Typing by voice – exploring alternatives

I’d updated Windows my Windows laptop to Windows 10 and Cortana – the Windows equivalent of Siri – kept suggesting I could ask her to do things for me.

Writing emails, short stories and articles seemed a nice option that would compensate for my lousy typing so I thought I’d see how Windows Speech Recognition  compared to the alternatives. To do a totally fair trial I would need to test all the different systems at the same time so they all processed identical voice data.

With a bit of jiggling, I strapped two microphone headsets to my head, one going to my Windows 10 laptop and one to my work laptop where the VoiceNote2 plugin for Google Chrome was open.

I sourced a passage with 100 words exactly to I could work out % error rates. The passage is shown in italics below and the errors. The experimental design broke down afterwards because I wanted to test 4 systems simultaneously but only had 2 laptops to Dragon Naturally Speaking and Google Voice Typing were recorded separately but I attempted to keep the diction as close as possible between each session.


Do staff know how to create accessible Word documents, PowerPoints or videos? If not it is probably because nobody taught them how easy it is, what a big difference it makes to disabled learners and how it improves the experience of all learners. Fast forward to the day when a technology-aware disabled student comes to your institution having had excellent support with a previous learning provider. How long will it take to retrofit accessibility to your resources? Can you afford to buy in support to make an entire course accessible in a few days? Get it right from the start!

In the extracts below everything was correct except the text highlighted by red/italics

VoiceNote2 plugin for Chrome – no training. 99% accurate

Fast forward to the day when a technology away disabled student comes ….

Windows 10 Speech recognition – two sentence training. 93% accurate

His staff know how to create excess of one documents, cold winds or videos? If not it is probably because nobody taught them how easy it is, what a big difference it makes the disabled learners and how it improves the experience of all learners. Fast forward to of the day when a technology where disabled student comes to (missing ‘your’) institution having had excellent support with the previous learning provider …

GoogleDocs Voice Typing (no training) 98% accurate

NB. This was recorded separately so errors could represent different speech characteristics on the day.

If not it is probably because nobody taught them how easy it is, what a difference it makes to disabled learners and how (missing ‘it’) would improve the experience of all learners. Fast forward to the day when a technology away disabled student ..

Dragon Naturally Speaking (daily use and significant training input) 100% accurate.


Windows voice recognition is still, sadly, behind the rivals. It was fiddly to set up compared to VoiceNote2 and GoogleDocs Voice typing. It was also the least accurate. More broadly, getting Cortana to work with speech input required a lot of fiddling around, searching the inbuilt help then, when that didn’t solve the problems, searching the web then poking around in the Control Panel. It’s working now and will no doubt improve as it learns my voice but it had that familiar Windows clunkiness feel.

Nonetheless, there are millions of people who can benefit from speech recognition. From reducing RSI to allowing better focus on reasearch materials or even multitasking while writing there are excellent opportunities.

And even the worst of the bunch still saves you writing 93 words in every 100. That’s not a bad result…

Deadlines for poetry competitions

If you’re the sort of person motivated by an impending deadline then here are some to get you going. These poetry competitions have a deadline within the next two weeks:

Poetry Together | Closing Date: 29-Apr-16
Cross generational poetry prize to get adults and children working together.
For more information and entry see: http://www.co-operative.coop/our-ethics/charity-partnership/poetry-together/

Ware Poets Open Poetry Competition 2016 | Closing Date: 30-Apr-16
For entry and further information: http://www.poetrypf.co.uk/comps/ware16.pdf

The Ver Poets 50th Anniversary Open Competition 2016 | Closing Date: 30-Apr-16

Please send entries to: Competitions Secretary, 181 Sandridge Road, St Albans, Herts, AL1 4AH. See website for more information: www.verpoets.org.uk

XVI Poetry on the Lake International Competition for the Silver Wyvern | Closing Date: 30-Apr-16

Theme = Star. See website for more information: http://www.poetryonthelake.org/page2.php

The poetry kit spring competition 2016 | closing date: 30-apr-16

Theme = Nature. Contact: http://www.poetrykit.org/comp%20spring%2016.htm

The Red Shed Open Poetry Competition | Closing Date: 30-Apr-16

Entries should be sent to: The Competition Organiser, Red Shed Open Poetry  Competition, 3 Sandal Cliff, Sandal, Wakefield, WF2 6AU http://www.currockpress.com/the-red-shed-open-poetry-competition-2016.html

The erbacce-prize 2016 | Closing Date: 01-May-16

Contact: For entry and further information see: http://erbacce-press.webeden.co.uk/#/erbacce-prize/4533449873

So get those poems dusted down from the manila folder or the usb stick kicking around the back of the drawer. Good luck!

Tech tips to support the writing process

Organising information

For many writers the initial problem is how to organise thoughts into a coherent flow. Mind mapping tools can help structure your research or your plots in a graphical way. It works well for many who struggle to organise content effectively. Mindmapping allows the separation of content from structure so you can capture ideas as one activity and visually restructure them afterwards.

Mindmapping on a PC

XMind is an excellent freemium tool that supports images, hyperlinks, files and rich text notes to be added. The finished mind map can be exported to a structured webpage. From this, a Word document can be instantly created. XMind is available in a portable version that runs from a USB stick. Alternatively, the navigation pane in Office 2010 onwards allows headings and subheadings to be dragged and dropped into new positions or promoted/demoted. This provides a ‘linear mind map’ facility.

Mindmapping – browsers, web services and apps

There are a variety of free, freemium and paid-for mindmapping tools that can be accessed directly from the browser on a PC or mobile device. There are also a range of free and paid for apps for the main mobile platforms.

Word prediction

Word prediction helps those with really slow typing or poor spelling. There are excellent commercial word prediction tools but DiCom is a useful portable app that can run on Windows.

Word prediction is a built-in feature on most phone platforms so there may be an argument for using a Bluetooth keyboard and writing your draft materials on your phone in order to take advantage of word prediction.

Animation of Dasher word prediction at work. The text is then copied and pasted into a normal document.A very different kind of word prediction tool is found in Dasher – which is
available for a range of platforms. To use Dasher well, you need to be confident with your alphabet. If you are, this program learns from your vocabulary and the word prediction becomes increasingly accurate with use. It’s a quirky tool and won’t suit everyone but it learns from your vocabulary and writing style so  you can end up writing at a decent speed. If you suffer from RSI this might be a nice alternative to typing. It’s also fun to let it work unguided for a few minutes and see what random words and phrases it creates – ideal for some imaginative scene setting!

Voice recognition

Voice recognition (or speech recognition) takes the spoken input and turns it into text. Accuracy is rarely 100% so you need to expect to proof read and correct misinterpretations. Nonetheless, voice recognition can significantly reduce the need to type and it can also help with spelling. You can find out about Google Voice typing in a previous post. Here are some other alternatives to explore.

Voice recognition on PC / Macs

Both these platforms have built-in voice recognition. It is not as fully featured as commercial voice recognition but it may provide significant advantage for those lucky enough to have clear speech and a mild accent. Speech recognition in Windows 10 / Speech recognition in Windows 8 / Speech recognition in Windows 7 / Dictation in Mac OS X

Voice recognition in the browser

The excellent VoiceNote2 plug-in for Google Chrome creates a pop-up text pane with controls around the edge. By clicking on the microphone button and speaking into your microphone it will capture your voice and turn it into text. You can then copy and paste the text into a document or save it as a.txt file. Even if you don’t have access to the Google Chrome browser you can get free voice recognition by using Voice Typing in Google docs

Voice recognition in mobile devices

Android and Apple phones and tablets have built-in voice recognition but you may need to enable it in the settings. The dictation feature is found under the Keyboards setting in iOS devices. In Android devices you may need to look under Language and input settings.

You probably won’t want to write your entire new novel using your mobile phone’s voice recognition but it can be a great way for non-typists to get some creative flow and momentum without clumsy keyboard clunks getting in the way… sit back, close your eyes and start telling a story. Open your eyes later and see what it was interpreted at. You might have brilliantly caught your own thoughts. On the other hand you might have some amazing serendipitous misinterpretations that take you off on new flights of Siri inspired fancy…

A writer’s guide to browser magic

As a writer you probably spend a huge amount of time reading and a fair bit of time researching and – now and again – even some time writing! Increasingly all three of these will be done online. Reading

Reading  for long periods of time may be pleasurable but it also has its downsides – eye strain, headaches and wandering distracted thoughts that slowly coalesce into a grey boredom. These tips and tricks with browser plugins (all free) can revolutionise the way you read online and – surprisingly – even write online. Welcome to the magic world of browser plugins. Be aware that free plugins vary in quality. They may also vary in availability. Some are available for one platform only. Some may be withdrawn after a while. Some are freemium products where the basic functionality is free but you need to upgrade to get enhanced features. The plugins below are plugins I’ve used personally and been impressed with.

Some of the examples below are specific to a single browser but it is worth noting that plugins for Opera and Chrome are mutually compatible.

Changing the way a page is displayed:

This can help if you want to try gentler colours or contrasts or maybe want to tweak magnification because your young eyes have been replaced with older ones…

Although you can change the font size and colour within the browser, doing it in a quick, reliable way is not always straightforward. Alternative ways of getting magnification include using speed reading plug-in like Spreed for Google Chrome or using page de-clutter tools like Reader for FireFox or Readability for Chrome. These allow control on both text size and background colours. You can change colours using HighContrast for Chrome or NoSquint for FireFox.

Reading more effectively

If you’re busy with research and are faced with a long page with multiple screenfuls of scrolling to do then skim read it via headings – HeadingsMap (FireFox) and HeadingsMap (Chrome) extract all the headings and subheadings into a navigable list – an excellent way of seeing how the content of the whole page fits together and viewable from a single panel.

Alternatively, you might prefer to listen to a page using a plugin like SpeakIt for Google Chrome. Or speed-read it using the Spreed plugin mentioned above. Spreed has an option to paste text from other sources meaning you can use it to speed-read content from Word documents, PDFs or ebooks. The way words are presented one at a time means there is less eye scanning going on and if you stop to take notes (there is a handy stop button) you pick up exactly from where you lefgt off without having to re-read the page to find your place.

Spreed presents words at user defined size and speed.
Spreed presents words at user defined size and speed.

Support research and notetaking

Tools like Zotero and Colwiz are browser plugins that can make you much more organised when it comes to recording, noting and referencing web based research.

Colwiz is one of several research tools that helps with organising and referencing web based research
Colwiz is one of several research tools that helps with organising and referencing web based research

Voice recognition

Perhaps most surprising is the ability to do free Voice Recognition with a plugin. VoiceNote2 creates a new text panel complete with controls for recording, changing font size, saving as a text file etc. Set up a microphone, press the button and speak. As you speak it will interpret your words, even changing them if it recognises a different context as hte sentence proceeds. It won’t be a hundred percent accurate but can save you lots of time on the mechanics of writing. You need to be online for this (and indeed many other) plugins to work but if you are using a browser the chances are you are online already!


Your browser can be your best friend. Get to know your brower’s store (Chrome webstore or FireFox Add ons store), experiment, have fun and get back with any comments, tips or recommendations!

Alistair McNaught (this article will also appear on the wonderful Litmus 2016 blog for the University of Winchester’s Creative Writing MA students).

Writing with your voice

Some people are quick typists. Thoughts flow effortlessly through fingers into words on the page.  Others of us are not so lucky. Of course, you can always capture your flow of consciousness with pen and paper but then the process of getting it into digital format is even more tedious, having had much of the creativity stripped from it.

You can buy  good quality voice recognition software for a tidy sum of money and train it to recognise your voice. The trouble is, if you are a writer you probably do not have a tidy sum of money to spend on such fripperies…

That is where the glory of free software comes in. It  will not be as fully featured and you will not be able to personalize it so much but it will achieve similar accuracy . It will save you a lot of typing; however you will need to be more alert for editing. Your problem will not be mis-spelled words  but misinterpreted words. This can result in some very interesting sentences (it may even add imaginative elements to your writing that you did not anticipate).

So let us look at what is available.

On the web:

Sign up for Google Docs (it’s like having Word on the web but not buying Office). Start a new document and then click on the Tools menu.  From the dropdown select voice typing. A  microphone symbol appears on the screen.  Click on it, start speaking into your microphone and watch the words appear.

Alternatively, install the Google Chrome browser, then install the VoiceNote2 plugin.  

Screenshot of the VoiceNote2 plugin . The basics are really easy to operate.
Screenshot of the VoiceNote2 plugin . The basics are really easy to operate.

On your phone/tablet:

Voice recognition is built into Android tablets / phones as well as Apple devices. So if you feel a creative flurry coming on, why not get out your phone and speak your story into an email that you can send yourself for editing and polishing later?

if you are interested in other ways of using free technology tools to help you write or plan more plan more effectively then this round up of writing tools is a good place to begin.


Buried giants – particularities of place

I spent the morning dogwalk listening to an extract from Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant. I’m currently writing my own series of stories set in different historical periods and I loved how Ishiguro honed on in particularities of place and the raw character of the untamed landscapes.

I love being outdoors in all kinds of weather and all sorts of places. Over the weekend I walked in an area of the New Forest I know well Image of lichen trumpets (fruiting bodies)from the paths but – adorned with sturdy wellies – decided to follow nature’s pathways instead, walking up streams through thick tangles of root and branch, blankets of moss and curtains of dripping lichen until I reached the soggy green springs where water, mud, soil, sedge and tree all merged into some half living symbiosis. Not so much ‘nature red in tooth and claw’ but more ‘nature weird and strangely unfamiliar’.

It was this that Ishiguro captured so delicately for me.

I’m downloading the next podcast for tomorrow’s walk where he purportedly explains how it’s not a fantasy novel, despite the ogres.

I believe him. I saw plenty of ogres on my walk…

Bad art and good writing

Child drawing

Last week we started with the Christopher Booker’s 7 Basic plots, taking a character of our own and giving them different journeys to go on. I already had a character sitting in my head from an ongoing writing project so Ned had a chance to try to rescue his beloved horses from the storm surge on the paddocks on the estuary edge. I chose tragedy first so he died in the process, trampled under water as he set the panicking animals free.

Interestingly my fellow students were more bothered by the death of Captain, the carthorse, under a fallen oak. Poor Ned.

Then we were asked to mindmap out story or sketch it out in some visual way.

Now, I use mindmapping all the time for research, planning and organisation (XMind.net – the free version is great) and I’ve used mind mapping as a plotting tool as well but doing it on paper with pens brought a whole new dimension. I drew – although that might be too strong a word – little miniatures from the scene, almost like a graphic novel. As I did so new details emerged. The bending of the trees in the wind, the sheeting water rushing down the track through the woods, the movement of the horses chest high in water and glistening with salt spume. It was an extraordinary circular feedback. The brain had a broad picture in mind so threw the hand a few vague instructions, the lines appeared on the page, the eye popped the images back into the brain. ‘Oh,’ said Brain ‘That looks interesting.’ and started filling in gaps that never appeared in the original instruction. By the time the hand got the next set of instructions about ‘now write the story’ the story had grown immensely richer in little lifelike details.

And this time it was Hero returns. Ned didn’t die. Neither did Captain.

Writing faster

Image of space shuttle take offYou know how it can be sometimes, words coming into your head faster than the fat fumbly fingers can turn them into keystrokes. Then you look back and find the reversed letters, the omitted vowels or mis-hit consonants. By the time you attend to the mechanics of writing the creativity of writing is rapidly evaporating.

Wouldn’t it be great if you could just speak it out and see it appear on the screen? But you know that commercial voice recognition tools cost more than a writer’s monthly income…

Enter Google Voice typing. The instructions below assume you are working on a laptop with a decent Internet connection.

If you are using Google docs already just go to Tools > Voice typing. If not, sign up for a Google account and you’ll get access to Google docs for free anyway.

Screenshot of Google Voice Typing menuA microphone icon will appear with the friendly instructions Click to speak. You can probably work out what you do next – though it might be worth reminding you that having a headset microphone (or other) plugged in would be essential.

Screenshot of the Google Voice typing "Click to speak" icon If you are lucky with the Control panel > Sound > Recording settings on your laptop (that’s where it is on Windows 7 anyway) then you will delight in the magic of writing appearing on the page as you speak.  You can even speak basic punctuation marks (‘Full stop’, ‘Comma’, Question mark’ etc).

It won’t be 100% perfect but for slow typists, poor spellers or people just wanting to try something different it is well worth a look.