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Sep
20
2014

How automated grammar and style checkers can (and can't) help you -- by Allen Tiffany

We think of ourselves as writers. Few of us think of ourselves as editors. Of course, we all want our submissions to be grammatically and stylistically close to perfect.

Where can we find help? We could go to a commercially available editing house. A Google search will list hundreds of them. They usually charge at least two cents a word and offer a universe of possible services (which can cost much more). A simple copy editing of a 3K word story would cost you at least $60.

Worse than the cost, it is difficult to figure out the good from the bad editors, though online reviews can help. In addition, each requires a discrete contract and payment, and a few days to get the job done. Generally, if you are willing to pay a premium, you get it back faster. 

An alternative is to use a software grammar or style checker.

The intent of this article is to provide insight into these SW products, how to use them, and their pros and cons. This is not a full review of any of them, and it is not a review of everything available on the market, though I’ll hit on a few of the biggest. I have not been funded by any of these vendors.

I look at these packages as having one or two distinct functions: grammar checker or style feedback. Some do both. The executive summary: They are better at helping with style issues than they are at checking grammar.

Let’s start with the grammar checkers. The first challenge is that sometimes we intentionally use bad grammar as part of our “style” or “voice.” Even if we strive for perfect grammar, sentences are simply too complex for “rules”-based software programs to identify consistently what is and is not “correct.” I’m sure that someday they will. Technology will continue to advance, and these products will get better. Until then, do not put too much faith in these programs providing complete and accurate feedback on your grammar.

I have a very different view when it comes to their ability to help with style. These tools can be very helpful by making what I call "observations" about your writing. For instance, to varying degrees, they will call out sentence variation and length, frequency of adverbs, how often you start sentences with a pronoun or noun, use of vague and abstract words, instances of given phrases being repeated, use of passive construction, etc. These types of observations can be extremely helpful, and many of these packages can be customized to zero in on specific things you might want to avoid. For example, if you want to keep your adverbs to one out of every 200 words, then these programs can help. 

So you better understand my perspective, let me share how I use the product I purchased. I use a product that has a MS Word “add-in.” Because I’m in MS Word, I can still use the MS Word functionality at the same time. I don’t use the grammar or style checker, though, until I’m on my third or fourth draft.

I am not strong at grammar, and in my early drafts, I pay less attention to sentence variation, excessive use of adverbs, etc. After I’ve gotten through my first drafts and am ready to start optimizing words, sentences and paragraphs to evoke the emotions I’m after, I will use my grammar and style checker to go through my work to start flagging things that could be issues. For the most part, I don’t find it helpful for grammar. For checking style, I use it more aggressively.

My first run with the style checker is usually on a specific aspect, such as looking for adverbs. Then I’ll run the diction report. After I feel like I have those where I want them, I might look at how often I use pronouns to start a sentence. And on and on.

These applications will flag a ton of stuff. So don’t panic or get defensive the first time you see the output. In an “overused words” report, it may say something like “up – consider removing 14 of 17 instances.” And you will see all 17 instances of the word highlighted. If your story includes a scene in which people are lifting rocks up to other workers to load them onto a truck, maybe the frequent use of “up” is appropriate. There will also be “false positives” that you will have to ignore. Again, these tools make observations. It is up to you to decide what to do, if anything.

For those of you that are interested and want to try one or more of these, I’ve provided a high-level survey below of a few products: Grammarly, ProWritingAid, and Ginger.

First, a couple notes on the common aspects and the use of these products:

  • No two of these programs are the same. They can vary dramatically in the functionality they offer. Keep that in mind if you go shopping for one of these applications. Be sure you know what you are looking for before you make your purchase.
  • From my experience, Word, Ginger and Grammarly are better at spotting grammar issues than ProWritingAid (PWA). Conversely, PWA is much stronger at reporting patterns and related stylistic aspects of your work.
  • Most of the products I looked at offered both online and MS Word “add-in” options and a few would work with Word but not as an add-in. However, except for MS Word, they all need real-time internet access to work. Even as a Word add-in, your text is actually being scrutinized on a server somewhere. So if you don’t have internet access, none of these programs will work.
  • There is also some variation between them as to which OS and which browser and which word processor they support, so be clear on that before you make a purchase decision. I prefer those that work with MS Word so I don’t have to keep copying and pasting big chunks of text back and forth between an internet site and my Word doc.
  • Because the actual work is not being done locally, in almost every case you are not buying a complete SW package. You are getting a “front end” that runs locally, so you are paying a recurring fee for a subscription to access the backend. Be sure you understand this before you give someone your credit card number.
  • You won’t use these all the time. In all their various forms and interfaces they are an intrusive, mechanistic proofing tool. As such they are at odds with the creative process of writing. Just as a lot of writers turn off MS Word’s grammar and spell checker when they write because their real-time error reporting is too disruptive to the writing process, you will not want these on while you are actually writing. In truth you will rarely use these applications.
  • Related to the above, these things run in different ways. Ginger goes sentence-by-sentence while you watch (which take about half a second per sentence in my experience), and you have to address each flagged sentence before it will go on. Others, such as PWA, will process the entire section before they report anything. These types take some time to run based on a number of variables: How much text you are asking it to proof, how many of the various reports you are asking it to run (more on this below), how much of your work it is going to flag, the speed of your internet connection (to include the speed of your wireless router if working wirelessly), the performance of your PC, and how busy their server is at that moment. To provide a very rough estimate, my experience with PWA on my equipment is that it takes about a minute per thousand words when I run eight reports concurrently. Your mileage will vary.
  • Almost every site I have looked at has a free online version. With one exception (After The Deadline), I've not found a "free" version that is worth the effort if you are writing more than ~500 words. All these free tools will give you a sense of how each different package works and feels, which is good. The better news is that almost every product has a free “trial period” that allows you to download and use the SW for a defined period of time before your credit card is charged. It is a great way to test out the package that most interests you.
  • Costs: If you are willing to spend money on these tools, most cost a few dollars a month, but see the various sites for details and for different packages. My experience is that if you register with them for a trial and then let the trial expire, they will likely email you an offer to stay with them at a discounted rate.
  • Documentation is weak for all these products. I’m not talking about the grammar rules. They all do a good job of explaining the issues they are reporting. At a high-level these products are intuitive, and you will be able to start quickly. But it will take you some time to find and learn how to use the finer, more helpful features, and to understand what has changed in subsequent releases. I’ve managed product managers, and I would have been very unhappy with my team if we were putting out such poorly documented SW. So assume you will have a bit of learning to get to the full capabilities of these products.

Specific thoughts and observations on several that I have tried:

  • MS Word (I’m speaking to the 2010 version): There is only a very modest style checker, but it includes a grammar checker that does a credible job. It is not customizable (at least not much), but it can be helpful in spotting some basic errors. It does not offer, though, many of the other features the other SW packages offer. Given what it is today, you should always use the MS Word grammar checker (assuming you use Word) as a starting point. If you want more than that...
  • ProWritingAid (AKA: “PWA”): PWA is by far my favorite. Nothing is perfect, but it is easy to use as an add-in to MS Word and offers many style and usage reports. It is also easy to customize. It has a Creative Writing mode (and several others as well), but even within that you can further customize it. I like that I can define how often I want it to highlight words and phrases that I default to more than I should. I also found it to be the least expensive. They have some good online discussions about grammar and how their SW works (though they are a bit evasive about some of their specific formulas). I have also found them to be responsive and helpful when I contacted them via email for assistance. Overall, I'm a happy customer and it has been a huge help.
  • Grammarly: I recently tried this one for a week. I had played with it online and decided to give it a go as a Word add-in. One thing that annoyed me from the start was that I could not figure out how to define sections for it to check – it insisted on checking the entire 77K word novel. At least it tried. At about the 40% mark it would stop checking. Perhaps it was a RAM issue with my local PC. I don’t know. I just could not figure out how to get it to check specific areas short of breaking up my file, which I’m not going to do. The grammar checker is better than PWA, or so it seemed to me. It was finding errors in my work that PWA did not. Its other features were much less capable than PWA’s, unfortunately, and I saw no room to customize it, though it also has a creative writing mode. It does have a nicer interface than PWA. One thing I really did not like about Grammarly was that it underlines issues with just a faint line, which was difficult to spot at times.
  • Ginger: This vendor released a version that works in MS Word, but it is not an add-in. It does a good job of checking grammar (better than the other programs, it seems). It also did a nice job of identifying instances where I used the wrong word (homophones). It does grind through each sentence one at a time, which you get to watch it do. And it will stop each time it hits something it flags. You have to intervene and tell it what to do before it goes on. Unlike PWA, you can’t jump back and forth between different reports to work on different things. There are some obvious pros and cons to this model. Ginger also has a nice feature that will “read” your work to you, and do a credible job of it, so you can (sort of) hear how your writing “sounds”.
  • AutoCrit: This one has a big fan base and a nice web site. I have not purchased a subscription, and I probably won't test it for another month or so after a helpful exchange I had with one of their support people. In short, she said, "AutoCrit does not look at grammar, but rather the style issues like repetition, clichés, slow pacing, etc. We are working on a major upgrade, though, for later this summer which will include a complete redesign along with spelling / grammar functionality." I know AutoCrit has a big following for what it is today, so I think I’ll give it a spin, but not until their next rev.
  • After The Deadline: This is a free product that seems fast and easy to use. Its feature set is limited compared to PWA, and it offers no metrics. It does not seem to work with MS Word, so I have only played with it. That said, if you like working online in Chrome or Firefox, and $0 seems like a good price, this could be the right product for you.

Are any of these better than a professional editor? No! Yes!

Professional editors are different from these applications. Humans are not as rules-bound and will have an “ear” for your voice and your style, so the feedback they give you can be far more insightful and helpful. They will tell you when you are wordy, which is something these packages won’t do. And they will tell you when your logic does not follow, and if you are showing action out of order. A human editor can also tell you when you are making confusing POV shifts. These are just a few things a good human editor can tell you that these applications won’t.

On the other hand, you are not going to customize your proofreader the way you can some of these applications. As insightful and thoughtful as a great editor can be, they are not going to count adverbs for you, and they might miss how often you use a favorite four-word phrase that might actually annoy the hell out of your eventual readers. Perhaps most importantly, a professional editor won’t check your 4K word story in four minutes at 11:30 on a Friday night when you’re sitting on your couch in your PJs. And you do not have to put a discrete contract in place every time you use your SW, which you would have to do with a human editor. There is no emotion involved, either. You will not have any expectation that the SW is going to smile at you with a gleam in its eye and tell you that your work will displace Dune in the Science Fiction canon. Your human editor may say this as she hands you a stack of papers dripping red ink, but the twitching under her right eye might make you wonder if she is really thinking, This is incomprehensible crap. Please don’t ever contact me again.

In short, consider these SW packages as tools that can help you proof and improve your work, and help you become a better writer overall. A professional editor (a good one) is a different tool whose feedback would further strengthen your work.

For my own experience, these SW packages are hugely helpful when preparing my work for submission to a fiction workshop and beta readers. Given the convenience of being able to use it any time I want, and at the cost of a few dollars a month, it is a nice fit for these situations. I would never think, though, of actually self-publishing my work without hiring a highly qualified editor to proof my work for me. 

To summarize my thoughts on these SW tools: What I have used are not compelling grammar checkers, though they will catch a few things. As style checkers, they can be very helpful. They do make observations you can review and address. As such, these tools can also help you learn how to write better as you internalize what triggers their rules. But writing is work, part of which is making decisions. These tools won’t do the work for you. Be ready to make your decisions, roll up your sleeves, and do the work after it runs and reports. 

For other opinions, check out these two reviews. I thought they were both lacking in many respects, but oddly, these are the two best reviews I have found.

http://writing-enhancement-software-review.toptenreviews.com/

http://nowastedink.com/2013/04/12/copy-editing-software-for-authors/

For those of you that have also used these and other such tools, please share your own perspectives and elaborate on anything I missed or glossed over.

Best of luck!  Allen (aka: Trevose)

Posted by Allen Tiffany 20 Sep 2014 at 01:42
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Responses to this blog

Sarahbeth 21 Sep 2014 at 06:23  

For my own experience, these SW packages are hugely helpful when preparing my work for submission to a fiction workshop and beta readers. Given the convenience of being able to use it any time I want, and at the cost of a few dollars a month, it is a nice fit for these situations.
I agree with this assessment.

My assessments below don't contradict, but amplify with my observations.

I fell heads over heels in love with Grammarly until two quirks, unresolvable, showed up. If you are on a less than pristine internet connection, you are screwed. The 100% local SW add-in requires a license check with their server. without that, nothing will happen. The license protocol is "fragile" to put it kindly. In my MS Word 2013, Grammarly even stopped MSWord. I had to uninstall Grammarly. The other problem is the grammar checker creates errors. Once, I foolishly "accepted" all grammar corrections, submitting to CC horrendous errors grammarly embedded such as ", ," and ". ." throughout the manuscript. Needless to say, all my CC critiquers were deeply distracted. I withdrew the story, manually undid the Grammarly, and paid my points to resubmit. Multiple calls to Grammarly got me nowhere. not recommended.

Hemingway is on line. www.hemingwayapp.com/ and now as a desktop program (aka "app"). It's strengths is style checking, pushing you to the clean, concise writing of it's namesake. I agree with the common complaint that it washes out your "voice." But, I recommend it as a clean, no-nonsense check of your "voice" to ensure you know how your voice works. Recommended, with caveats.

Autocrit members.autocrit.com is also online. I have had no problems, but as stated in the excellent blog, it is limited to style and voice issues. I use it heavily for CC and beta prep. The "add custom words" to check is fine, but limited, as I need to also check for "catch phrases." The repeated phrase feature catches some, but not all of my "little darlings." I've been impatiently waiting for the improved version which will add features. Recommended for style and voice.

I'd say I should check out PWA and Ginger, soon.
Nainy 22 Sep 2014 at 04:32  
I read reviews of the Hemingway app, and people claim it rates the man himself raging from "bad" to "ok", destroys Lovecraft and Faulkner, says Bradbury and Carroll is "ok".

At the same time, it loved excerpts from Gibson and Dick I fed to it. I do realize that's not the point of why to use it, but still sounds funny.
Trevose 22 Sep 2014 at 18:05  
Thank you both for the feedback and for sharing your experiences!

I had not heard of the "Hemingway app" but gave it a try. It seemed to work well, but I don't think it is much different from the various style checkers I mentioned. It is lighthearted and free, so that is cool. Thanks for bringing it to the group's attention.

Autocrit.com has released their new product since I submitted this blog. Though I have not used it, the demo on their site seems to show a nice looking product. The functionality, though, appears comparable to PWA.

I have also noticed that Ginger is running a special, presumably in response to autocrit's push.

In all cases, some good tools to help polish your work. Good luck, Trevose



Anitaplee 23 Sep 2014 at 11:33  
A very interesting blog, and replies. I did not know the software existed, and have always just used MS Word, and of course kept a copy of Strunk and White nearby. I will definitely look into this as I go along writing and developing my skills. For the moment though, I will stick with MS Word. Thanks for all the information.
Trevose 23 Sep 2014 at 18:26  
Thanks for the feedback — I appreciate it! Yes, Word is helpful with grammar, but do try the style checkers. Best of luck!
__________________
Sarahbeth 30 Sep 2014 at 15:45  
Got the new AutoCrit to work. I forgot you should delete all passwords, cookies and cache...frequently. I lost the first two week's of the new application.

Overview:
Great program updated for how most people work. Well worth the price. No serious glitches like I find in other paid services.

Best features:
1. import from/to MSWord
2. in-line corrections
3. on-line save/restore.
4. more ways to have your work flagged.

Worst features.
1. still weak on grammar. anyone who crits my work (please do!), knows grammar and I are, at best 5th cousins, twice removed.

>>>What is the BEST grammar, even if grammar-only, site/program?
Sarahbeth 2 Oct 2014 at 07:46  
apparently CC-control doesn't like editing to correct/fix errors.

Use this URL www.autocrit.com/login/ for the NEW autocrit. Otherwise, you may find yourself, like I did, puzzled about the old site.
Mikew 8 Oct 2014 at 08:48  
Thank you for this post, and to those of you who added your thoughts on the products/sites listed. I personally love the hemingwayapp - particularly identifying passive voice sentences - and I don't always change everything it points out, but I definitely look at all potential revisions. I found it funny that Hemingway himself would have not been perfect, but like Nainy pointed out, it's only there to give you the chance to look at hard to read, really hard to read, passive voice and adverb usage (which it wants none of).
I think it's made me a better writer, recognizing the above as I'm writing and crafting better prose. Thanks for the topic, I will look at the other options as well. Best regards, Mike -
Shimbo 22 Oct 2014 at 05:58  
I've used Autocrit and Pro Writing Aid and find them useful.

The key thing though is to remember they give you information - what you do with it is up to you. There's a lot of false positives, some of the suggestions are more suitable for corporate reports than fiction, and in the end it's your writing and if you want to use any 'incorrect' constructs for effect that's fine.

One report I find particularly useful is the word repetition one. It's the sort of thing that's tailor made for automatic checking.
Trevose 23 Oct 2014 at 04:24  
I discovered yesterday that Wordpress now includes "After the Deadline" in their "Jetpack" plugin. So you can use the After the Deadline grammar and style checker while you are working on your posts within Wordpress. It is a handy addition that allows you to stay within Wordpress while you edit rater than having to work in Word (for example) and then cut and paste into Wordpress.

In all events, as Shimbo emphasized: "The key thing though is to remember they give you information - what you do with it is up to you." That's our job as writers.
__________________
Trevose

Lisabaird 26 Mar 2015 at 20:42  
Incredibly helpful. Thank you.

Trevose 7 Oct 2015 at 17:46  
Just wanted to pass on that ProWritingAide is running a special for a few days: 50% off a lifetime subscription. So $60US for life. I think it is a heck of a deal. In my original blog you can see my review of and earlier version (and several alternatives). Before you buy this product (or any similar product) you should go to their website and carefully test their free version and make sure you understand what it can and cannot do to see if you think it would help you.

Full disclosure: I am not an affiliate and I have no relationship with them. I gain no benefit out of this other than helping other writers. I do think highly of their product, and this is a heck of a good price (for life) for a powerful tool for serious writers. Just sharing the info...

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