Many lovers of drama and literature will know that in his old age, American playwright Eugene O’Neil could no longer write, due to illness. He found that writing longhand with pen on paper was essential to his creativity. I wonder if he was able to dictate functional documents like letters.

Several other authors do their creative writing with dictation. The British sci-fi writer Terry Pratchett used to dictate to his assistant. and Ernst Hoffman the 19th century writer and composer dictated his final works to his wife or to a secretary.  I could imagine that dictating to another person would put me off the creative process, but I’ll be trying solo.

I recently bought Dragon Naturally Speaking 12 from Nuance, and I’m using it to compose this post. I wanted it primarily to transcribe my father’s handwritten memoir of World War II. After 50 pages I can convert 10 pages per hour of his neat strong hand – CU MSincluding corrections. That’s with slow, clear dictation, carefully enunciating the consonants. Vowels are more difficult; only five in English for a huge range of sounds.

I’m also returning to creative writing, and wonder whether I can use this mode of creativity. Talking to yourself used to be a sure sign that you were senile, or nuts, or under severe pressure. People would look at you sideways and wonder. No longer.
Typing, talking, thinking
Even a functional item like this post will take me a while to integrate my thoughts with my dictation. I can’t say whether typing would be faster, but then I’m a very slow and inaccurate touch typist, hitting 35 w.p.m. at best with 10 fingers; my main reason for buying the Dragon software. Dictation is easier on the fingers, and the amount of correcting is much less.

I first experimented with speech-to-text conversion with a program bundled in Windows 7 on a 2009 laptop. It was extremely slow (for me to use and for it to learn my voice) and I soon gave up.

I decided to buy Dragon after using it to transcribe an interview with an author, who needed more material for his manuscript. As a quadriplegic, he could use only one hand, and had never used a computer. I didn’t have Dragon on my computer; it was running in the publisher’s office, where I called from my home to interview him. We didn’t take the time to create a profile especially for him. Instead, the publisher’s assistant also did an audio recording, and I used this file to help me fix Dragon’s errors in the new text.

Shopping for Naturally Speaking (Home edition) version 12 took me longer than installation. I tried Costco first. The Canadian site didn’t list it, only the American site. Also the Nuance site of course. Costco America does not ship to Canada, and the Nuance site had only version 13 for US$100. The online software retailers Purplus.net and .com stock the program for low prices but I had problems with either the download or the shipping costs.

The Staples Canada in-store price was $50 with free shipping, but eventually I found one on EBay. Today it lists a range of package options from $35 down to US$10, some with disc, some with a download key, some with an app for mobiles. All come with a headset. I found one for about $25.

On delivery (two weeks!), I was a little surprised to find no DVD, only a download authorization code, and a headset with a high quality microphone. The 2 Gb set-up file took more than two hours to download. Maybe I could have cut this with their download manager, but didn’t want to risk downloading something else too.

I backed up the file to DVD, anticipating the death of this laptop, but it wouldn’t install from there. I had to use the version on my hard drive, then identify myself again via email to get an activation code. There must be pirated editions available, but Nuance’s security seems proof against all but the most ingenious hackers.

Training the Dragon
Set up was easy. Dragon opens with a sidebar containing a help program, and a thin toolbar across the top of the screen. The help program has commands for several programs, including Excel, Hotmail, and Gmail, but not Facebook. The microphone can be switched on / off by voice command, or by clicking.

Creating my profile with voice tests took no longer than 20 minutes. I chose English with Canadian spelling. Dragon asked me to read several passages, to recognize my accent and assess my voice quality. It wasn’t accurately transcribing my South African accent, so I created another profile using “British accent” instead of “Standard. “ The only other accents available are Australian and American. I wonder how Dragon would react to the numerous other English accents and variants, in Asia, India, Africa, or South America. That’s the beauty of writing. It’s independent of accent.

The program also learns the user’s vocabulary by scanning all documents on the hard drive, including an option to scan emails. As a web mail user, I bypassed that. The profile updates on exit (and Dragon had difficulty right here, typing “except” for “exit”, but I solved this by repeating the two words until I figured out that for “exit”, I had to say “egg-sit.”

So, I’m going to egg-sit, friends. Hope to hatch an entertaining post for you next time.