Tag Archives: productivity

The Best Writing Advice I Ever Received

The most important piece of writing advice I ever received is to read. Sounds crazy right? Believe it or not, when I was younger, I hated reading. I had enjoyed it for a time when I was allowed to read what I wanted. However, school ruined my love for reading.

How School Ruined My Love of Reading

Forcing children to read certain books is a horrible way to get anyone to appreciate literature. New books for young adults come out every year but school systems usually stick to the same outdated classics. Yes. I understand that they are classics for a reason. However, an adolescent or teenager doesn’t have the same appreciation for classic literature as they would something written for the Modern Age. Leave the classics for adults who have more life experience.

As a teenage girl, I didn’t give a rat’s roasted rectum about The Red Badge of Courage. I really wasn’t even that into The Outsiders. And I most certainly did not have any interest in Wuthering Heights. In fact, I didn’t rediscover my love of reading until I started the Harry Potter series in the eleventh grade. At that time several of the books had already been released and a movie or two had been made. It was something I could relate to. It was far more personable and pulled more at my own emotional strings then Les Miserables, something that I appreciate more as an adult.

The Best Writing Advice: Want To Be a Better Writer? Read!

As someone who is highly independent, free-spirited, and who loves freedom and autonomy, finding books that work for me and beginning to write my own stories is what allowed me to learn what I wanted to, at my own pace.

The best writing advice I ever received was to read. I saw a quote that said, “Reading is like breathing in. Writing is breathing out.” So when I find myself struggling to write, I make myself read. I pick up a book, any book, and I begin a new story. I’m inhaling others’ thoughts and experiences, digesting them in my mind, and then letting those ideas flow from my fingertips on to a new page into a new form.

For those of you who are aspiring writers, don’t just read what others force you to read. Find what you like and devour it. Breathe in so that you can breathe out.

Happy writing!

-RB

On Writer’s Block

I don’t think I’ve ever really understood the concept of writer’s block. I know there are times where we don’t know what to write next. I’ve always got ideas, but sometimes I’m uninspired. However, that’s the thing with writing- you’re not going to be inspired or motivated. In fact, most days you won’t be. There will be times where you get stuck and you’re not sure what to do next. You’re not blocked.

There’s no such thing as writer’s block.

That is a concept that amateur writers think exists because they think we all sit down, inspired to make magic happen every day. We don’t. I used to be one of those amateur writers. In fact, there are still days where I don’t write but for the most part I’ve developed a habit. That’s the important thing- develop the habit of writing every day. You don’t have to work on the same project every day. And that’s really what I’m here to talk to you about…

Get Yourself “Unstuck”

It’s really very simple. As mentioned in a previous post, Turn on the Faucet, words tend to flow once you sit your butt in a chair and start making things happen. Start typing about your day. Describe your surrounding in excruciating detail. If you start writing “all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” over and over again, eventually your brain will find something else to write. Maybe you’ll start writing about the film, The Shining, or the book by Stephen King, or maybe you’ll start writing about how you feel overwhelmed at work and you don’t get enough free time. This can spiral into another idea. Need a place to do this? Check out my previous post on 750words.com.

The bottom line is, you could write anything. It may not be applicable to your current work in progress but it doesn’t matter because you’re still writing. You’re still honing your craft- a craft that none of us master, according to Ernest Hemingway.

“Nothing will work unless you do.” – Maya Angelou

Just because you didn’t work on your current WIP, doesn’t mean you can’t make progress in some way. Work on a blog, work on a short story, work on a different novel idea, brainstorm a new project, and when you’re not doing all of those things, read!

You should always be making progress towards your future self.

There’s a lot of inspirational quotes online- some of which say something like, “will the you five years from now look back and regret not taking those forward steps to get closer to your dream?”

Stop trying to skip the struggle. If writing were easy, everyone would do it. Instead, people romanticize the idea of being a writer. I’m still not sure why. There is something about it that people find alluring when really most of us have had times when we skipped showering, brushing our teeth and eating in order to down more coffee and churn out that next chapter. When you’re a writer, you’re essentially playing God. You are creating characters, moments, places, and events from nothing. It’s exhaustive work.

Understandably, sometimes you don’t feel like playing God but in order to hone the craft you need to work at it every day. It will be a struggle.

Write every day as though it were breathing.

I hope things are going well for those of you who are participating in Camp NaNo this month. We’re about to head into the doldrums of week two and the second week tends to be the toughest. If you find yourself running out of steam, it’s okay. It happens. If you feel stuck, don’t be afraid to skip around in your story or work on something else. You can always come back. Your work isn’t going anywhere without you.

Happy writing!

-RB

Working from Home? Get Dressed!

Not every writer finds it stimulating to work from a cafe or airport terminal. Granted, sometimes we are forced to work in those areas. However, for a lot of us, our days spent being creative are at home. And though this post is geared towards writers, there is a growing number of people working from home in the modern age. This is great! Autonomy sparks creativity and prompts us to find what works for us and what doesn’t, but we can develop some unhealthy habits that don’t promote productivity- namely, not getting dressed.

Lessons Learned

About ten years ago, one of my brothers lost his job. He ended up having to sell his house, his boat, and completely uproot from his life in another state to move back in with mom and dad at the age of 37. It wasn’t an ideal situation, but luckily he had a place to return home to.

Everyday he was on the computer applying for jobs or working on a resume. Granted, he was also filling some of his time with video games, but he was working towards goals everyday. Our oldest brother called often to check in on him and one day he called me. At first I thought that something was wrong. After all, I am little sis three times over. It’s rare that any of my brothers call me for advice or help.

My oldest brother said to me, “I just need to make sure he is doing okay. Being unemployed can really destroy your sense of self and moving back in with mom and dad can’t be easy. He was always independent. I need to know that he’s getting dressed everyday and shaving his face. That can make a world of difference in his mentality.”

Brotherly Wisdom

I didn’t know it at the time, but my oldest brother had a very good point. He, too, had gone several months unemployed but of his own volition. He had a plan, our other sibling did not.

After all of these years, I haven’t forgotten that conversation. Often times when I take a day to work from home, whether for my actual day job or for my writing, I think about what he said to me. I don’t worry about shaving my face, but I do get dressed. I don’t do my hair or put on a full face of makeup. Yet I do put actual jeans on as opposed to staying in my sweatpants. I do brush my teeth, wash my face and put on deodorant. It’s the little things that we do everyday- the little things that we take for granted- that help us feel human and civilized.

Some of you may be thinking, “But the whole point on taking a day to work from home is so I wouldn’t have to put pants on!” From personal experience I can tell you that while that’s nice, it loses its charm. The longer I lounge around in sweats, the longer I’m in “relax” mode instead of “get writing done” mode.

Now, maybe you’re writing a story about a guy stuck in the jungle for a month and you really want to experience not showering, etc. That’s on you! I beg of you to shower before you come into contact with other living souls. However, when writing from home everyday, do yourself a favor. Do those little things you would do before heading into the office. Brush your teeth. Wash your face. And get dressed! After all, writing is a job. Treat it like one.

Happy writing!

-RB

The Pros and Cons of Dictation

If you’re anything like me, you’re always looking for new and innovative ways to improve your writing. At times it’s not directly related to the craft itself. Sometimes it just has to do with your own efficiency and time management. One thing I like to do in order to save time is utilize dictation software to increase my writing pace.

This could mean turning out a rough draft a little quicker. Other times I use it to draft a blog within a matter of minutes. Thirdly, I use it to transcribe handwritten notes or drafts onto the computer because it’s more efficient to dictate then to write it again.

Dictation is a fantastic tool and it’s mentioned in two previous blog posts written by guest blogger Descript. However, it’s not without its downfalls. If you’re considering getting into dictation to quicken your writing pace, here are a few pros and cons that you may want to be aware of in order to better determine if dictation is truly for you.

Cons

1. It can make editing a bear, especially when it comes to writing fiction. If you’re writing fantasy or science fiction chances are your characters have names very unlike Bob and Sally. When you say an unusual name the dictation software will try and form it into a common word or phrase that it sounds similar to. When going back to edit, this can prolong the editing process because you constantly have to replace “coal” with “Cole.” And that’s not even a weird name!

Now I know what you’re thinking- just use the find and replace feature, right? Wrong. It won’t hear you the same every time and may slightly alter the phrase. Also, if it sounds like something that’s in the middle of a longer word it will replace that too and just make things even more of a headache.

While I find that it’s easier to use dictation for things like essays or blog posts, that doesn’t mean you can’t use it for fiction. I do use it for rough drafts. Sometimes I have to read over a sentence that makes absolutely no sense- read it out loud- to try and figure out what I was really trying to say.

2. There is a slight learning curve. When you have to say punctuation out loud such as, “comma, end quote, he said, period” it takes some getting used to. Some people choose to skip over punctuation during the initial phase and put it in later. You also have to think out loud. This is a challenge for me because a lot of my brainstorming and writing happens internally. Also, it may not be easy for everyone to lock themselves in a room away from family to get time to think out loud.

Pros

1. Whether you’re a fast or slow typist, either way, you can speak faster than you can type. I know that I can dictate up to 6000 words per hour. That is, if I don’t stop and take breaths. Obviously, you need to have a clear idea of what you’re going to write. Even if you get 4000 words in an hour with dictation, it’s better than typing at 1000 words for hour.

It can double your word count or it can cut your writing time in half so that you have more time to do other things such as reading or editing or whatever else you want to do. Maybe something that doesn’t involve writing?

2. If you have carpal tunnel, arthritis, or any kind of hand or wrist injury, this can save you a ton of pain and grief. Typing all day for hours on end takes its toll on your joints. Not to mention you’re either sitting down with butt in chair or standing still to do it. I personally don’t have the desire nor muscle coordination to work on my novel while walking on a treadmill but some people can manage it. The headset I use has a cord long enough to allow me to pace my office while dictating. It also allows me to shut my eyes, lay down on the floor and put myself in the scene, talking openly about what my imagination sees.

3. It improves your voice and public speaking skills. With practice, you become more clear in what you want to say and how you’re going to say it with less thinking. If you’re looking to become a better public speaker, dictation may just be the ticket.

4. Using an app on your phone it becomes much easier to take notes anywhere at any time. Granted, if you’re in a crowded train station it may be hard for your phone to pick up your voice among all the noise. But 9/10 if you’re taking notes into your phone, a quick memo will be recorded and you can come back to it later.

I’m not normally one to write just anywhere. It’s usually either a quiet coffee shop, a local writers center, an airport, or my home office. However, in attempts to be more prolific, it helps when I can dictate a quick note or idea into my phone. We all have those ideas at strange times or in strange places and then we think, “Oh, I’ll remember this later. I don’t need to write it down.” Raise your hand if you’ve had this thought…then later lost the idea.

If you can think of any other pros or cons, please let me know in the comments below. I would love to hear your thoughts and opinions. If you are already an avid dictator, please let me know which software you prefer and where you do most of your dictating.

Happy dictating.

RB

A Brief History of ASR: Automatic Speech Recognition

Dear readers, I apologize for the month long hiatus but I assure you that it was much needed. Today’s post is a guest post. If you’re interested in writing one of these, please reach out to me via my contact page here.

This article is originally published at Descript.

This moment has been a long time coming. The technology behind speech recognition has been in development for over half a century, going through several periods of intense promise — and disappointment. So what changed to make ASR viable in commercial applications? And what exactly could these systems accomplish, long before any of us had heard of Siri?

The story of speech recognition is as much about the application of different approaches as the development of raw technology, though the two are inextricably linked. Over a period of decades, researchers would conceive of myriad ways to dissect language: by sounds, by structure — and with statistics.

Early Days

Human interest in recognizing and synthesizing speech dates back hundreds of years (at least!) — but it wasn’t until the mid-20th century that our forebears built something recognizable as ASR.

1961 — IBM Shoebox

Among the earliest projects was a “digit recognizer” called Audrey, created by researchers at Bell Laboratories in 1952. Audrey could recognize spoken numerical digits by looking for audio fingerprints called formants — the distilled essences of sounds.

In the 1960s, IBM developed Shoebox — a system that could recognize digits and arithmetic commands like “plus” and “total”. Better yet, Shoebox could pass the math problem to an adding machine, which would calculate and print the answer.

Meanwhile researchers in Japan built hardware that could recognize the constituent parts of speech like vowels; other systems could evaluate the structure of speech to figure out where a word might end. And a team at University College in England could recognize 4 vowels and 9 consonants by analyzing phonemes, the discrete sounds of a language.

But while the field was taking incremental steps forward, it wasn’t necessarily clear where the path was heading. And then: disaster.

October 1969 The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America

A Piercing Freeze

The turning point came in the form of a letter written by John R. Pierce in 1969.

Pierce had long since established himself as an engineer of international renown; among other achievements he coined the word transistor (now ubiquitous in engineering) and helped launch Echo I, the first-ever communications satellite. By 1969 he was an executive at Bell Labs, which had invested extensively in the development of speech recognition.

In an open letter³ published in The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, Pierce laid out his concerns. Citing a “lush” funding environment in the aftermath of World War II and Sputnik, and the lack of accountability thereof, Pierce admonished the field for its lack of scientific rigor, asserting that there was too much wild experimentation going on:

“We all believe that a science of speech is possible, despite the scarcity in the field of people who behave like scientists and of results that look like science.” — J.R. Pierce, 1969

Pierce put his employer’s money where his mouth was: he defunded Bell’s ASR programs, which wouldn’t be reinstated until after he resigned in 1971.

Progress Continues

Thankfully there was more optimism elsewhere. In the early 1970s, the U.S. Department of Defense’s ARPA (the agency now known as DARPA) funded a five-year program called Speech Understanding Research. This led to the creation of several new ASR systems, the most successful of which was Carnegie Mellon University’s Harpy, which could recognize just over 1000 words by 1976.

Meanwhile efforts from IBM and AT&T’s Bell Laboratories pushed the technology toward possible commercial applications. IBM prioritized speech transcription in the context of office correspondence, and Bell was concerned with ‘command and control’ scenarios: the precursors to the voice dialing and automated phone trees we know today.

Despite this progress, by the end of the 1970s ASR was still a long ways from being viable for anything but highly-specific use-cases.

This hurts my head, too.

The ‘80s: Markovs and More

A key turning point came with the popularization of Hidden Markov Models(HMMs) in the mid-1980s. This approach represented a significant shift “from simple pattern recognition methods, based on templates and a spectral distance measure, to a statistical method for speech processing”—which translated to a leap forward in accuracy.

A large part of the improvement in speech recognition systems since the late 1960s is due to the power of this statistical approach, coupled with the advances in computer technology necessary to implement HMMs.

HMMs took the industry by storm — but they were no overnight success. Jim Baker first applied them to speech recognition in the early 1970s at CMU, and the models themselves had been described by Leonard E. Baum in the ‘60s. It wasn’t until 1980, when Jack Ferguson gave a set of illuminating lectures at the Institute for Defense Analyses, that the technique began to disseminate more widely.

The success of HMMs validated the work of Frederick Jelinek at IBM’s Watson Research Center, who since the early 1970s had advocated for the use of statistical models to interpret speech, rather than trying to get computers to mimic the way humans digest language: through meaning, syntax, and grammar (a common approach at the time). As Jelinek later put it: “Airplanes don’t flap their wings.”

These data-driven approaches also facilitated progress that had as much to do with industry collaboration and accountability as individual eureka moments. With the increasing popularity of statistical models, the ASR field began coalescing around a suite of tests that would provide a standardized benchmark to compare to. This was further encouraged by the release of shared data sets: large corpuses of data that researchers could use to train and test their models on.

In other words: finally, there was an (imperfect) way to measure and compare success.

November 1990, Infoworld

Consumer Availability — The ‘90s

For better and worse, the 90s introduced consumers to automatic speech recognition in a form we’d recognize today. Dragon Dictate launched in 1990 for a staggering $9,000, touting a dictionary of 80,000 words and features like natural language processing (see the Infoworld article above).

These tools were time-consuming (the article claims otherwise, but Dragon became known for prompting users to ‘train’ the dictation software to their own voice). And it required that users speak in a stilted manner: Dragon could initially recognize only 30–40 words a minute; people typically talk around four times faster than that.

But it worked well enough for Dragon to grow into a business with hundreds of employees, and customers spanning healthcare, law, and more. By 1997 the company introduced Dragon NaturallySpeaking, which could capture words at a more fluid pace — and, at $150, a much lower price-tag.

Even so, there may have been as many grumbles as squeals of delight: to the degree that there is consumer skepticism around ASR today, some of the credit should go to the over-enthusiastic marketing of these early products. But without the efforts of industry pioneers James and Janet Baker (who founded Dragon Systems in 1982), the productization of ASR may have taken much longer.

November 1993, IEEE Communications Magazine

Whither Speech Recognition— The Sequel

25 years after J.R. Pierce’s paper was published, the IEEE published a follow-up titled Whither Speech Recognition: the Next 25 Years⁵, authored by two senior employees of Bell Laboratories (the same institution where Pierce worked).

The latter article surveys the state of the industry circa 1993, when the paper was published — and serves as a sort of rebuttal to the pessimism of the original. Among its takeaways:

  • The key issue with Pierce’s letter was his assumption that in order for speech recognition to become useful, computers would need to comprehend what words mean. Given the technology of the time, this was completely infeasible.
  • In a sense, Pierce was right: by 1993 computers had meager understanding of language—and in 2018, they’re still notoriously bad at discerning meaning.
  • Pierce’s mistake lay in his failure to anticipate the myriad ways speech recognition can be useful, even when the computer doesn’t know what the words actually mean.

The Whither sequel ends with a prognosis, forecasting where ASR would head in the years after 1993. The section is couched in cheeky hedges (“We confidently predict that at least one of these eight predictions will turn out to have been incorrect”) — but it’s intriguing all the same. Among their eight predictions:

  • “By the year 2000, more people will get remote information via voice dialogues than by typing commands on computer keyboards to access remote databases.”
  • “People will learn to modify their speech habits to use speech recognition devices, just as they have changed their speaking behavior to leave messages on answering machines. Even though they will learn how to use this technology, people will always complain about speech recognizers.”

The Dark Horse

In a forthcoming installment in this series, we’ll be exploring more recent developments and the current state of automatic speech recognition. Spoiler alert: neural networks have played a starring role.

But neural networks are actually as old as most of the approaches described here — they were introduced in the 1950s! It wasn’t until the computational power of the modern era (along with much larger data sets) that they changed the landscape.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Stay tuned for our next post on Automatic Speech Recognition by following Descript on Medium, Twitter, or Facebook.

Timeline via Juang & Rabiner

This article is originally published at Descript.