Pencil to Paper, Mouth to Microphone

Margaret Atwood launched her latest novel The Testaments last Tuesday with a worldwide cinema broadcast. This included a short biographical film, long readings by three actresses, and an interview with the author herself.

I discovered she likes to write her first draft on paper, although she says her spelling is terrible. It’s then passed to a typist who makes the necessary corrections. I also make my first draft by hand, then enter it into a PC.

I don’t, however, pass my writing to a typist. What I do is speak my words using Dragon NaturallySpeaking software. As you can hear in the recording below, the software reacts best when you speak in a monotone – although it can handle variations in speech rather well. There are also seemingly awkward gaps while the software catches up with what I’m saying.

You’ll notice I have to say which punctuation I want; this can be done automatically, but I prefer to specify. At 1m 15s into the recording, you can also hear me make a correction, as the software had misunderstood the word ‘pass’ as ‘passed’. I then say ‘choose two’, where I’m selecting the correct word from a list of other possibilities.

Admittedly, dictating can take longer than typing, but there are two advantages. Firstly, since I type every day in my job, my hands are given a rest from the same repetitive motion. Secondly, I can make corrections when it’s transferred into the computer, creating a more refined second draft. For a longer piece, I might then print it off and make further corrections by hand, then return to the PC.

However you choose to write and edit your work, my best piece of advice is to leave time between one draft and the next. On my next reading, I invariably find spelling errors, plot holes, and self-indulgent passages. If even an experienced author like Margaret Atwood can make mistakes, then we should definitely rewrite and rewrite until it’s as good as it can be.

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Captioning the Moment

By law, UK broadcasters must make sure that a minimum percentage of their output is subtitled. This week, I’ve been finding out how this is done.

Traditionally, a typist would be listering to the broadcast and entering the words using a stenography machine. These have a keyboard that accepts syllables rather than individual letters, and complete words would appear to viewers.

However, this method has been superseded by a technique called respeaking. Rather than a typist entering the words by hand, they listen to the audio and speak it into another microphone, where it’s converted into text by software.

So why not simply take the broadcast audio output and convert that directly into text? The computer would have to work out what is speech and to filter out any background noise such as applause, then it would need to be able to accommodate for different people’s accents and mannerisms. Lord Prescott, for instance, is notorious for not finishing his sentences.

Even today, a person can identify the correct content much more effectively than a machine, and can cope better with understanding one voice than thousands.

Respeaking also has two advantages over traditional stenography:

  1. It can take between two and five years of full-time training to use the keyboard at 200 words per minute. Respeakers can reach trainee standard after six months.
  2. The typist’s fingers are left free to make other adjustments, such as the position and colour of the text on the screen.

I mentioned a couple of weeks ago that I use Dragon NaturallySpeaking to assist me in my own writing. While writing this entry, I opened too many browser tabs and other applications, leaving not enough memory to run the software. I could have rebooted the computer to free up space, but I instead typed it out by hand.