Richard Powers Abandons His Keyboard

Posted on January 8, 2007

National Book Award-winning novelist Richard Powers claims that he has barely touched a keyboard in years, except under duress. He has completely switched to voice recognition software for his writing, which he says is bringing back the tradition of famous writers who dicated their work, such as Henry James, Proust and Thomas Aquinas. But using voice recognition software has its challenges.

The faster I speak, the better my tablet PC transcribes. It won't choke, even at bursts over 200 w.p.m. The real hitch remains accuracy. When in the groove, my speech software is remarkably precise, far more accurate than most typists. But no machine makes phonetic distinctions as fine as humans do, and my software's recognition engine doesn't model meaning. So where my fingers might top at changing "sign" to "sing," my tablet can turn my words hallucinatory without limit.

This machine is a master of speakos and mondegreens. Just as we might hear the Beatles sing how "the girl with colitis goes by" or the Psalms avow that "Shirley, good Mrs. Murphy, shall follow me all the days of my life," my tablet has changed "book tour" to "back to work" and "I truly couldn't see" to "a cruelly good emcee." Legend claims that the astoundingly prolific William Vollmann once tried speech recognition software while suffering from repetitive stress injury. He sat down to write his folks. "Dear Mom and Dad" came out as the much more Vollmannesque "The man is dead."

Powers says a "huge cognitive readjustment" is involved in transitioning from keyboards to speech recognition word processing software. He says one huge benefit is writing while lying down. He says it free up mental energy spent typing.
For one, I can write lying down. I can forget the machine is even there. I can live above the level of the phrase, thinking in full paragraphs and capturing the rhythmic arcs before they fade. I don't have to queue, stop, batch dispatch and queue up again. I spend less mental overhead on orthography and finger mechanics and more on hearing my characters speak themselves into existence. Mostly, I'm just a little closer to what my cadences might mean, when replayed in the subvocal voices of some other auditioner.
Richard doesn't mention which software program he uses, which is a shame. But we've heard good things about Dragon NaturallySpeaking 9 Preferred Speech Recognition and IBM's Via Voice. Richard's novel, The Echo Maker (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), won the National Book Award in 2006. You can visit his website at richardpowers.net.



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