Sunday, September 09, 2007

Dictation and Transcription: NaturallySpeaking Voice-Recognition Software. It Works!

Are there still writers who "write" by dictating to a secretary--to another human, who then types up the recording? Barbara Cartland worked this way, and I recall reading a book from Writer's Digest Books by a magazine feature writer who worked by dictating his articles into a tape recorder, then handing it off to a secretary for transcription. Why? Did these folks have trouble with typing? (Both began working in the typewriter era.) Were they unable to create if they had to type?

I'm plan to experiment with dictating short fiction. I assume the trick will be to hold a lot of the story or article one is writing in your mind, verbatim, like Sherwood Anderson did after he went blind. I've heard that he could hold a 2,000-word short story completely in his head. Maybe it comes with practice.

I'm not big on the idea of paying someone to take dictation, but dictating to a computer for transcription to text makes perfect sense to me. The only problem with it was that, until recently, there were no programs good enough to be useful to a writer.

Back in June I bought a copy of Dragon NaturallySpeaking Version 9.0 Preferred Speech Recognition (a cumbersome name if there ever was one) on the recommendation of an editor who thought it might come in handy for transcribing interviews. It didn't--not the way the editor thought it might, at least. NaturallySpeaking cannot recognize more than one voice at a time. But the software is dandy for dictation.

I tried versions 7 and 8, and those were all but useless. Version 9 works as advertised. It's not a great tool for transcribing meetings or interviews, because it cannot recognize and transcribe more than one voice at a time. Plus, you must train it to recognize each voice you want it to transcribe, and load the training file for the particular person whose speech--live or recorded--you wish to transcribe to text.
All in all, that's not unreasonable. Versions 7 and 8 of this program, along with some other older voice-recognition software I've tried, were all but useless when it came to transcription. They were fine for issuing commands to your computer, but the error rate was far too high. With NaturallySpeaking I get an error rate of about 15 percent. That's acceptable and leads to no more editing that typos.

The program is really easy enough to use that you don't need to buy a book or video to help you learn it. Just install it and jump in. To get started with NaturallySpeaking, you spend maybe a half hour reading a selection from Alice in Wonderland, Arthur C. Clarke's 2010, or one of four other works from among those included with the program. As you read the text sample the creates a reference file of your speech patterns and pronunciation. That user file is expanded every time you use the program, and you can teach it new words manually.

One of the more interesting aspects of the program is that it can learn some words and usages from the manual changes you make in the text after dictation. NaturallySpeaking does fairly good job of handling homonyms, too--deciding whether to use "rite," "right," or "write," for example. The decision seems to be based on a word's context.

When using NaturallySpeaking, it is best carefully enunciate your words and speak forcefully. You don't have to exaggerate the enunciation; NaturallySpeaking is quite good at knowing what do you mean. On the other side of that, I found that I adapted my speech to the program, to a certain extent. To anyone listening as a I dictate, I sound like I'm reading a script or acting.. And that's the best approach; don't ham it up but don't be shy.

One thing that takes getting used to is the fact that you have to specify each and every punctuation mark. When you want to add a comma, you have to say,. At the end of the sentence you have to say "period" or "question mark" or "exclamation mark," as appropriate. Ditto quotation marks, semi colons, colons, etc. interestingly once you get used to it this doesn't slow you down. Demand products burying

I bought NaturallySpeaking back in June, and have spent 25 hours or so dictating. I think 20 to 25 hours is what it takes to get used to the program and to let it build up a vocabulary. Now I'm experimenting with customizing the program and using more commands as I dictate. (Until recently, the only commands I used were "new paragraph" and "strike that." The latter backs up and deletes.)

If you want to try dictating letters, manuscripts, or whatever else, this is the program to have. It's well worth the price. Just make sure you get Version 9 or higher. I've seen earlier versions stocked in several retail computer chains; they should yank those and get Version 9. But they're not, so your best bet may be (Amazon's price is lower than I've seen elsewhere, and shipping is fast.) Make sure you buy the Preferred version.

Oh--and don't worry about what kind of microphone you use. I use a cheap headset mic that came with an earlier version. When I've transcribed recorded material, I transferred it to my computer's hard drive first. I have transcribed my voice from Sony micro-cassette tapes and from a Sony digital recorder. The software that comes with 1e latter (Sony Digital Voice Editor 2) is excellent for replaying and manipulating voice recordings, by the way, and NaturallySpeaking is designed to be compatible with it.


Newt said...

Did you try the VR s/w in MS Windows?
It works well and doesn't need 20 hours+ of training. Michael Linenberger writes all his books(e.g.,Total Workday Control) using a Thinkpad X60 Tablet PC and the included VR s/w. That's the same configuration I'm using now.
I do have some frustrations with idiosyncrasies,but generally it is very accurate.
My biggest challenge is dictating as fluently as I write. How have you gotten past that challenge?

Michael A. Banks said...

That's interesting; I haven't tried VS s/w. I will look into it.

Dictating ... that's something I'm going to do another post on. Thus far I've learned that one of the keys is to sort of ham it up. That is, put on a bit of emphasis when you dictate, as if you were reading for an audiobook. It of course helps the program, but I think also that it has the psychological effect of putting one on proper "voice."

One thing that may get in the way of dictating for some people is how we relate to the visual experience of typing. We're all so attuned to running everything thorugh the left side of the brain through our hands that there are probably some mentation habits that must unlearned before dictation goes as well as typing. Brain to mouth is, after all, a different route than brain to fingers.

Pardes said...

I took the plunge and bought a Sony digital recorder that came with Dragon Naturally Speaking version 9.5. So far, so good. Recorder works great, DNS works great...well at least as far as I've been able to figure it out.
I was happy to find your post where you found it all worked for you.
I'm hoping that the Dragon can not only teach me to speak but also teach me to sing!

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Have you ever tried winscribe? Is awesome!!!

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