Can editing and proofing be automated? Simon Whaley explores online grammar services.
I grew up in the 70s and 80s, when grammar was not the primary focus of English language lessons. It’s meant I’ve spent the past 30 years catching up, and I’m still learning today.
For years, Microsoft Word has littered our screens with red and blue wavy lines, highlighting potential errors in our text. But recently, a new army of online tools has emerged that can not only check spelling and basic grammar but also offer more structural editing suggestions.
They can recommend stronger verbs, highlight passive sentences, identify word repetitions, analyse sentence length and point out complicated, hard-to-read sentences. So are these tools a writer’s panacea, vital for our writing business? Or is there a risk they could standardise our prose and strip away our writing voice?
Free and Premium
The two most popular services are Grammarly and ProWritingAid, both offering a free version with limitations, or a paid-for premium version. The free versions can be great for assessing how useful these services are. Both offer plug-ins for your internet browser that will check the basics whenever you type anything online, such as on social media sites and online forms.
While checking spelling and punctuation in these situations is useful, their power lies when assessing longer pieces of text, such as articles, stories or books. It’s their ability to analyse our text that makes some writers think they can dispense with the services of a proofreader or editor. While the technology is amazing, it can’t replace a human editor or proofreader yet. And that’s not what the designers of these services are trying to do.
Lisa Lepki is a freelance writer and edits the ProWritingAid blog. She explains how these tools are designed to help us make our text as clean as possible, before we pass it to an editor or proofreader.
‘It is essential that every writer does a thorough self-edit on anything they write, regardless of whether they plan to send it to a professional editor or not,’ she explains. ‘Editing is where you sharpen your language to ensure you’re communicating your ideas effectively. If you are planning to use a professional editor, you will get so much more out of their services if you send them an already polished document. Editors have limited time, and the last thing you want is for them to be correcting basic writing issues like passive voice or emotional tells. You don’t want them to take your manuscript from bad to good; you want them to take it from excellent to exceptional.’
Karen Clarke, whose latest psychological thriller is Her Life For Mine (HQ Digital), uses the Grammarly service for this very purpose. ‘I use the free tool occasionally, but as I have an editor now, I don’t see the need for the premium version,’ she says. ‘I tend to input my chapters for a quick spelling and punctuation check before submitting to my editor. I overuse commas and hyphens and Grammarly helps me weed them out!’
Not only do these tools use the basic rules of grammar, spelling and punctuation to check our work, they also draw upon artificial intelligence to understand the context of what we’re writing.
‘ProWritingAid’s analysis comes in two flavours,’ says Lisa. ‘It uses AI-powered suggestions based on metrics found in our huge corpus of millions of published works, and rules and suggestions compiled by our team of expert copyeditors.’
Artificial intelligence works by analysing vast swathes of material and looking for trends.
‘Our team runs reports on millions of published books,’ Lisa explains, ‘and finds that the average percentage of sentences that start with an “-ing” word (For example, “Running for the bus, Susan tripped and broke her ankle”) in published writing is less than 30%. When you use ProWritingAid on your work, it’ll analyse the words you use to start your sentences. If you have 45% in your writing, the tool will let you know so you can decide whether to reduce that number because it’s a bit of an indicator of amateur writing.’
What these services provide are suggested improvements to our writing. It’s up to us whether or not we accept them. However, many of the suggestions do lead to improvements.
‘Our team of copywriters,’ continues Lisa, ‘creates rules based on mistakes and edits that they find in their editing practice. For example, they found that they were often removing “started to” or “began to” before verbs to improve clarity. For example, “The sun started to come up over the hills as he cooked breakfast” becomes “The sun came up over the hills as he cooked breakfast”. In most cases, if you say someone is doing something, it’s understood that they started doing it so the words “started to” are redundant.’
However, the artificial intelligence can things wrong, which Lisa acknowledges. ‘English is a complex language, so sometimes the software will misunderstand the context of your sentence. In that case, just hit ignore and move on. You are the author, so it’s always up to you to decide if the suggestion works for what you are trying to get across.’
In some ways, this is what I like about these services, because it makes me think about my work and what I want to say. If I don’t like what ProWritingAid or Grammarly is suggesting, I ask myself why. Why do I think the software is wrong? This makes me delve into a couple of English grammar handbooks on my bookshelf and learn more about the situation, as well as read the excellent guidance notes these services offer. Based upon that grammar research, I decide whether I’m right, or the service. These tools help me improve my understanding of English grammar.
Using these services for the first time can be daunting because of all the potential errors it picks up. But don’t consider them as potential errors. Instead, think of them as places where there’s an opportunity to make improvements.
Some writers fear that accepting all the recommendations will change the voice or tone of our writing. For example, a light, chatty piece often uses more words to convey the information we want to get across, but that style is part of our voice and what we’re known for.
Therefore, as writers, we need to understand what the impact is of any recommended changes in our work. It’s our responsibility to determine whether that still conveys the message we want to get across in the style we want to do it in.
‘Many people have asked why we don’t have an “accept all” button,’ says Lisa. ‘This is because we know that writers will often make stylistic decisions based on their personal voice.’
‘I always think of ProWritingAid as a kindly editor sitting behind me, gently reminding me that this sentence is potentially problematic and is worth a second thought. If you reread your sentence and think it’s fine as is, then that’s great. You can leave it alone. If you reread it and then come up with a way to construct it that works better, then that’s great too. You are the author and you always have the last word.’
Artificial intelligence is learning all the time. That’s its power. And that’s why many of these services are online and require an internet connection to use them. The more it learns, the better its suggestions and recommendations become, and the sooner you have access to the artificial intelligence’s new knowledge and understanding.
‘Our team of computational linguists also works to take the context of your writing into account when making suggestions,’ Lisa advises, ‘and they’re constantly developing our software so the suggestions are getting more accurate and comprehensive all the time. Our thesaurus, for instance, is always learning. This means that, for many words, it will suggest synonyms that apply to the context of your sentence. This feature helps ensure our suggestions take your unique ideas into account.’
In additional to the internet browser plug-ins, many of these services can link directly into our preferred word processing tools. Both Grammarly and ProWritingAid have a plug-in for Word, while ProWritingAid links in with Scrivener. Another service, Language Tools, connects with Ulysses, which Apple Mac writers may use.
For Karen, Grammarly has been a useful, extra step in her writing process. ‘Working with an editor has helped me more, but Grammarly has made me aware of where and when commas (in particular) are needed – and it’s a lot less often than I think! If you want to improve your documents before submission, it’s a useful service, and I would probably go for the premium version, but it’s probably not worth it if you already have an editor. Grammarly is also useful when posting on social media – it’s picked up spelling mistakes I hadn’t noticed before posting a comment!’
Lisa feels these services make the editing process less daunting. ‘We often hear from writers who finish their first draft and then just don’t know where to begin the editing phase. Running a summary report will help you set up an editing roadmap so you can use your time effectively. You will see what you are doing well, and what changes will have the biggest impact on your work. You can work methodically through the reports and feel a sense of progression as you do.’
These tools are no replacement for human editors and proofreaders. But they can be an effective additional step that we can take to polish our manuscript to the best of our ability, before we pass it onto an editor and proofreader.
Think of them as another business tool in our writing business toolbox. They can help us think about our text more critically, point out our weaknesses and show us how to improve them. The better we understand grammar, the better writers we become.
Business Directory – Your Grammar Toolbox
Many of these services offer basic free versions. Premium services are either an annual subscription or a one-off payment.
Language Tools: https://languagetool.org
Hemingway App: www.hemingwayapp.com