Use Your Operating System’s Accessibility Features to Proofread Documents

One of my current research projects involves digitizing different versions of Hawthorne short story. I’ve been encoding different versions of the text so that I can discover the changes that editors made to the story as it circulated around the country in the nineteenth century. One of the most time-tested ways of transcribing documents accurately, however, is to work through a text with a partner: one partner reads the original text aloud while the second partner follows along in the transcribed text. When the two texts don’t match up, the team works together to figure out where the discrepancy lies and what changes need to be made to the transcription. Editors use such a system because our eyes and memory are, when unassisted, unreliable—one writer or editor is unlikely to catch all his or her own errors. For most of my project’s history, however, I’ve been transcribing alone: at first because I was a graduate student without funds to hire editors, and now because I work at a small college and—well—don’t have the funds to hire editors.

Early in my project, though, I discovered a way I could use my operating system’s built-in accessibility features as an editing partner (I will describe how to set this up in OS X, but I’ve heard from friends who use Windows that similar features can be activated in Windows’ accessibility settings). If you go to System Settings –> Speech and then click the box next to “Speak selected text when the key is pressed,” you will activate OS X’s Text to Speech fuctionality. You can assign a particular key combination to this feature by pressing the “Set Key…” button in this menu. You can also adjust the speaking rate, which you will probably want to tweak until you find the right setting for you and your project.

Once this feature is activated, you can select a block of text in any program, press the key combination you’ve chosen, and OS X will read the selected text aloud to you. The reading is a bit monotone, and the computer occasionally stumbles through an uncommon words—while working on my project, I always chuckle over the computer’s pronunciation of “Beelzebub”—but overall the reading is very solid. Whenever I transcribe a text for my project, I then check it by selecting paragraphs from my transcription, telling the computer to speak that text, and then reading along using the original document (usually a PDF scan of the original nineteenth-century newspaper or magazine page). Whenever what’s on the page doesn’t match with what the computer reads aloud, I stop and check my transcription. This system isn’t perfect, but has allowed me to work with much greater editorial precision than I could with my eyes and memory alone.

Not all of you are likely working on similar editorial projects, but I suspect that text-to-speech features could be used for other purposes, as well. We all know how difficult it is to proofread our own articles, for instance—perhaps asking the computer to read that text aloud could help us catch errors before we send those articles to editors or reviewers. How about you? Have you used text-to-speech (or other built-in features of your operating system) to meet unexpected needs? Tell us about your OS hacks in the comments.

[Creative Commons licensed photo by Flickr user Nic McPhee.]

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