What If Your Computer Listened to You?—By Mariam S. Pal

“New line numeral one period space cap that the quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog bold lazy dog exclamation mark.” My telephone rings. “Go to sleep,” I say to my computer, and the cute little green mic on its screen turns blue and shuts off. I answer my phone: “Hello?”

It’s a typical day in my sunny second-floor home office. Headset on, I look like a faraway call-centre worker whose thankless task is to explain why your suitcase is in Montevideo. But I’m not calming cranky customers; I’m writing by dictation. I turned off my mic before answering the phone because otherwise, my conversation would have ended up as text on my screen.

When I write, I don’t scrawl with a pen or pencil, hunt and peck on a keyboard, or even bang away on a typewriter. I slide on a headset, say “Wake up,” and start yakking at my computer. My voice recognition software converts speech to email messages, text in Word, and more. Line by line, paragraph by paragraph, my writing silently scrolls onto the screen every few seconds. I’ve been working like this for about fifteen years; chronic repetitive movement injuries forced me to look into alternatives to typing.

I use Dragon Naturally Speaking, one of several voice recognition programs available to writers. It costs about the same as a couple of trips to the physiotherapist. If prescribed by a physician, voice recognition software is a tax-deductible medical expense. Google Docs, Windows 10, and Apple have similar features for free. All are based on the same technology.

Leaning back in my swivel chair, feet up on my desk, I feel like Don Draper in Mad Men, dictating a letter. Unlike Don Draper, I don’t have a secretary, so I need to tell my computer where to add commas and what to capitalize. The first sentence of this essay, in “dictate-speak,” is what I would need to say in order to have the following text appear on my screen:

  1. The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog!

Verbal commands allow me to switch the mic off or on, add punctuation, capitalize or underline. Don’t like the last sentence? Say, “Scratch that!” It’s erased. Want to change a word? Say, “Correct that!” then select one of several numbered options or type in your change.

When trained for the user’s voice, my dictation software is 95 percent accurate. It’s important to use a good quality headset and to enunciate clearly. This makes it easier for the program to understand you.

All this technology is great but it can drive you nuts. Despite repeatedly adding “Amritsar,” a city in India, to the dictation vocabulary, I still find “Emirates are” merrily spelled out on my screen. Argh! In my experience, homonyms are handled better: “four” and “fore” are rarely confused.

Dictating changed my writing process. Once I got used to talking to my computer, I realized that I wrote for longer stretches of time. I was physically comfortable and relaxed. Writing was definitely easier and faster. Liberating my hands freed my mind to think more creatively. Like most of us, I speak faster than I type or write by hand. The words poured out of my mouth onto the screen. It was thrilling. I could finally get the ideas, descriptions, and dialogues swirling in my head onto the page and Dragon kept up with me. Once my words were on the screen I rewrote and refined them.

At first, some of my dictated text sounded like emails or text messages. I used too many contractions and my sentences were either too long or too short. Colons, semicolons, and other punctuation from written English were noticeably absent. Eventually, I got better at verbalizing in a written style. I’ve developed a habit of working from an outline composed of key words or points. This keeps my dictation focused.

If typing is painful, then it might be time to look into voice recognition. I caution that dictation is not the solution for everybody. If you write mainly in cafés or libraries, you probably don’t want the world to hear your masterpiece. Also, your microphone will pick up other voices, which will end up as gibberish on the page. Bilingual writers should know that voice recognition programs can only distinguish one language at a time. If you’re writing about going to a “5 à 7” or a dépanneur, you’ll have to enter these words manually.

I love writing by dictation but sometimes low-tech is best. Simple corrections to dictated text are easiest typed in manually. And when I send a personal note or write the occasional cheque, I go no-tech and enjoy the tactile pleasure of writing: with a fountain pen, filled with ink from a glass bottle.


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Mariam S. Pal’s essays have been published in the Montreal Gazette, the Ottawa Citizen, The Globe and Mail, Le DevoirThe Times of India and The Hindu. She is completing a memoir about being Pakistani-Canadian. A recently published excerpt is available at http://south85journal.com/issues/spring-summer-2018/non-fiction/behind-the-walls. Mariam has an M.A. in Economics and B.C.L./LL.B. degrees in law, both from McGill University. She is semi-retired. Mariam and her headset live in NDG.

Photo credits: Mariam S. Pal (header banner); Eli Krantzberg (headshot)

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4 thoughts on “What If Your Computer Listened to You?—By Mariam S. Pal

  1. Interesting. I too suffer from repetitive stress injuries in my shoulder. Perhaps I should give this a try, but I find it hard to imagine. The words seem to flow out through my fingertips. Would they flow off the tongue the same way? It seems a different part of the brain would be activated. Anyway, thanks for this.

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    1. Thanks for reading the article and for your comment. As I said, it does take a bit of getting used to and you won’t be dictating overnight. But if your shoulder really hurts when you’re typing I think it’s worth a try. Perhaps you could start off by using one of the free voice recognition programs that are installed with Windows or Mac operating systems and see how you like it. Or if you have an iPhone or iPad try using Siri which is roughly the same approach although a program like Dragon is much more sophisticated . This will give you an opportunity to try out dictating.

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