20 December 2017


Photo by Jason Rosewell on Unsplash

Hands-free Writing with Dictation Tools

By Catherine Pope

December 20, 2017

Posted in Productivity

Could you finish your book or thesis without actually writing anything? Probably not, unless you can afford to hire a scribe. It's possible, though, to reduce the amount of time you spend typing and slumped at your desk. Trying to extract three-dimensional ideas from our heads and into linear words is tough, even at the best of times. Wouldn't it be nice if we could just talk about our research, then it would pop up on the screen? Well, it can!

In this post, I'll review three dictation tools that might make your writing process a little easier: Office 365, Google Docs, and Dragon Dictate. I've dictated the same paragraph to all of them so you can compare the accuracy:

I'm dictating this paragraph to demonstrate the accuracy of three dictation tools - Dragon, Microsoft Word, and Google Docs. There's a quote coming up:

"Say something important here."

1. Office 365

If you're a Microsoft Office 365 subscriber (you probably have free access through your university), you can take advantage of Word's dictation tool. Click the Dictate icon on the toolbar to get started. You can also choose your language here.

Screenshot of Dictate tool in MS Word

You get a lot control over the formatting with your voice and it's easy to insert punctuation. It's also possible to perform basic editing tasks, such as deleting specific words or sentences. For a full list of commands, visit the documentation page.

As you'll see in the screenshot, it didn't recognise the dash. The official command is em-dash, which it transcribed rather than executed. It also added a space after the opening quote mark and didn't capitalise the first letter. Hmm, not bad, but I'd need to spend some time tidying everything.

Advantages

  • It's free if you already have Office 365.
  • It's convenient for Word users.
  • The accuracy is OK and will probably improve.

Disadvantages

  • It won't learn your speech patterns or specialist vocabulary.
  • There are some annoying glitches.
  • Microsoft is generally more interested in reach than quality.

2. Google Docs

In Google Docs, you can access the voice typing feature through the Tools menu or the keyboard shortcut Ctrl+Shift+s.

Screenshot of voice typing in Google Docs

You'll then see a little pop-up window with a microphone. Make sure you've chosen the correct language, then click on the microphone and start speaking.

You'll notice that the accuracy isn't great. Also, Google Docs only recognises very basic punctuation, such as fullstops, commas, and question marks. Oddly, it's not possible to add quote marks or dashes. Full instructions are included in the Google Docs documentation.

I also found that it would stop listening if I paused for more than a few seconds. I was waffling away to myself and didn't my thoughts weren't being captured. Apparently, even dictation tools can get bored.

Advantages

  • It's free.
  • It's cloud-based, so you can access it anywhere.
  • It also works on iPhones and Android devices

Disadvantages

  • Like Office 365, it won't learn your speech patterns or specialist vocabulary.
  • The accuracy is variable.
  • Suddenly stops listening when you've got into your flow.

3. Dragon Dictate

Who wouldn't want a friendly dragon that takes dictation? Dragon is probably the most popular speech recognition software, and it's also the best. Unlike tools such as Office 365 and Google Docs, it learns to recognise both your speech patterns and your vocabulary. The more you dictate, the greater the accuracy. You can also train your dragon with documents, emails, and existing audio recordings. It's compatible with all your applications, too - MS Word, Notepad, Scrivener, whatever you want to use.

In this screenshot, I've dictated in an application called Sublime Text. The tiny flame icon shows that Dragon is listening and ready to transcribe. As you'll see, it transcribed my words flawlessly:

Screenshot of Dragon Dictate

There are lots of different versions that all work in slightly different ways. If you're serious about investing in a Dragon, I'd heartily recommend starting with Scott Baker's book, The Writer's Guide to Training Your Dragon. With his guidance, users can achieve up to 5,000 words an hour and 99% accuracy.

The software costs from £79.99-£279.99, depending on the features you need (Scott's book can help you decide). It's definitely not a cheap option, but it could transform the way you write. There are generous educational discounts available, too, if you have an academic email address.

Advantages

  • With some dedicated training, you can achieve 99% accuracy.
  • It works in any application.
  • It'll also open programs and perform web searches (you can sit on the other side of the room and issue commands, like an empress)

Disadvantages

  • It's expensive (although not really, if you're using it all the time)
  • The software is resource intensive so not suited to elderly laptops.

Conclusion

I use dictation most days, so Dragon Dictate is a clear winner for me. It took me a week or so to get used to its ways, but I've saved a lot of time and made much faster progress with my writing. I'm no longer tied to my desk, either, as I can record my speech on a dictaphone and feed it to my Dragon afterwards.

Other people can probably achieve better accuracy with the Microsoft and Google alternatives - it's likely to depend on your accent and tone. Famously, voice recognition software is usually trained on American male voices. The quality of your microphone makes a big difference, too. Cheap equipment won't detect the subtle differences and also suffer from interference. I use the Zoom H2n (affiliate link), which is an excellent microphone and also works like a dictaphone. This means I'm able to wander around while I'm talking to myself.

 Could I write a book just by talking to myself? I'll let you know.

Catherine Pope

About the author

Since completing her PhD in 2014, Catherine has supported thousands of researchers through to the finish line. Having enjoyed a varied career as a web developer, lecturer, and coach, Catherine now shares her skills and knowledge through PhD Progress.

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  1. These are great suggestions. I used Dragon when I had a broken wrist and found that I’m so comfortable thinking with fingers on keyboard that even when trained it didn’t work for me once I had healed. But the ideas for capturing short notes are great. I have a transcriptionist in the Phillipines, via Upwork, who does excellent work very inexpensively, so I find that a better option with my own and other people’s audio (this allows me to provide transcripts with our Berkshire Bookworld podcasts, for example). Many thanks.

    1. Many thanks for your comment, Karen. I’m also finding that I’m more comfortable with typing rather than speaking. Actually hiring someone to transcribe longer pieces is a good idea. Some of the automated services require an awful lot of checking afterwards.

      And thank you, too, for the OneNote suggestion. I shall give that a try!

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