as the last. For each of these winters it had sat on its stump as it always had, and grumbled.
And other writers swear by it. Kevin J Anderson, the bestselling sci fi author, dictates whole tomes and tidies them up later (with might account for his epic output). Self-publishing gurus Mark Dawson and Joanna Penn are experimenting with dictation and there are numerous books on using the technique to its best effect (sources here and here).
So would I use dictation for a whole book? Well… probably not. As an avowed introvert who can barely string a sentence together out loud in real life, I find that silence when working helps to contribute to my writing. Also, I work in coffee shops and libraries a lot and would get some pretty strange looks whilst recounting tales of fairy-folk. But as a short cut to getting my tales onto the old PC? Yeah, I think it might just work...
Do you dictate? Would you? Would the result be the same as parking your backside and typing away? Let me know in the comments.
Dan Metcalf is a writer of books for children. His latest book, Paw Prints in the Somme, is available at danmetcalf.co.uk/pawprints


travel write for us said...

so cute

Susan Price said...

I've tried it in the past, when I was afflicted by tendonitis - but every time, there were so many mistakes that I quickly decided it would be quicker to type, despite my sore hands and arms. I've been told several times, "Oh, it quickly learns your voice and becomes more accurate." Not in my experience, it doesn't - or maybe I'm just very impatient.

Alex English said...

I have started using Dragon Anywhere on my iPhone. It does make quite a few errors, but I find it really useful for getting a bit of 'writing' done when I'm walking to/from taking the kids to school. I added an extra 500 words a day to my drafting just by doing that. I also find that if I've got my brain going by dictating on the walk home by the time I get there I am in the zone and ready to write lots more. I love it! You do need to edit, and if you write fantasy you might need to set up some of the more unusual words so that it recognises them, but I think it's worth trying.

Dan Metcalf said...

Thanks Susan, and Alex!
Since I wrote that there is a great podcast on dictation gone up at the Self Publishing Show: https://selfpublishingformula.com/episode-154/

Anne Booth said...

This is so interesting. I've never tried it, but I think I would like to experiment with it.