Friday, January 7, 2022

Training my Dragon (Or how I learned to mumble less)

 In mid-December, I took the plunge and downloaded Nuance’s Dragon Individual Professional 15.0 model (here’s a link to the discounted deal I found on Amazon). If you haven’t heard of Dragon, it’s a sophisticated dictation program that uses artificial intelligence to learn users’ individual speech patterns and usages. At least, that’s the claim by both the company and its many proponents. As with most pieces of software, there is a learning period with lots of “ah-ha” moments.

(That last sentence forced me to learn something new. In that sentence, when I dictated the word “period,” it recorded it as “.”, which isn’t exactly ideal. I looked online for proposed solutions and decided that the British had this one covered. Instead of saying period when I wanted to signify a sentence end, I now say “full stop.” That works. Of course, now I must remember to say “full stop” at the end of each sentence. As I am editing this a few days later, I do remember 95% of the time.)

That situation above is an example of why it is necessary for me to train my Dragon. I just wasted invested twenty minutes coming up with a solution. An easier approach might have been simply to go back and edit the first “.” into the word “period.” But I’m still in the experimenting stage, and we’ll see if this fresh approach works for me. I can already see that at some point I may have to similarly deal with “,” “;” “:” and “?”. (I left the symbols, but you read them as words, right?)

Having dealt with that minor little aside, let’s cycle back to why I spent my money purchasing Dragon and then invested time training it to learn my quirks. I had become frustrated with my writing process. At times, I felt as though I were writing things twice: once inside my head; the second time, typing on my keyboard. I taught myself touch typing in the summer between eleventh and twelfth grade. I’m a decent typist, but not great. But when transcribing from brain to screen, I frequently leave out words or misspell them.

I thought the process of dictation might eliminate the double thinking issue. I speak and Dragon types. So far, that seems to be the case. I think it has to do with not having to use my fingers, although perhaps it is only the novelty of the situation. It could also be the placebo effect: I’m told Dragon will improve my writing, and it has—but because I am more focused, not because of the software.

I can talk faster than I can type, and I worried Dragon might not keep up. That has never been a problem. From the recoding words aspect, at worst, using Dragon is a draw, and most likely it is an improvement. Even if it were only a draw, I enjoy an enormous benefit from not using my hands and fingers repetitively. I do not suffer from carpal tunnel syndrome, as many of my author friends do, but I have felt twinges of pain from time to time after long sessions at the keyboard. And, despite my wish that it weren’t so, I’m more liable to break than I was a few years ago.

Dragon does not make typos. Dragon does, however, have difficulty with homonyms. Sometimes it figures out (or guesses—how would I know?) the correct word from context. Often, it comes up with the wrong spelling. Since I use the program only for first drafts, it’s not a huge problem. When I leave out words or create new ones with my typos, I am often left wondering what the heck I intended to say. So far with Dragon, I have always figured out the correct context with a misspelled homonym.

Unfortunately, Dragon does not always correctly interpret my speech. The artificial intelligence aspect of Dragon has a mechanism that allows you to correct transcription errors. Early on, there were a lot — no, a lot is insufficient — there were way too many errors. If I couldn’t get Dragon to interpret my speech with significantly better accuracy, our divorce was inevitable.

I learned to enunciate the endings of words more clearly to Dragon to better differentiate between “boo,” and “boot” and “boot” and “booted.” The AI aspect of Dragon began more accurately recognizing my speech patterns. And I learned to work with a few of its idiosyncrasies.

It has only been two weeks, but I consider Dragon to be a great success. Prior to using Dragon, a good day’s writing for me was 1,500 words. My average for days when I was engaged in writing my first draft was under a 1,000. My peak daily output was 2,390. With Dragon, I now average over 3,000 words a day. My highest output for a single day is now 5,135 words.

There are authors who would look at my best day and consider that a poor day for them. I’m not trying to compare myself to someone else, only to my former self. I estimate that before Dragon, I averaged 500 to 600 words an hour. With Dragon, even after including the time it takes for me to correct the dictation errors, I have roughly doubled that output.

I’ve learned a few tricks that make my life easier. For example, I don’t bother correcting homonyms unless they make it into the second draft. Dragon does fine with some personal and place names and not so well with others. In my current work in progress, I have a girl named Valeria. When I try to pronounce it correctly, Dragon types “Valerie a.” Now I just say Valerie. When I complete dictating a scene, I do a quick global search and replace.

My main character’s name is Seamus. Naturally, it wanted to spell the word “shamus,” Yiddish for detective. Although I use the Yiddish expression from time to time, it’s much more likely when I say the word Seamus, I mean my character. Dragon allows you the opportunity to add words to its dictionary and tell it how to pronounce them. That’s what I did with Seamus. So, my Dragon spells Seamus when it hears me pronounce the word (Shay-mus).

Unfortunately, I learned the hard way that Dragon uses a lot of computer resources. Sometimes it stresses those resources past the point where the computer can function correctly. When that happens, it has the nasty habit of closing without saving its work. After twice losing many hundreds of words, I now save my work every few paragraphs.

At this point in the first draft of this blog, I stopped and checked for Dragon mistakes. Of the 1,200 words I had written, I found nine errors (not counting the period issue that I subsequently addressed): three homonyms, two possessives without apostrophes, and four mumbles. That’s a success rate of 99.25%.

What have you done (or think you should do) differently to shake up your writing routine?

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James M. Jackson authors the Seamus McCree series. Full of mystery and suspense, these thrillers explore financial crimes, family relationships, and what happens when they mix. You can sign up for his newsletter and find more information about Jim and his books at

[This post was first published on the Writers Who Kill blog 1/4/22.]

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