The pros and cons of using editing programs #amwriting

A number of people have asked me about editing programs, and if I use them in my own work. I do–but also, I don’t.

I rely on my knowledge of grammar and what I intend to convey more than I do editing programs, which are not as useful as we wish they were.

You may have found that your word processing program has spellcheck and some minor editing assists. Spellcheck is notorious for both helping and hindering you.

Spellcheck doesn’t understand context, so if a word is misused but spelled correctly, it may not alert you to an obvious error.

  • There, their, they’re.
  • To, too, two.
  • Its, it’s

Grammarly is an editing program I use for checking my own work, in tandem with Pro Writing Aid. I pay a monthly fee for the professional versions of these two programs. Each one has strengths and weaknesses.

For me, especially in my first draft, some words are like tics—they fall out of my fingers and into my keyboard randomly and out of my voluntary control. I don’t self-edit as I go because, at that point, I’m just trying to get the story down. The second and third drafts are where I shape my grammar and phrasing.

I want to write active prose, so I don’t want to use words with no power behind them.

Often removing an adjective or adverb strengthens the prose. They’re easy to find because these words frequently end with the letters ‘ly.’

You could do a global search for the letters ‘ly,’ and a list will pop up in the left margin of your manuscript.

It’s ridiculous to tell someone to remove all adverbs from a narrative. Words like “later,” or “everywhere,” or “never” or “alone” are also adverbs.

That sort of wrong-headed advice survives because it is based on a writing truth: unnecessary adverbs and adjectives fluff up the prose. Worse, they sometimes fail to tell us something that we need to know.

In other words, use adverbs and adjectives when they are necessary and cut them when they aren’t.

In my own work, I seek out adverbs, descriptors, qualifiers, and “weed words.” I look at how they are placed in the context of the sentence and decide if they will stay or go. Many will go, but some must stay.

A good program to help point out when certain passages are passive and need to be “made active” is Pro Writing Aid. I use the professional version for my own work, but they do have a free version that will show you some limited problems in your prose.

The BIG problem for those who don’t understand the basics of grammar is, these programs are unable to see the context of the work they are analyzing:

“The tea was cool and sweet, quenching her thirst.”

Grammarly suggested replacing quenching with quenched.

Pro Writing Aid made the same suggestion.

I have no idea why they make that suggestion, but you can see how a person blindly following mechanical advice could go wildly astray.

Context is defined as the parts of a written or spoken statement that precede or follow a specific word or passage, usually influencing its meaning or effect.

A person with no knowledge of grammar will not benefit from relying on Grammarly or any other editing program for advice. There is no way to bypass learning the craft of writing.

This is because these programs operate on algorithms defined by finite rules and will often strongly suggest you insert an unneeded article or change a word to one that is clearly not the right one for that situation.

New writers should invest in the Chicago Guide to Grammar, Usage, and Punctuation, and learn how grammar works. If you don’t understand grammar or how to construct a sentence, a paragraph, or write dialogue, editing programs will just confuse and mislead you.

To get the best out of editing software, you must know the basics of how to write.

Currently, at this stage in our technology, understanding context is solely a human function.

Because context is so important, I am wary of relying on these editing programs for anything other than alerting you to possible comma and spelling malfunctions.

You might not agree with the program’s suggestions. You, the author, have control and can disregard suggested changes if, as illustrated above, they make no sense. I regularly reject weird suggestions.

However, when the editing program highlights something, I look at the problem sentence carefully. Just knowing that the way I phrased a sentence tripped the program’s algorithms encourages me to look at that passage with a critical eye.

I may not use the program’s suggestion, but something triggered the algorithm. That means my phrasing might need work. I may need to find a better way to get my idea across.

Even editors must have their work seen by other eyes—my blog posts are proof of this. I am the only one who sees them, and even though I write them in advance and go over them with two editing programs, and then look at them again before each post goes live, I still find silly errors two or three days later.

A good editing program is not cheap, but I feel it is a worthwhile investment. If you don’t have an editing program, you can find these words on your own.

If you are hasty or impatient, a global search can be dangerous and can mess up an otherwise good manuscript. I warn you, this is a boring, time-consuming task, but it is a crucial part of the job.

You can’t take shortcuts. If you are too impatient and choose to “Replace All” without carefully thinking things through, you run the risk of making a gigantic mess of your work. Some weed words are parts of other words, for example:

  • very—every
  • has—hasten, chasten

If you have decided something is a “crutch word,” examine the context. Inadvertent repetitions of certain words are easy to eliminate once we see them with a fresh eye.

Context is everything.

I can’t stress this enough: take the time to look at each example of the offending words individually.

It’s unfortunate, but there is no speedy way to do this. Every aspect of getting your book ready for the reading public must be done with the human eye, patience, and attention to detail.


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11 responses to “The pros and cons of using editing programs #amwriting

  1. Stephen Swartz

    Editing programs? Useless for fiction or poetic text, IMHO.
    Spelling check, ok. Grammar check, ok for business or academic writing.
    Years of study in the language of the text, a reasonably proficient method for distinguishing correctness within the universe of the story.
    Science fiction in which alien languages are employed, meh.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Excellent advice, Connie. I use the professional version of Pro-Writing Aid and I’ve learnt to not depend on it. As you say. ‘Context is everything’. I’ve used Grammarly before getting PWA, but my finances are stretched. Even affording an editor will be a challenge.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I spend more time growling at editing software than I do accepting its advice. I’ve written about this so many times! Such software is meant to be at our service, not ruling writers with a rod of iron. Neither a basic knowledge of grammar nor the human understanding of context can be replaced by software. Sometimes the rules need to be bent or broken.
    But I am grateful for the number of times it picks up typos from cold fingers or a recalcitrant, crumb-laden keyboard 😉

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I quite agree with everything said here. I, too, have had strange suggestions from editing software. And sometimes I use repetition deliberately. However, it’s not only software that tells me to do something. I am part of an online critique group. The vast majority of critiquers are excellent. They are all writers. But occasionally I find someone who thinks rules should be stuck to, and they tell me to cut a deliberTe repetition, or do something about other things I’ve done deliberately.
    I think that every writer should have a good knowledge of writing, and use editing software to pick up those things that have accidentally slipped in. Sadly, I think many consider either the software or a ‘real’ editor will sort it all out for them.

    Liked by 2 people

    • That is so true. If you don’t know how to write, nothing and no one can make the manuscript what it should be.

      I always told clients whose work wasn’t ready that it was at the beginning place in their career. Using comments only, I would edit the first chapter the way it needed to be, and let them take the manuscript from there. If they could handle the ugly truth in that one sample chapter and make appropriate changes, I would be glad to edit the final product.

      Sometimes what I got back was utterly wonderful 😀

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Reblogged this on Just Can't Help Writing and commented:
    This piece accords with my experience. I haven’t used the “pro” versions of editing software, so maybe it would work better than the free versions, but I’ve found that the suggestions are wrong as often as they are right. Here’s a quote from the article that I agree with:
    “A person with no knowledge of grammar will not benefit from relying on Grammarly or any other editing program for advice. There is no way to bypass learning the craft of writing.”
    Do you agree? If not, why not?

    Liked by 1 person