Occasionally I’m going to post reviews of writing tools I’ve used, or at least tried. As I do, I’ll always try to keep in mind the fact that a tool that works for one person may not be quite so useful to another.
I’d appreciate comments on this product, especially if you’ve found a different way of working with it that suits you better. I’d also love to hear from those who use similar tools, especially if you’ve found them to be more helpful.
This review is for Dragon NaturallySpeaking Premium 12; the latest version is 13.
The Basics of Dragon NaturallySpeaking
Dragon NaturallySpeaking by Nuance is a voice recognition/dictation program for Windows computers. The developer also makes a similar application for Macintosh computers — Dragon for Mac; as the two products are named differently, I assume that there are quite a lot of differences between them, and since the Windows application is the only one I have any experience with, everything in this post will be in reference to that.
Before using any program on your computer it’s important to determine why you need it. I, for one, can attest to having a dozen or more programs on my computer that rarely — if ever — get launched. That’s generally not a big deal with free programs, but Dragon is not inexpensive, so it’s a good idea to do some research to see if it’s worth buying based on your needs and/or desires. Before purchasing Dragon, I spent a lot of time trying to determine whether I really needed it. I had been looking at it for quite a long time because, quite frankly, I have horrible keyboarding skills. You’ve heard of the “hunt-and-peck” system of typing? Mine is more of a “seek-and-destroy” method. In general it works fairly well, but it’s not very fast. Probably the largest drawback is that I have to look at my keyboard as I type — a big no-no according to my old high school typing teacher. On top of that, the strange health issues I deal with have manifested, in part, in what appears to be some nerve damage in my hands. While dealing with that a couple of years ago, my occupational therapist suggested that I get some dictation software for my computer. That was the last bit of encouragement I needed, and now my only regret is that I hadn’t purchased the software sooner
The concept is pretty simple: you load up the program, speak into a microphone, and your spoken words magically appear on-screen. It isn’t new technology; if you use a smart phone or have ever called an automated tech support number, you’ve probably used some form of voice recognition. What I can tell you is this: unlike those tech-support numbers, you will rarely need to repeat yourself over and over again to be understood. Dragon isn’t foolproof, but it is very, very accurate.
Dragon is marketed primarily as a business tool, so you’re probably wondering how such a program can fit into the workflow of a creative writer. As it turns out, it does a pretty good job.
The first things to note are the hardware requirements for the software. As stated above, you need a Windows PC; it doesn’t necessarily have to be a super high-end model, but anything that runs Windows Vista or higher should work. More importantly, you need a decent microphone. By decent I mean “noise-canceling.” I was aware of this when I ordered my software from Amazon, and I ordered a headset — one that had been recommended to use with Dragon — along with it. So it was with a little bit of surprise that I found that the Dragon software came with its own headset and microphone. That was a little frustrating, because I had done a fair amount of research on the software, yet still had no idea that it came bundled with the hardware. The headset that came with the software was pretty good; it was an analog stereo headset that worked pretty much flawlessly with the software. Unfortunately, the cords on analog headsets always seem to short out within several months, and this model was no exception. Luckily, I had the other headset that I had bought, which was a USB model. Unluckily, however, the microphone — which was supposed to be noise-canceling — wasn’t. It turns out Dragon is very sensitive, and when my refrigerator in the other room would start to run, the software’s accuracy went out the window. I then purchased a Logitech H800 Wireless Headset (uses either Bluetooth or the included USB wireless adapter), which has worked flawlessly for over a year now. So the moral of the story is: you don’t need to buy a separate headset with the software, but you will probably need to replace it eventually.
Also worth mentioning: Dragon works with files from digital voice recorders, so you don’t need to be tied to your computer while dictating. As it’s a feature that I haven’t used, I can’t comment on its accuracy.
After you install the software on your computer and plug in the headset or microphone, you set up a profile. The components of your profile consist of your particular input device and your voice. You will first be walked through setting up your microphone properly. After Dragon recognizes the hardware, it will give you a selection of texts to read so that the program can get used to your voice. That’s essentially it, and from that point you can jump right into dictating. An important thing to note, however, is that Dragon doesn’t ever really stop learning how to work with your voice. Also of note is that you need to learn how to work with Dragon as well. To that end there is a fairly extensive tutorial that can get you up and running with the basics rather quickly.
It takes a little bit of practice. You need to speak clearly, but surprisingly, you don’t need to exaggerate your enunciation. Actually, speaking in a conversational manner works fairly well, and that’s what the developer recommends. The only difference is that you need to speak your punctuation as you dictate. Also I find myself occasionally getting a little too relaxed in my speech, and when the words begin to slur a little bit the accuracy goes down.
Another aspect of using Dragon is editing. Dragon does make mistakes (as do I), and it would be kind of silly to spend all this money and time on the software only to go back to your mouse and keyboard to correct mistakes, whether made by the software or yourself. Editing is likely the most difficult thing to get the hang of. In fact, a large portion of the tutorial mentioned above deals with selecting, altering, and correcting the words that you’ve dictated into the computer. Often, I find that some edits are just easier to do manually.
Lastly, it should be noted that you can actually control parts of Windows or other programs on your computer using Dragon and your voice. I can’t really comment on how effective it is because I don’t use that feature, but I imagine if you had physical difficulties with using the mouse that are more extreme than the ones I have, the benefits could very well be huge.
Of particular use to creative writers is the ability to add to Dragon’s vocabulary. As a writer of the occasional science fiction or fantasy story, I’ve learned that this can save a lot of headache. It can be time-consuming, requiring you set aside a block of time for the process. It can be made quite a bit easier by allowing Dragon to “read” documents that you’ve already written. By doing so, Dragon can enter all those odd little specialty words that you’ve already used in your previous writing, and all you might have to do is confirm the pronunciation of those words. Entering documents that way also helps Dragon to learn your writing style, and — according to Nuance — increases Dragon’s overall accuracy.
I like Dragon NaturallySpeaking. For someone like me who has pretty atrocious keyboarding skills, it allows me to enter text more than three times faster than if I were typing. Psychologically, however, I sometimes find it off-putting to compose off the top of my head, all the while verbalizing my punctuation. As stated above, it takes a little getting used to. If you’re the type of writer who likes to compose longhand with pen and paper, I can see this software being of huge benefit; rather than needing to type your work into the computer afterward, you can simply read it in.
Another slight downside to the program is the editing process. Editing on-the-fly takes some practice to get down, and if you’re not paying attention to the input as you dictate you may miss mistakes that the software makes, requiring that you carefully proofread and edit by hand. This is offset somewhat by Dragon’s amazing accuracy, but even so, it isn’t 100%.
Honestly, I wish I used it more than I do. As I try to increase my writing habit, I have no doubt that I’ll be using it more and more, and as a result getting more and more comfortable with it. Also, if the program actually does continue to learn as you use it as the developer claims, it will only get more accurate over time.
If you’re a slow typist, or otherwise have difficulty entering text with your keyboard, I think Dragon NaturallySpeaking is an outstanding choice. If you’re a better typist than I am and are merely interested in increasing the rate at which you enter text, this application is worth a look. Of course, you’ll need to weigh the cost of the software against your needs and desires. Either way, I hope that this review helps you make that determination.