Chasing the Dragon: A conversation with Paul Gillin about writing with Dragon dictation software

Writers don’t use dictation software unless they have to. Some must, because they have severe RSI or some other disability. Nearly everybody else writes using a keyboard and mouse.

Paul Gillin is a rare exception. The tech journalist, author, marketing copywriter, and business-to-business social media consultant uses Dragon software for his well-written prose, even though he has ten perfectly functional fingers on two capable hands.

I started using Dragon myself a few weeks ago. I use the Mac version, Dragon Dictate. Paul is a PC guy, so he uses the Windows version, Dragon NaturallySpeaking. They are very similar.

Paul Gillin

As a new convert to Dragon Dictate, I figured I could benefit from a conversation with Paul, a veteran. Also, I was just plain looking for an excuse to catch up. I’ve known Paul for many years, since I worked for him at Computerworld, where he was executive editor and then editor in chief from 1987-99.

Paul says dictation makes him a faster, cleaner writer.

He told me he started using Dragon eight years ago. He knew the founders of Dragon software, Drs. James and Janet Baker, who subsequently sold their company and technology to Nuance, which now owns and develops it.

Paul started dictating to improve his productivity. “I’m not a slow typist,” he told me. “I can type 90 words a minute. But I can go even faster with dictation.” Paul has written 5,000 words in a single day using Dragon, which he could never do using a keyboard. And, while RSI is not a big problem for Paul, dictation is easier on the hands.

He says he finds dictation makes his writing more conversational, and better. He’s written whole books using Dragon.

I asked Paul whether he uses the dictation feature of Dragon. It’s one of my favorites. You make a recording using your phone or a pocket-sized electronic recorder, then upload the file to your computer and have Dragon transcribe it for you in the background. I use it to make quick notes to myself while I’m out and about. Paul says he hasn’t experimented with it at all.

But he added, “That’s the way my father used to write. He dictated all his books into a tape recorder.”

Paul’s father was Donald Gillin, a China scholar and former head of the Asian Studies program at Vassar College.

And here’s how the science fiction writer and editor A.J. Budrys worked, according to his friend and colleague Frederick Pohl:

Every evening, after supper and perhaps an hour or so of television, AJ would fill a thermos with hot coffee, check his tape recorder to make sure the batteries were healthy and there was plenty of tape, kiss his wife, Edna, good night and then get into his car and drive away. Drive where? That didn’t matter because he wasn’t sightseeing. What he was doing, Scheherazade-like, was dictating a new story each night, though instead of into the impatient ears of a threatening sultan it went no farther than a spool of magnetic tape — at least, not until AJ got home sometime in that early morning, dumped the filled tape spools next to Edna’s typewriter and went cheerfully off to sleep. Edna was an excellent typist, so by the time A J shambled into the kitchen for breakfast around early afternoon, the manuscript was ready to be shown to an editor.

Writing by dictation takes some getting used to. “It’s an unnatural act,” Paul said. “You have to speak clearly, but not necessarily slowly. You can’t pause. If you pause, NaturallySpeaking doesn’t know what you’re saying.” Nuance advises talking like a TV newscaster.

In my experience — more limited than Gillin’s — learning to use Dragon is deceptively difficult. You think it’ll be easy. After all, it’s just talk, right? You’ve been talking all your life. You watch Star Trek and they talk to the computers all the time, right?

However, Dragon is a new way of interacting with your computer, and it takes some getting used to. In my experience, it is most comparable to my switching from Windows to the Mac a couple years ago. Eventually, the Mac was better. But at first I found it excruciating to use. Everything was basically the same, but a little bit different. The keyboard shortcuts were different, the menu drop downs were in different locations. It took me weeks to get truly comfortable using the Mac as second nature. I’m still not quite there with Dragon after nearly a month.

Where Dragon really excels is in dictating long, multi-paragraph stretches of text — like this one, which I am now dictating into Dragon. It’s not so useful at dictating short messages like email replies, or at working with applications, although Gillin says he uses Dragon for those tasks as well.

I asked Gillin how he’d like to see Dragon improved. He said better accuracy is always desirable. In particular, Dragon should do a better job of understanding context. It doesn’t do a good job distinguishing”too” and “two.” Also, he said, the application needs to be more stable; he finds it crashes couple of times a day.

For me on the Mac, I find Dragon Dictate more stable, although it crashes a couple times a week. Still, overall, I find the app itself to be at best mediocre, although the underlying voice recognition engine is brilliant. Commands seem to be scattered at random around the menus, where they are hard to find. The app has odd hardware incompatibilities. For example, you can use Dragon with a Bluetooth microphone – but only when connected using an external USB Bluetooth adapter. You cannot connect a Bluetooth microphone using the Mac’s built-in Bluetooth adapter.

And Dragon inexplicably often inserts a single space when starting dictation, before the very first word. I have no idea why it does that.

Despite Dragon’s bugs, it’s a great way to write on the PC, I agree with Gillin that it makes me more productive. And it seems to make my writing more clear as well, by forcing me to use short sentences. The best way to use Dragon is to formulate a complete sentence in your head, and then dictate it. My head is not big enough to contain a long sentence.

Find Paul on the Internet:
Paul Gillin Communications Social Media and the Open Enterprise, his blog.
@pgillin on Twitter
Paul Gillin on LinkedIn

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