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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:
Specific thoughts and observations on several that I have tried:
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.
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)