From Rick:

From time to time I’ve talked about various pieces of software for writers. Although I haven’t subdivided them before, all the ones I’ve seen fall into two primary categories:

(1) Word and text processing software
(2) Writing improvement aids

One must consider defining a third category of programs that attempt to teach you how to write and structure your novel or short story or whatever. I don’t play with those and generally advise writers not to lean on them. If you want to learn how to write, take writing classes or workshops and learn from real humans.

Anyway…

The first category includes the big guns like Word and WordPerfect as well as smaller programs such as Scrivener and Jutoh. The basic purpose of these programs is to convert a writer’s words into a digital format either for subsequent transmission elsewhere or for later printing on paper. Some of these programs, such as Scrivener and Jutoh contain additional functions for easier conversion of the manuscripts to e-books. Scrivener includes functions that enable the writer to organize the work and to keep notes, reference materials, and other documents with the manuscript: a typewriter, file cabinet, and notepads all rolled into one. I’m not going to say any more about it here other than some love it while others would rather stick to Word. It does have a bit of a learning curve. Most of these programs include a spellchecker, and some include a grammar checker as well.

The second category of software consists of programs specifically aimed at improving the quality of the writing. While they also contain spelling and grammar checking functions, they also include writing analysis functions that are designed to replace, in part at least, some of the functions of a human editor. And this is where these programs enter a murky area of functionality. Some suggest using them for initial cleanups before using a human editor to reduce the time the editor needs to spend, hence potentially reducing the cost of editing.

Most of you recognize the limitations of spellcheckers. The English language is a vast array of words and is fraught with homophones, alternative spellings, and grammar/spelling traps such as “its, it’s, who’s, whose.” Accidental misspellings can yield legitimate words (the thee, her, here, of, off, friend, fiend, genius, genus), to say nothing of the names and words that fiction writers make up. All of these confound a spellchecker, which will attempt to correct a fictional character name of “Sintra” (in one of my novels) to “Sinatra,” and one called “Tak” it tries to correct to “Take.”

Even worse, MS Word comes with spelling autocorrect turned on and that will automatically change certain misspellings that you may not want changed (like a deliberate misspelling of “the” to “teh”). If you’re writing a grammar book where you want to point out certain misspellings, it won’t do to have the spellchecker “correct” them. This is why I always turn off autocorrect for everything except smart quotes, and even that causes problems in blog posts because adding a web link requires that straight quotes be used. So, I have to correct those smart quotes in web links.

Basic grammar checkers do a pretty good job as far as they go, but they are just as dicey as spellcheckers. They are rudimentary at best and can miss some of the basic grammar issues one encounters. When it comes to fiction writing, they may flag things that are not a problem.

Here’s the real kicker: Writers with weak spelling and grammar skills are the ones who needs spelling and grammar checkers, but these writers may be the least capable of determining when the “error” is legitimate and should be corrected, or they choose the wrong word spelling from the list of spelling alternatives presented.

Some programs, like Grammarly, attempt to make up for some of these deficiencies by providing a deeper analysis of the text, but I have yet to find one a grammar checker that lacks drawbacks or that does a significantly better job overall than MS Word’s grammar checker. Some of you have tried (and probably love) Grammarly, but my tests demonstrate that (the free version at least) is only slightly better than MS Word and that it misses some things that Word catches and vice versa.

What I find interesting is that most of Grammarly’s online ads (specifically in YouTube videos) push its use for everyday documents (letters, emails, reports, etc.) and seldom or never mention its use for fiction. I suppose that’s expected since they’re trying to reach the widest audience possible, and fiction writers do not represent nearly as big an audience as the business world does.

Lately I’ve been hearing a lot about ProWritingAid. This program has been around a couple of years and is constantly being improved. It claims to be a grammar checker, style editor, and editing tool. Their website hypes it a bit more, calling it “A grammar guru, style editor, and writing mentor in one package.” That’s a pretty bold claim for a piece of software, and I am ever the skeptic when it comes to such claims.

As Scott Gamboe and I have pointed out in Punctuation For Fiction Writers, when it comes to fiction, the variation in writing styles is considerably greater and the reading audiences are equally diverse. A good fiction writers knows when to bend the rules. Unfortunately, programs like Grammarly and ProWritingAid (and even MS Word and WordPerfect) do not. When writing informational material for a broad, general audience, simplicity and clarity of language are essential. When writing for a more sophisticated audience, a different style may be called for, yet no writing programs in my experience allow for this, and you’ll find grammar checkers that often suggest you simplify word choices and expressions (presumably because they think you should be writing for a less-sophisticated audience.

I had a recent encounter with ProWritingAid in a critique workshop that I attended, and my reaction was not a positive one. One of the participants had purchased the premium version (with al the bells and whistles and numerous reports it can produce) and was using it in his writing. He told us that ProWritingAid suggested that he cut out some uses of “the” in his writing. What? As far as I’m concerned, the only time you should watch out for “the” is beginning too many sentences with it: The sun was sinking below the horizon. The sky had turned deep orange. The brightest stars were already visible… etc.

What the gentleman had done in his story was delete “the” in places he shouldn’t have, like before the names of boats mentioned in the story. This is equivalent to writing “Titanic hit an iceberg” instead of “The Titanic hit an iceberg.” I can’t think of many instances where you’d want to omit “the” in that situation. I only saw a few pages of his story and wasn’t paying super close attention to grammar as I critiqued it, so I can’t say where else he might has deleted “the” inappropriately.

My point here is that this represents a perfect example of the trap an inexperienced writer can fall into by trusting that the software knows better, when in fact it may not.

To test my suspicions further, I signed up for a free trial of ProWritingAid and ran a couple of samples of my own writing through it. In all fairness, in one sample it did find a couple of potentially useful changes. Here’s one of those in the passage below. It flagged the word “around.” I capitalized it here so you can spot the two occurrences better.

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He moved up to the mansion and examined the demolished front doors. The frames were barely standing, and sections of the walls AROUND them missing. He cautiously peered inside. Debris lay all AROUND what was left of the lobby, as if something big had crashed through from the outside.

Eliminating one case of “around” does make it read better. But is it a gamechanger for the writing? Not at all. Few readers would likely notice it the repetition let alone be bothered by it. Now, had I continued to use the word in subsequent sentences, that would become bothersome. Or if I had used a less common word twice that close together, that would be something to correct. Here’s my revision.

He moved up to the mansion and examined the demolished front doors. The frames were barely standing, and sections of the adjacent walls were missing. He cautiously peered inside. Debris lay all around what was left of the lobby, as if something big had crashed through from the outside.

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As I suggested earlier, the issue I have with most writing-aid programs is that they can lure novice writers into believing that their writing will be significantly better after using them. On some level, this may be true. However, you’re only improving the mechanics of the writing, not the overall story and its presentation. Don’t make the mistake of believing that clean writing is the same as writing a good story.

It certainly is possible that these programs can make a difference, but it’s also possible for them to do serious damage to a story (as in the “the” case).

To put this into perspective, I can take a mediocre story, render the writing flawless from a mechanical standpoint and make it pass most or all of the tests these programs will put it through. But the basic story will still be a mediocre one. I can also take a story that is a good one and already well written, and pretty much guarantee that these programs will find flaws that aren’t flaws or “problems” that will make little or no difference to the story if left in. A few well-done critiques by real humans can do whole a lot more good for the writer.

Well-meaning software developers put a lot of time and money into programs that can allegedly improve your writing. The problem with this approach is that they attempt to craft your writing into some standard, generic mold. Granted, there are certain good practices one should usually follow, but there are so many exceptions in fiction that these programs are of far more limited value than they would have us believe. If you’re writing a business letter or a report or a textbook, these programs may be of real benefit. If you’re writing fiction…

Any piece of grammar-checking, style-checking, or editing software can be of value if you basically know what you’re doing as a writer in the first place. These programs can help you spot things you’ve missed. It’s easy to fall into habit phrases without realizing it, and it’s hard to spot these (like the writer friend who used the phrase “can’t help but” over a hundred times in his novel (and even I didn’t catch it until I was well into it). Each writer will likely have different habit phrases or overused sentence constructions. Some of these style-checking programs may spot those repetitions that even a good human editor might miss.

However, if you have little clue what you’re doing, then these software programs have the potential to make your writing worse because you won’t always know the difference between what the program says is (or might be) wrong and what truly is wrong—like the example above with the writer told by ProWritingAid to reduce his use of “the.” In that case, the program made his writing worse. If you’re in-between in your writing competence, these software programs may be beneficial as long as you use common sense along with them.

Below I’ve included an example of the opening from a novel I’m currently working on. I ran this through ProWritingAid, and one of its suggestions was to reduce the use of “had” in the passage. It counted 16 uses of the word and suggested that I remove about 10 of them. Surely it had to be kidding. This was as bad as “the.”

There are two scenes here. Had either or both of them been flashbacks of any significant length, then I would have agreed with the assessment to reduce “had.”

I’ve talk about how to do flashbacks in previous posts. When you have a flashback that runs more than a few lines, you should open with the past perfect tense (“had” + past participle of the verb), move into simple past tense, then exit the flashback with another use or two of past perfect to signal the exit. When the flashback is only a few sentences, it’s better to keep the past perfect throughout.

The first scene is not a flashback at all, although it contains a few flashback snippets. The second scene is the same, with only a couple of flashback snippets. In both cases, the “had” verbs are required for proper time indications.

I capitalized the sixteen uses of “had” so you can spot them easier.

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EXAMPLE:

No one dared cross Aleksandra Polivanova. As she approached sixty, her doctors HAD advised her that if she wished to continue in good health, she needed to reduce the stress in her life, which meant keeping her emotions in check. The staff in her mansion could all vouch for her efforts to do exactly that. Indeed, they HAD lately observed a positive change in her attitude and a softening of her personality, so when her ear-piercing scream reverberated throughout the mansion all feared the worst.

News quickly spread that nothing untoward HAD happened to Madame Polivanova and that her health remained fully intact. Rumors abounded, though, and only a few of her most trusted employees learned the truth behind that scream.

Several generations of her family HAD devoted their lives to collecting pieces of the Mosaic, pieces with magical properties. Her scream signaled that all of the pieces in the family’s extensive collection in her vault HAD suddenly vanished without explanation.
Aleksandra vowed to get those pieces back. She already knew where to start looking, but that was halfway around the world, in America, outside the range of her influence. She’d need to persuade an outsider to help.

* * *

In the early dawn light, Philip Hodge stumbled out of the woods where he’d hidden last night hoping nothing else noticed him while he watched the war. The dirt from his hiding spot clung to his clothes and hair. Now that it all seemed over and everything was deathly quiet, the color was returning to his world. He HAD no idea who HAD won, or if they’d both lost.

He squinted into the distance, toward the front of the property where the old pickup truck was still parked and HAD miraculously survived unscathed except for a dent along the driver’s side.

For a moment, he wondered whether all that chaos last night HAD truly happened, but looking past the truck, he spotted the mangled, wrought-iron gates. He remembered how the Witch Queen HAD brought those lion statues to life and HAD them rip the gates apart. Clods of earth littered the ground around them.

Any lingering doubts vanished when he looked at the front of the museum. Pieces of stone and wood scattered over the driveway made it appear as if the place HAD been bombed. No one seemed to be around, creatures or humans—and no dead bodies. Where HAD they gone?

He moved up to the mansion and examined the demolished front doors. The frames were barely standing, and sections of the adjacent walls missing. He cautiously peered inside. Debris lay all around what was left of the lobby, as if something big HAD crashed through from the outside. That must’ve made one hell of a noise. He didn’t remember any such noise, so he must’ve been out cold.

Parts of the lobby’s marble floor HAD been shattered, and it HAD a gaping hole three feet wide in the middle of it. I guess there’s a basement here after all. God, what a mess. This would be a major expense to repair. But that wasn’t his problem.

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There is NO place in this passage where “had” should be removed. There are possibly a couple that could be removed by rewording, but nowhere near the ten or so suggested. Doing so would do would make a narrative very awkward. In nearly every case, “had” is required for proper grammar of the passage.

In the end, you are the only who can determine whether investing in one of these programs is money well spent. My best advice is that you learn how to write well first, learn grammar basics, and use a dictionary to look up words to be sure you’ve gotten them right, then perhaps use these programs can be an aid in cleaning up your manuscript after you’ve done all you can. None of these programs can come close to replacing a good human editor, and you risk making things worse by using them.

If you really feel that you need a program that claims to “have your back,” like ProWritingAid, then learn how to be smart when using it. Don’t take any of its recommendations at face value, and weigh each suggestion carefully to see if it truly makes sense and actually makes the writing better, not worse. And if you’re not sure, ask a human’s advice.

–Rick