Letting computers help you write and edit

Thanks to Lily White LeFevre for asking about editing programs.

If there are computer tools available, for a reasonable price, that help remove some of the drudgery associated with providing clean prose, it is, to me, an odd choice not to use them. Word processors, online dictionaries, and programs such as Scrivener which organize research as well as text are in the arsenal of most writers.

Computers are incredibly fast, incredibly stupid, incredibly literal – they do EXACTLY what you actually told them to do, within their instruction set, rather than what you THINK you told them to do – and, most importantly of all, they don’t get bored.

That last one is very important, because humans DO get bored. Especially after they’ve had to repeat the same thing many times. Even natural proofreaders, who specialize in little tricks to keep themselves from losing focus on their work, get bored.

Ask any published author: are there mistakes in your book? Are there typos – typographical errors? Are there misspelled words? Are there extra spaces in between words that you didn’t place there on purpose, punctuation marks that are incorrect, misplaced, or in the wrong font?

Grammar mistakes are a human purview. Sorry, Microsoft, but grammar checkers, however elaborate, are no real substitute for a well-read human. And a total joke for fiction (though I might allow them to point out things that MIGHT need correction in a business letter or a beginner’s essay).

I am a ten-finger typist – when I type something, I mean it – so I turn off any of the ‘helpful’ machine-based functions such as Autocorrect and Autoformat. I don’t want the machine interrupting my flow when I’m trying to compose something.

BUT (I know, finally getting to the point) I would never DREAM of considering a scene in the novel-in-progress ready to go out – and by ‘out’ I mean to any human eye – without putting it through everything I can do, first.

By this time I’m at the writer’s familiar place where I’ve been through my own text so many times I will scream if I have to do it again – and yet, that’s my JOB.

So I run a spellcheck, and – annoying though it usually is (I can spell) – I carefully consider those places where it suggests I might not have the correct spelling. As an example, I prefer ‘likeable’ to ‘likable.’ So I make sure the various dictionary programs are happy, and agree that my preference is an acceptable alternate spelling before I leave it in. Of such things are styles made.

I check for things such as extra spaces – by using the FIND and REPLACE feature – and running it over and over until it can find no more instances of ‘two spaces’ to replace with ‘one space.’

And I run my text through AutoCrit*.

Here’s a partial list of my reasons:

1.    When AC does its reports of possible problem word frequencies, it reports BOTH how many times you use something like ‘has’ AND how many times average text includes ‘has.’ YOU decide if it’s too many.

2.    Cliches – AC has an extensive list of them, and seems to keep adding to that list. When I leave a cliche in, it is because that character speaks or thinks in cliches. Sometimes I disagree with what, exactly, IS a cliche – but now I do it intentionally, not by accident. Humans think in cliches for a reason – it is easier to process the world that way – but I don’t forgive authors I read if their work is riddled with cliches, and I don’t see why I should allow myself any more leeway.

3.    Homonyms – AC just underlines them. At least once through a scene, I actually do check out each underlined word to make sure it is the one I want. I would be mortified to put out “its” when I mean “it is” and vice versa, and I have seen enough “there” when “their” is meant to know it can happen to anyone. I understand AC is looking into marking the more likely homonym problems (“ewe” for “you” is rather unlikely, isn’t it?) because there a so MANY homonym combinations – exact and close – that the HUMAN checking which words the COMPUTER has underlined as homonyms can get overwhelmed, thus diminishing the usefulness of this function a bit.

4.    One of my favorite AC checks is the one for repeated words and repeated phrases. Again, my brain throws in the easiest combinations to get a thought across, but do I really want to have the words “she angled her head” twice within three pages? Or “she turned to” occurring three times on the same page? Nope. And because it has some flexibility, it will catch things like ‘deliberate’ being used within a few lines of ‘deliberately,’ something a reader would catch – but I might not, especially if one of the instances occurred because I changed ‘on purpose’ to ‘deliberately’ in one of my editing passes. AC doesn’t judge – which is good because I use an echo form of dialogue when appropriate – nor does it try to CHANGE or CORRECT anything – it merely marks the repeated words or phrases in red, green, or blue so that they are easier to find.

5.    AC finds and marks dialogue tags. It must have a list of things such as ‘said,’ ‘whispered,’ and ‘yelled.’ I use as few dialogue tags as I can get away with – most of mine occur in deep thought where I have no other way of marking a different character than the one having the thought. MOST of the rest of the time I use some form of action to mark which character is speaking – and now too many tags intrude – but occasionally I need ‘said,’ and I allow myself something else when necessary. But having the tags marked in the text allows me a quick check, especially of text written many years ago which I’m just getting around to editing.

6.    AC marks ‘ly’ adverbs for your perusal. No suggestion that they might be extraneous – just an underline so you can decide if this particular use passes muster for you.

7.    AC compiles ‘readability’ statistics. Most of these are counting algorithms – how many polysyllabic words, how many words of five or fewer letters, the presence or absence of some verbs or verb forms, etc. I don’t use this feature – I am writing for adults who speak English well – but I can see it would be very handy for a middle-grade book. The statistics are there; you do either have to know which ones you want, or how to interpret the results (outside AC), but the compilations would be tedious or require a different program to put your text through, so it is convenient.

What I’m seeing is that 1) it takes a lot of the boredom and work out of the more mechanical parts of editing, and 2) by the time I subject a human to my writing, the obvious problems are cleaned up. Efficiently.

It’s a service – rather than the standalone I’d prefer. I find it telling that there are no similar free programs, at least not ones I found useful on the internet (I have a Mac – can’t speak for Windows programs). Free offerings provide only some of the same features.

But the professional membership which cost me $117 for a year is infinitely cheaper than a human editor. AC can handle up to 100,000 words at a time (I have yet to try such a large chunk, but it will help catch any book-wide bad habits I have).

This level of membership also allows me to input my OWN list of problem words – so I don’t have to check the text visually for my favorite overused words – as I identify them, they get added to the list AC checks AND are only flagged when I actually use one. Quite handy – I have my own problem areas: I don’t want to use ‘palimpsest’ more than once per manuscript, and I have a tendency to use ‘satisfy’ or ‘satisfaction’ to excess (wonder what that says about ME).

Using it a scene at a time so far, I find the process quite quick: go through each of the buttons, back and forth making corrections to the text on my computer, and then a final pass or two to ensure my ‘corrections’ haven’t introduce new problems. I’m posting the results, a scene at a time, on this blog (see Pride’s Children).

I am learning to be cleaner in my new writing, just from the practice (working with a real editor is also supposed to have this effect).

I could do many of these functions myself, some with computer help. I could ask Word to mark all occasions of ‘ly ‘ and ‘ly,’ and ‘ly.’ for me, and check them myself.

And, whenever or if I get to the human editor interaction, I will be providing much cleaner text for said editor, which should save both of us time – and me money.

Have you used AC or a similar program?

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*This is my own experience using AutoCrit. I am not paid nor receive anything for endorsing the program, and the above constitutes my experience BEFORE I participated in the latest update’s beta testing.

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2 thoughts on “Letting computers help you write and edit

  1. Lily White LeFevre

    Thank you for posting this! It’s a good breakdown of what the program marks.

    RE the human editor – do you have someone who bills by time rather than word count? The editor I know bases on words, so whether I turn in a MS with 1 typo per page or 10 she charges the same. The inducement for turning in a clean MS anyway, I guess, is so the editor can focus on the subjective style issues rather than the mistakes. Kind of like picking up your house before the maid comes, so she spends her time dusting and scrubbing and cleaning the stuff you never get to, as opposed to picking up your clutter.

    RE working with an editor changes your perspective as a writer – absolutely. I have been interested in grammar and punctuation and being a correct writer (or a conscious rebel) since high school, so I went into my R&C courses without the basic issues. Even so, I write differently than I did before taking those classes just from a style perspective. I am also (and always have been), though, a deliberate writer. I tend to think through my sentences before I put them down and try out a couple ways to phrase them, and I re-read the work I just did almost paragraph by paragraph and edit as I go.

    I’ll be checking out your scene posts, too. Thanks again!

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    1. ABE Post author

      I don’t currently have a human editor. I am of two minds about that, the standard “What? Let someone touch my work!” vs “No work should go out before being thoroughly edited by someone OTHER than the author.”

      I expect to pay an editor for her/his TIME and EXPERTISE. “…picking up your house before the maid comes” is exactly right. I can’t justify the expense right now, so I’m doing my own housecleaning (editing) for the moment. Keeping up the analogy, I spend money on tools (vacuum cleaner, editing program) rather than on someone’s time to clean/edit, because I can’t afford the energy to train someone and interact with an editor properly. My house needs BOTH – cleaning and dejunking, but it has to be done MY way, to MY standards. If that’s going to be my attitude with an editor, no one is going to want to work with me! I usually want to get my own edits in first, even if it means doing work on something a developmental editor helps me understand has to go. Every bit of writing helps me get a bit better, make choices more and more deliberately.

      Give me a week on the scene template – I just realized last night I want to clean those posts up a bit, and add one about moving all the bits to Scrivener (I’ve done the work, just need to take some screen shots and write it up).

      Have you worked with a human editor recently?

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      Reply

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