The way you hear people talking about Dragon Naturally Speaking in writing circles, you’d think it was a magic productivity bullet that lets people write tens of thousands of perfect words a day. Well I’m here today with a dissenting opinion.
My Dragon background
Let’s get something out of the way first. I’ve been using Dragon Naturally speaking for a long time. Like we’re talking my dad used the first versions of Dragon back in the late ’90s for dictation in his law practice. From those early days and on through college I worked with the program fixing transcriptions for extra money here and there. When I started self-publishing in 2014 I used Dragon as a productivity booster that allowed me to bang out rough drafts by dictating into a recorder on my commute.
The point is I’ve been using Dragon Naturally Speaking for a long time. Whenever I say a bad word about the program there are inevitably people who come along and tell me I’m not using it correctly or I’m not training it or blah blah blah. I’ve been using this program since the beginning, and I spent a good year training it when I first started making money from my writing.
And I’ll never use Dragon Naturally Speaking to dictate something that will eventually land on someone’s ereader as a finished draft I’m selling.
Why not Dragon?
I have a few reasons. Some are particular to me. Some are things that every writer should think about before using Dragon to create a finished product.
Dragon will never be perfect, and you’ll never catch all the errors it introduces
This is the big one and this is the dealbreaker for me. Dragon is great and it’s always getting better. What you get today is so much better than what it was back in the good old days. It is impressive.
The problem is it still isn’t close to perfect. I spent a year working with Dragon and training it. I’d dictate on my drive to and from work and then I’d spend my lunch hour and evening hours after the wife and kid went to bed going through and painstakingly correcting all the errors Dragon made.
I’m not talking about things like homonyms either, though that was an annoyance. No, Dragon had an annoying habit of inserting random articles into the text. So I would say “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog” and Dragon would give me “the a quick brown fox the jumps over the lazy a dog.” No matter how many times I corrected these errors, no matter how clearly I enunciated into my mono mic placed at a uniform distance from my mouth attached to a recorder with six stars of compatibility on their list, they cropped up.
Errors like that are a real bitch to ferret out on an editing pass. I have stories that I’ve gone over a couple of times, sent to alpha and beta readers, had an editing pass done, and I can still go back and look through them and find Dragon’s random words inserted here and there. Compare that to typing where I can bang out a clean draft on the first try and it’s a no-brainer to move away from Dragon for anything that’ll ever see the light of day on a paying fan’s ereader.
Are you really saving time?
I’m meticulous about tracking everything I do for work. I’m constantly looking to improve my process so that I can maximize the amount of work I get done when I’m writing. I’m usually juggling a couple of projects at once and writing thousands of words a day so a good workflow is a necessity for me.
So I tracked how long it took me to dictate something via Dragon versus how long it took to type something out. With Dragon I spent roughly eight minutes dictating for every thousand words put to the page. I dictate into a recorder because I find it’s better to get my thoughts out without worrying about going back and correcting them, and that going back and correcting adds about another ten minutes per thousand words.
So already we’re talking eighteen minutes spent to get a thousand words down on the page. Then there’s another editing pass eventually which takes roughly another ten minutes per thousand words. So I’m spending roughly a half hour for every finished thousand words of product before it gets sent off to readers.
For some people that might be fast. For me it’s not. I can bang out a thousand words on my keyboard in ten minutes, and I know it’s clean copy that doesn’t have any of the aforementioned Dragon-induced typos or homonym errors. Add on another ten minutes in an editing pass and it’s twenty minutes per finished thousand words. An extra ten minutes per finished thousand words might not seem like much, but if you’re doing this as a living day in and day out for years that starts to add up and hit you right in the productivity.
Of course I’ll be the first to admit I type ridiculously fast and I write very clean first drafts. That’s not going to be the case for everyone and there certainly are authors who would benefit from Dragon. If you’re a fast typist then you’re probably not one of those authors. Getting your butt in the chair and hitting the keys will be a far greater productivity boost than using Dragon.
Dragon for Mac is a terrible overpriced alternative
I switched to Mac a couple of years ago. Most everything in the creative-industrial complex seems designed for Mac first, plus I love Vellum, so it was a no brainer. I love my Mac and for the most part everything is better than the PC version.
With one exception: Dragon for Mac. It sucks. It’s overpriced at $300. It’s not even a shadow of the program that’s offered on PC for twice the price. I got it for $150 since I called Nuance and told them I’d purchased a previous version for PC and switched to Mac, and even then I feel like it was too expensive.
Here are a list of some of the frustrations, though it’s not a comprehensive list by far:
- Dragon for Mac won’t accept DS2 files from digital recorders, which is pretty much the standard for dictation.
- Dragon for Mac doesn’t have the ability to train a mobile voice profile so your recorder transcriptions are never going to get better.
- Dictating directly into the computer is slow and prone to errors. I have a top end MacBook Pro with plenty of RAM and a powerful processor. Nothing should be lagging on this machine, yet Dragon does.
- As of their most recent update (from 2017 to when I’m writing this in mid 2018) the transcription functionality is completely broken and the program crashes every time I try to transcribe something. Yes, I’ve done all the usual troubleshooting stuff including reinstalling. It doesn’t help.
- The correction learning process when you’re dictating directly into the machine isn’t nearly as robust as the version you get on PC.
Seriously. If you have a Mac and you want to use Dragon Naturally Speaking you’d be better off buying the latest PC version and investing in Parallels. It’d still be cheaper than buying the seriously hobbled Mac version.
What is Dragon good for?
After throwing all this shade on Dragon I feel like I should give it some props. I still use Dragon, but as I said up above it’s never used for anything that’s going to make it to someone’s ereader. No, I use Dragon for doing outlines.
Dragon is great for outlines. I can talk into my headset while I’m driving and squeeze a little productivity out of my drives instead of listening to podcasts. The stream of consciousness stuff I get from dictation is perfect for working out an outline. I try to dictate at least a couple of chapter outlines a day, sometimes more, and being able to do it via recorder is great.
The beauty of that is no one is ever going to see my outlines, so I don’t have to worry about errors being introduced to the draft. I don’t even bother to go in and correct them. Sure some garbled Dragon speak is output when I do the transcription, but why do I care if that text is never going to see the light of day?
Dragon Naturally Speaking is a wonderful program. If you suffer from a Repetitive Strain Injury or aren’t the world’s best typist and have no interest in learning it’s great. Although if you are in the writing business and not interested in improving your keyboarding skills you should seriously reevaluate that decision.
If you are a good typist, though? If you don’t have some extenuating circumstances like a long commute that makes Dragon worth the hassle? Stick with the keyboard. It’s not the productivity magic bullet some claim it to be, and you might end up wasting more time than you save if you keep spending time trying to make it work.