• J. Woken

Can Talk, Can't Write: Why Voice Recognition Software Doesn't Make for Good Authorship

I frequent a chiropractor who knows I type a lot. She has asked me numerous times if I have purchased any voice recognition software (VRS) -- like Dragon -- to help give my hands, arms, and everything about my desk-sitting posture a break during long(er) shifts at the keyboard. As of yet, I have not invested in such software. My chiro is not happy with me.

She uses VRS regularly: While waiting in the exam room, I can hear her in her office talking (albeit muffled) to her PC, giving it medical notes and telling it about her last patient. I'm certain she doesn't do much typing, which is good considering she needs her hands for healing and shouldn't subject them to the dangers of carpal tunnel syndrome, but VRS doesn't [always] work for someone like me who writes as a profession.

Why not?

Public speaking is a skill related to writing, but the two talents are actually quite different.

Speaker's Brain vs Writer's Brain

First, speaking and writing are completely different in that we use different words, phrases, pauses, et cetera for each, so how we talk and how we write (or, conversely, read) are not nearly the same thing. The reason is because the parts of the brain that handle speech and writing work independently from one another. Perhaps this is why some people have such difficulty reading out loud: They have yet to teach their brains how to bridge the talking-writing/reading gap.

Granted, some people speak well. I'm not one of those. I know if I really focus and pull myself together I can make a pretty good speech without inundating it with a bunch of um's and awkward silences, but speaking is just not where my strength lies.

My strength is in my ability to write well, which comes in handy for those clients of mine who have trouble putting together a written sentence that doesn't read like an automaton hammered it out.

Just because you can talk doesn't mean you can write.

VRS marketers have convinced the general populace that if they can talk, they can write. HA! If only that were true! Most people understand that talking and writing require different skills and talents. Unfortunately, there are those who really do believe they are (or can be) great writers because they can talk. They feel VRS is their savior!

'Why hire a ghostwriter,' they say, 'if I can just talk into my computer and it writes everything I say for me?' This is especially true for professional public speakers: I've had conversation with a number of them who feel personally attacked when I criticize their writing, as if I were saying they're terrible speakers as well. They may be upset with me for correcting their writing, but I know that what they're really having trouble understanding is that people don't talk the way they write.

Human speech is riddled with vocal inflections, fillers (e.g. um's, uh's), and slang that just has no place in good writing. In bad writing? Sure. In social media posts and text messages? Why not. But would anyone take seriously a book full of slang, misused and misspelled words, um's, and awkward phrases? I doubt it.

Bottom line: Just because you can talk well doesn't mean you can write well.

VRS: A good tool

Good tools are GOOD, but they'll never replace talent.

VRS has its place in the writing world. It's a great tool for creating rough drafts; for getting down ideas if you can't type quickly; or for train-of-thought writing. I've used Windows' Voice Recognition software occasionally when my carpal tunnel is acting up. It's a good tool, but it ends there. Rarely does VRS result in a draft that doesn't require heavy-handed editing.

Having a good tool does not replace the need for good talent to back up a good product. The same applies to the written word. When a new client sends me a manuscript, I can usually tell by the end of the first paragraph if they used VRS to draft the entire thing because the writing is so bad. I have no problem with editing those manuscripts -- it's my job, after all! -- but sometimes my clients are left in shock when I send them a document with so many markups on it that it looks like my red pen had a sneezing fit.

Fine tuning the product

If you're the type of person who prefers to talk over type, that's great. Nothing wrong with that. However, don't disregard the importance of having that work edited by someone who has a knack for writing. That "someone" doesn't necessarily need to be a professional you hire and pay (although a second set of eyes on a manuscript never hurt). You can certainly edit your work yourself.

Before you publish, consider these tips on how to edit if you rely on VRS for the initial draft:

1. Read your work out loud.

Reading what you've said back to yourself can reveal many a writing hiccup. Sometimes VRS uses "our" instead of "are", "there" instead of "their", or just mishears what we say altogether. Common mistakes are easily discovered and rectified by reading the draft or manuscript out loud to yourself.

2. Print your work onto paper, then read it.

Our brains process things differently on a screen than on a piece of paper. Studies show that we absorb information differently (that is, better) when we read from paper than off a screen.

Print your draft as a hard copy and read it, away from screens and distractions. I like to read drafts in bed or while laying on the couch (that is, away from my desk and PC), because then my mind is in a place where I can review it as if I were a regular reader, not an editor or writer.

3. Use a ruler or other straight edge to read each line independently.

Remember how we learned to read, line by line, in elementary school? There's a reason children learn to read that way: Blocking out the next line removes the distraction and anticipation of what words are to come, improving our focus on the words we're reading at the moment.

This is an editor's trick that can reveal errors you might otherwise be blind to. 0ur brains tend to fi1l in gaps or "auto-correct" mistakes our eyes see because it knows what things should look like, even if in reality they are completely different.

For instance, did you notice those errors in the last paragraph? There's a zero instead of an O in "our" and a 1 in place of an L in "fill". If you're an editor and your eyes are trained to find things like that, you probably saw them. Otherwise, you might have glazed right over without a second thought. Breaking up paragraphs into independent lines can help put a stop to your brain's auto-correct function, making errors pop out.

Again, VRS can be of great help for authors of all types, even ones with a preference for typing like me. The good thing is that the accuracy of those programs continues to improve as tech gets better. However, I doubt any computer program will ever be able to replace the need for editors because writing is an art and one that can't be substituted with a machine.

I'm hoping to soon acquire VRS to help me draft some of my longer projects -- my carpal tunnel would certainly thank me. And so would my chiropractor.

Consider this: Are you an author or businessperson who uses or has used VRS? If so, which one and what do/did you think of it?

This article originally published February 13, 2018.