Friday, December 14, 2012

Guest Author David Allen: Getting Started With Dictation

By David Allen, @Wizardgold

Last week, commenter Misty asked a question about dictating a novel. Since I've never done this, I headed out to the web and found someone who could give her the information she sought. So please help me welcome David Allen to the blog, who graciously answered my call and agreed to do a guest post about the pros and cons of dictating your novel.

David writes for a number of websites including, NoStylus and DigitalBookMaestro and can be followed on Twitter using the name @Wizardgold. David was a member of the Girona writers group in Catalonia. When not writing for the web you will find him making videos for YouTube again with the username of Wizardgold.

Take it away David...

Why would you want to dictate your writing?

In days of old when knights were bold and computers had not been invented. Writers told their tales with pen or quill and created their stories, quite contented.

Now though, we have computers and the way of the future is dictation software.

My own experience of using dictation software

While most of the writing that I do is technical for my tech-based websites, I did take part in NaNoWriMo last year. Writing novels may be different from the sort of writing that I do most of the time, but I am positive that using dictation software on my Mac is extremely helpful. Using dictation software, particularly on a first draft makes it so easy to get those ideas out of the head and onto the page. Dictation software is so good for a writer because of the speed with which you can get those words out. Normal typing can never be as fast as a writer is able to produce the ideas in between the ears. If I was to guess, I would say that I can write about three times faster using dictation software that I can write with typing on a keyboard.

Getting started with dictation software

The company that is the leader in dictation software is Nuance and they produce software for both Windows and for the Mac. I use DragonDictate version 3.5 on the Mac and I am generally very happy with the way it works. It may seem that it is quite expensive to buy, but I would recommend that you have a look on Amazon and you might be lucky to get a deal, just as I did. Even at the full price I still think that DragonDictate is great value.

Dictation on the Mac

If you are a Mac user too, then you could use the dictation service that comes with Mountain Lion which will give you an idea about what it is like using dictation software. I wouldn't recommend that you use this as a guide as to whether you should buy the full version or not. You only really get the full dictation experience from using something like DragonDictate. This is because the Mountain Lion dictation requires you to be online to be able to use it. That makes it slower to do the translation of speech into text. There is also a limit to the amount of time that you can speak for. You get around about enough time to make two or three sentences. It is not as accurate as using DragonDictate and doesn't have the free flow, that I think is necessary to dictate longer works. It is good for short notes if I don't have Dragon open.

Train yourself and train the software

So you have bitten the bullet and decided to buy yourself the full version of the Nuance dictation software. The first thing that you need to do is to train the software to your voice. DragonDictate works so much better when you read the training text that comes with the application. The more that you train it, the better it works. You also need to train yourself to speak clearly. You need to make sure that you annunciate your words well and do not slur one word into another. The dictation software also works better if you use whole sentences, as the choice of words by the software will be also be determined by the context of the words around it.

How accurate is dictation software?

When you get into using DragonDictate or the Windows version of it, you will be amazed how accurate the dictation can be. Most sentences that I dictate will be completely accurate and without any errors. What you also need to learn, is what you need to do, if it hasn't converted the words you said correctly. The important thing to remember is that you are to correct things using your voice and NOT to jump in there with the keyboard. This software will most certainly get confused if you mix the two operations together while dictating.

Making corrections as you go

It is easy though, to make corrections as you go as you can tell the software to select a certain word, you say the correct word and it is quite likely to get it right the second time around. You will also have been paying attention to the recognition window, which will gives you alternatives, which are easy to choose from. All you have to do is to say the word choose and the number for the alternative that you want from the list.

Using the Vocabulary Editor

The dictionary within DragonDictate is quite extensive, but there will sometimes be one or two words that it doesn't have. The thing to do in this case, would be to use the Vocabulary Editor to add new words, especially if it is a word that you are going to be using over and over. Sometimes when there is word that I know that I will only be using just the once, I will switch the software into spelling mode. You use the international phonetic spelling alphabet to spell the word. So for example to spell the word cat you would say Charlie, Alpha, Tango. You really won't need to do this very often and I find that using it doesn't disrupt my train of thought.

Are the any downsides?

You do need to work in a quiet room. So if you like to work while listening to loud music, then dictation might not be the way for you. If you have a really strange accent that is not localized within the software, then you could encounter some problems. DragonDictate does work well for me though, even with my strange British accent.

My own writing workflow

The way that I work with dictation software is to just let the dictation flow as best as I can. I watch the recognition window and I correct the obvious mistakes as I go. I will then read out aloud the first draft and make manual corrections using a keyboard in a standard text editor. Usually I find that the changes that I need to make, are minimal. I will often have to add some punctuation and change some of the grammar and occasionally do some reordering of the paragraphs. A novelist with a story will also be making corrections in terms of the workings of the narrative.

Is dictation software suitable for novelists?

I would say yes, without a doubt if you're a novelist, then dictation software will be useful to have for your writing. Imagine yourself sitting on the sofa with the headset microphone connected to your computer. You have your feet up, you're feeling completely relaxed and creative and all you have to do is to speak your story for your computer to turn it into text. Everybody knows that the first draft of a novel is usually complete garbage. To be able to get those first ideas and the broad strokes of your scenes out of your head quickly, will get you to the stage where you can start working on rewrites much sooner. Using dictation software is so much better than being stifled by the speed of which you can type, while being hunched over your keyboard.


  1. Thanks for the interesting post!

    One of my work mates with injuries to her wrists and forearms (and was medically prohibited from using a keyboard) swore by dictation software. But as you say, she needed to write her reports in a quiet room away from the noisy open plan office, which wasn't always convenient (I think she enjoyed kicking the boss out of her office to do so!).

    As for me, I'm such a dithering writer that the speed of my typing is not what slows me down. But I'd still love to have a play with voice activated software, it is the way of the future.

    1. So did you have a go with the dictation software in the end? I have updated my Mac operating system and also the Dictation software since writing this and the Dragon Dictate works even better for me now.

  2. I bought Nuance a few months ago (there were special rebates that made the price $0.)

    I love the read back capability; reading out loud helps find your mistakes and awkward wording - if someone else is reading it, you find even more.

    The dictation part doesn't work for me, because I've been known to labor over a single sentence for ten minutes, trying to get it perfect. I found myself just adding a step by dictating it first.

    But for those who write fast - and revise later, this would be a wonderful tool.

    And of course, anyone with disabilities - it would be a Godsend.

    1. Always, after I have finished dictating, I will read back aloud what I have written. I do do some dictation controlled revision work as I go, but I find the reading it aloud to be absolutely necessary. If I was typing the words in, then I know I would also still need to do the read back and have just as many corrections to make.

      Yes I do like to write fast and revise later.

      Congratulations on getting your DragonDictate at such a marvellous price.

  3. Oh wow, thanks for answering my question.I have the dragon dictation software.My problem is finding a quiet place to train my software.I have three kids who love to make noise as soon as I get on my headset.Also I think this software will help me alot I'm not a very fast typer and I have so many ideas to get out of my head before I forget

    1. Hello Misty - How are you getting on with your DragonDictate software now? I was using the headset with DragonDictate for my work for quite some time, but I found that I was getting a little bit annoyed with how it fitted on my head. I have other microphones around that I use for podcasting and for the last few months I have been using a Samson USB condenser microphone. This microphone has a pop filter on it and is also in a proper microphone holder so that it is not affected by any noises induced by spinning computer hard disks. It does feel much more comfortable to use this microphone rather than the headset microphone although I find that I do have to stay in one place more. The headset microphone had a nice long lead so that I could stand up and dictate if I wanted to. Some people do like to stand up because they think better that way.

      I would love to hear how you are getting on with your writing.

  4. I've heard of this type of software before. Thanks for bringing it to the forefront again.
    Something I should look into to.

    1. So are you dictating your novels now then?