Writing Hands-Free

I love finding tools that help me work more efficiently as a writer. I’ve already written posts on using several of these tools, particularly Trello, a project management app I’m crazy about. I also use Dragon Naturally Speaking. This is a voice recognition software program that allows for hands-free writing.

dragon logo

I used Dragon the first time when a flare-up of carpal tunnel in both my wrists put me into splints for six weeks, during graduate school. Back then the program just wrote text files, but now Dragon is a much more powerful tool. It’s great for hands-free web research and for answering email.

Last Summer I reintroduced Dragon into my home primarily for the benefit of my kids. My youngest child had never taken to writing. Just holding a pencil for any length of time started to bother him, but he had a vivid imagination and cool story ideas to share. Turns out there are lots of kids like him, fighting with the mechanics of writing, but budding junior novelists beneath the struggle.

It took me a while to work the bugs out of using Dragon, so here are some of my tips for helping a new user (even a child) get the most out of Dragon.

Program Setup:

The most important tip I can offer is don’t try to rush it. Dragon is not ready to go right after installation, you need to train the program to recognize your voice and speech patterns. Don’t start using Dragon while a deadline looms. Or when you can’t sit down and calmly focus on learning the system.

Make sure the headset fits and the microphone is properly positioned. If the mic keeps moving around, the quality will suffer. I upgraded my headset to one that fits me perfectly and it made a huge difference.

During the training phase the system will offer you a collection of passages to read aloud. Pick one of the easiest passages to read. It might not be the most entertaining, but reading aloud when you’re not used to it is hard work. Also making fewer mistakes while reading the sample will help the program collect better data.

Speak slowly and with an even volume. Yelling or whispering will not give you good results.

Getting started:

Print out a copy of the keyboard shortcuts. Most writers will have a hard time keeping their hands off the keys anyway and using the shortcut keys will give them something to do with their fingers until the hands-free process feels more natural.

Start your first session by reading pages of your own work into the program and let Dragon transcribe it. This helps train the system to recognize the typical vocabulary of your writing style. Historical or dialect writers, this step is a must. There are so many words Dragon will stumble over the first few times it hears them.

Once you’ve done a few session and feel comfortable with the quality, start an original writing project. Try to train yourself to keep going even if the system makes a small mistake. You can always fix these later. Remember the system will get better the more you use it.

Don’t stress proper form in the beginning. Formatting is easy once you know how, but it might take several sessions to master these commands. Allow for the program to gather more data on your voice patterns before you start fussing with every paragraph break and indent.

Extra benefits:

With the Multiple Profiles feature you can buy one version of Dragon and let every writer in your household use it. My kids use it for school papers and book reports, and my husband uses it too. The program adapts to each user’s needs perfectly.

Dragon is great for jotting down new ideas, and for transcribing handwritten notes quickly. Sometimes when you type all day, it’s such a nice change to come home and use Dragon. Plus I love the added advantage of using Dragon while I’m standing up. I think better on my feet, plus there are important health benefits to standing. No writer should sit all day. If you don’t own a standing desk (which I also recommend), using Dragon can be the next best thing.

Dragon is a bit pricey, around $75.00 to $145.00 US dollars depending on the version and your computer platform. Don’t be frightened off by the low quality of the voice recognition programs of old. These newer programs are dramatically improved. Much better even than the ones created just a few years ago.

As writers, we all know positive reinforcement works. Seeing the page count grow is a powerful motivator. But when a writer can’t get their words on to paper fast enough, they start to forget their ideas and get discouraged. With Dragon, the speed of crafting sentences is much closer to the speed of thinking of them.

Have you used Dragon? If so, please share your tips with us.

Author: Robin Rivera

Robin trained as a professional historian and worked as a museum curator, educator, and historical consultant. She writes mystery fiction, with diverse characters and a touch of snark. She's currently working on two new manuscripts that started off as NaNoWriMo projects. You can follow her on Facebook(https://www.facebook.com/robin.rivera.90813). However, Pinterest (https://www.pinterest.com/RRWrites/) is where her inner magpie is happiest of all.

9 thoughts on “Writing Hands-Free”

  1. This has been around for a while, but it sounds like it keeps getting better. With the way technology keeps evolving, soon we’ll all be using this. 🙂
    @dino0726 from 
    FictionZeal – Impartial, Straightforward Fiction Book Reviews

    1. Hi Diane,
      It a much better program now. Really, it’s like night and day, the technology has come so far. I’m not sure everyone will use it. But if you’re person with a history of repetitive stress issues (like me) and they’re not using it to rest their hands, that is a big mistake. I think you might like it. It would help you make book review notes super fast. : )

    1. Hi Laurie,
      I’m not one of those people who exclusively writes prose in Dragon, I use it more as a tool to help with my writing projects. However, I have written parts of first drafts on Dragon and I didn’t see any problems. But that might be a style issue. Maybe I just think aloud in the right way to make it work for me. Both my kids also love to write stories with it, but of course most kids like to tell stories, not write them. : ) I really like it for dialogue. I think almost every dialogue passage I couldn’t get right with my hands, has been improved by reading it into Dragon.

  2. My husband uses dragon to dictate medical notes and I know he worked with it for some time to get the voice recognition right. It still makes some errors. I doubt I would use it unless, like you, my hands were unable to type. I ‘m not sure I could voice my thoughts – that must take some training, too – since I like to play with the words and the expression.

    1. I’ve heard the medical program is helpful, I’m glad you husband likes it. I don’t write final drafts in Dragon, although I’m sure some people do. My problem is I write notes in notebooks or even on scraps of paper all the time. While waiting for the kids to come out of school and/or the parks, standing in lines, or in restaurants. I end up with notes on scraps by the shoebox full. Every week or so I just empty the whole thing into Dragon. That way I never lose any ideas or dialogue I overheard and wanted to remember. It just helps me stay more organized. I also transcript my dreams a few times a week. Dreams evaporate so fast and I’m not awake enough to want to type them out before they are gone.

  3. I’ve been using Dragon for years, and wouldn’t be a writer without it due to RSI, but it does have its down side. It’s slower than my typing, has never adapted to my Cumbrian accent (perhaps it’s better for you Americans) and can be temperamental when the microphone stopped working and I have to shut down the computer and start again. And it’s never liked Windows 8. (I know, not many people do, but I’ve learned to like it..) Nevertheless, it’s worth a go and I’m glad it works for you, Robin.

    1. I’ve had an older version of Dragon and it was nothing like my newer one. It was much more buggy and slower. However, I found the microphone and headset in both old and new versions were not good! My quality jumped once my headset fit right and had a great microphone. I’m sure accents must make the program a bit harder to use and require more training time. So far I haven’t had any crashing issues with the program. I wonder if it’s something to do with your hardware. Dragon sometimes demands system upgrades to run properly. My computer is only about a year old and my husband set it up knowing I would run Dragon on it. I’m sorry the program gives you so much trouble, but I’m also glad it’s helping you be a writer. : )

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