Writing software

Writing software revisited—Part 2

From Rick:

Part 1 of this topic got a bit long, and after completing it, I felt I had more to say. In addition, I was recently pointed to a review of several pieces of editing software, a couple of which were new to me.


I like how the reviewer pointed out the strengths and weaknesses, didn’t side with any one piece of software, and broke them into three categories. I was especially pleased to see the blog author include a very important caveat that reinforces what I said in Part-1:

An automatic editing tool doesn’t replace a human editor. Because language rules and elements of a good story can be so flexible, human eyes will always be superior to the rigidity of automatic tools.

You might contend that if none of these pieces of software is ideal alone, why not use more than one to check your writing. Well, you could, but I think you could waste a lot of time trying to figure out which recommendations make sense and need to be acted upon versus those you should reject. Further, you’ll almost certainly find repeating recommendations that you already decided didn’t make sense or were wrong.

I’m going to let you in on a few of my editing secrets here, and along with those I’ll share a test I did of several of these software packages.

(1) As I edit on the computer (I use MS Word for my writing), I pay attention to anything MS Word flags as an error (spelling, grammar, or style) because many times it’s pointing to a real problem. But I’m also smart enough to filter out the bogus ones or to check anything I’m unsure of. Plus, Word isn’t always up to date on everything, especially if you don’t have the latest version.

(2) I make special use of Word’s Custom Dictionaries. I suspect that most writers are unaware of the ability to create your own custom dictionaries. Yyou can define special ones for specific purposes and turn them on or off. How is that useful? Llet’s say I’m writing (or editing) a fantasy novel that uses a lot of special words and terms, some of which would represent misspellings of common words. You can add those to the regular custom dictionary, but you risk missing accidental mistyping in other documents.

Here’s an example I mentioned in Part-1. I have a fictional character named “Sintra” that Word tries to correct to “Sinatra.” However, if I were writing another piece where I mentioned Frank Sinatra and accidentally misspelled his last name as “Sintra,” then Word would see “Sintra” in the custom dictionary (CUSTOM.dic) and ignore my error. Oops.

It’s easy to solve that problem. Go into MS Word’s “Options” and click on “Proofing.” There you can click “Custom Dictionaries” and “Create” a new one. Give it a name (maybe the name of the novel) and be sure it’s checked. While you’re working on that particular novel, you also want to make it the Default. The reason for the latter is so that any words you add to the dictionary go into that one and not into the regular custom dictionary that Word normally uses for anything you add. Words in the regular custom dictionary will still be used for spell checking, but any words you add will only add to whichever dictionary is selected as the current default one. After you’re done editing that novel, make regular CUSTOM.dic the default again and also uncheck the one you made for that novel (the one I added “Sintra” to). This ensures that “Sintra” won’t be taken as a correct spelling for a misspelled “Sinatra.” But if I have to edit that novel again, I simply re-check that novel’s dictionary. I don’t have to make it the default unless I need to add words to it.

Here’s the cool thing, though. If I do need to add a new word to that (or any) custom dictionary, I can use the “edit word list” feature to do that. This works for adding, deleting, or changing a word, such as if you decided to change the spelling of a character’s name. You can create as many of these extra dictionaries as you wish for different purposes.

The only thing you have to remember is to check which dictionaries are active and which is the default at any given time. Used properly, custom dictionaries can make your work easier by giving you options for particular documents without causing problems in others.

One big advantage of custom dictionaries is finding misspellings of words you created. The first time I encounter a name during editing, I add it to the dictionary. But sometimes a writer (or you) gets careless. The next time I see the name and Word flags it as a misspelled word, I right click on the word to see the spelling options. Usually I’ll see the original spelling and select that as the correction. I’ve found cases where the author used one spelling of a name the first time, then used a different spelling and consistent spelling for the name afterward. I catch this because I run into the same misspelling again. After that, search the manuscript for both spellings and ask the author which one he or she wants. When you’re making up names, it’s easy to forget how you spelled it the first time (although a good writer is supposed to keep a list of made-up names and terms to avoid this problem in case his editor isn’t so alert.

(3) I’ve mentioned before that I double-check all hyphenated and potentially hyphenated words for the latest spelling to determine if it’s two words, hyphenated, or one word. Even when I think I know, I still check because there are so many that I can’t remember them all. (Even if I had a photographic memory, I couldn’t keep up because words seem to be changing almost daily.)

Look the following words up in Merriam-Webster online: upside down, right side up, left handed, back yard, trash can, waste basket, shell shock.

You’ll find “upside down” is two words when it’s an adverb but hyphenated as an adjective. You won’t find “right-side up” in Merriam-Webster online dictionary, but you can find it in “dictionary.com.” Note that “trash can” is two words, but “wastebasket” is one word.

I find it interesting that the British equivalent of “trash can” (dustbin) is one word. I wonder how long it will be before “trash can” becomes one word.

How about “shell shock”? It’s two words as a noun, but it’s hyphenated as an adjective whether it precedes a noun or not: He experienced shell shock. He was shell-shocked.

These are enough to push an editor to the brink of insanity. I’d love to believe that all editors are as diligent as I try to be, but experience has taught me that not all are.

Now, let’s play devil’s advocate and test in on several pieces of software. I created the following sentence from the above words and ran it through five pieces of software.

In his back yard after the storm, the devastation from which left him shell shocked, he found an upside down trash can, a right side up waste basket, and a left handed glove, which was of no use to him since he was right handed.

There are 7 errors here, and the correct version is this:

In his backyard after the storm, the devastation from which left him shell-shocked, he found an upside-down trash can, a right-side up wastebasket, and a left-handed glove, which was of no use to him since he was right-handed.

Here are the results from the software tests:

(a) MS WORD— Found no errors.

(b) WORDPERFECT— Caught 2 errors: “left-handed” and “right-handed.”

(c) GRAMMARLY— Caught 4 errors. It missed “backyard” and “right-side up” and wanted to put “to” in front of “shell” (saying it appeared to be an infinitive). For “waste basket” it offered it as one word and a second alternative of putting “a” or “the” in front of it (missing the “a” already in the sentence before the adjective preceding it).

(d) PROWRITINGAID— Caught 5 errors and missed the hyphens in “upside-down” and “right-side up.”

(e) AFTER THE DEADLINE: Caught 3 errors. It put hyphens in “shell-shocked” and “left-handed” and “right-handed.”

Since I wasn’t trying to improve style or eliminate word fluff, I didn’t try another of the other three pieces of software in the review article referenced at the beginning of this post.

Bear in mind that this is a very limited test. Some might call it unfair, but the point is that all of them missed something that any good human editor should have caught.

To summarize the test, none of them caught all of the errors (the most was 5) and all of them missed “right-side up.” In all fairness to the programs (c)–(e), Merriam-Webster doesn’t include that phrase, and the Oxford English Dictionary has it without the hyphens. Therefore, we could consider that hyphenation an option for the writer. That aside, none of the programs caught all of the other 6 errors. When I entered the correct text in Grammarly, interestingly it told me that “right-side up was an error. I’m guessing Grammarly uses Merriam-Webster as its reference source. ProWritingAid, on the other hand, didn’t complain about “right-side up” at all. I’m not sure what to think of that except what other things might it miss?

About the best I can say based on this test aimed at several compound words (one word, hyphenated, or two words) is that between them ProWritingAid and Grammarly caught all of the errors (if we allow “right-side up” as being questionable).

As you can see—going back to the idea that you might use more than one piece of checking software—using multiple pieces of software can get tedious. It can leave you with potential contradictions to check on, and you still have no guarantee of catching everything. If I were hedging, I might be tempted to recommend the free Grammarly add-on to Word as a way to catch more errors than Word does, but you’ll still have to be alert for false errors, and you’ll still need to look up things (which is how you learn).

NOTE: I’ve done other tests on Grammarly and found that it missed things that Word caught and vice-versa. Therefore, Grammarly is NOT better than MS Word, but it may find additional errors when used with Word.

The big caveat is NOT to rely on any of these programs to do a proper or even reasonable editing job. They will catch some errors, but they will likely miss as many as they catch.

Before I leave this topic of other grammar checkers, here’s something I both like and dislike about ProWritingAid. One of its reports it can generate is overused words. I’m on their mailing list (because I signed up for the free version) and I get “tips” from them. The latest mentioned overused words and said that “very” is one of the most overused words in English. What’s amusing is that when I ran this report against a partial of one of my novels, I didn’t include “very” as one of my overused words, yet I used it 18 times in the space of 23,000 words—yet it said I used “maybe” 15 times (and should cut 5), used “knew/know” 123 times (and should cut 69), and used “went” 13 times (but only cut 1).

I’m sure there are reasons for the suggested reductions, but my complaint is that on the surface they don’t all make sense. Since I tend to use a lot of dialogue, cutting some of those words would not make sense if they were in dialogue. As I pointed out in Part 1, such cuts is bad advice to less inexperienced writers who may not understand that some or all of the “overuses” may be necessary to the writing.

However, ProWritingAid did offer “very” as one of its top style suggestions. I counted 16 uses of “very” and suggested I omit them. (It also suggested that I change “like” to “enjoy.”)

Again I will issue the strong warning: Grammar-checking and writing analysis programs can be dangerous for new writers because they can do far more harm than good.

Moving on (before I give myself a heart attack)…

Here’s an interesting piece of trivia for you, another reason I look up stuff when I’m editing:


How many of you incorrectly use “jerry-rigged” in your speech or writing?

You’d think that as long as I’ve been editing for others that I’d have to look things up very rarely. Nope. There are far too many to remember, too many inconsistencies, and too many changes happening in the language to remember or keep track of. I know I said that already, but it bears repeating.

Here’s my last editing tip:

(4) I confess to using one grammar aid besides MS Word’s grammar checker in my editing: WordPerfect. Technically, WordPerfect is another word processor like Word, just with different features. But I don’t use it for my writing. After I have completed editing (my work or someone else’s), I do a pass through the manuscript with WordPerfect’s grammar checker.

WordPerfect looks at more things and different things than does Word, and it has one wonderful feature I’ve seen nowhere else: it checks for mismatched quotation marks.

It’s very easy to leave out a closed quote (or an open quote for that matter). When you’re doing dialogue (and I put a lot of dialogue in my own writing) that has a tag and some non-dialogue lines in the same paragraph, it’s easy to forget one of the quote marks. And missing or extra ones are easy to miss during editing. In every novel-length manuscript I’ve edited, including my own, I’ve always found one or more missing or extra quote marks. And considering how much extra attention it would take to match them up myself, WordPerfect pays for itself in that alone.

But as I said, WordPerfect looks at many more things than does Word. Yes, many times it points out things that aren’t problems. Sometimes what it points out isn’t the problem, but something else in the sentence is. Going through a novel with WordPerfect typically takes me 1-3 hours, mostly ignoring things it flags (some of which can be amusing). Even when I’m editing longer short stories, it will often find some little things I missed.

However, I don’t trust WordPerfect to save the edited document faithfully as a Word document (.doc/.docx). Its conversion is not 100% reliable, and WordPerfect can add additional garbage to the file that I’ve already spent time cleaning up.

Therefore, I look at the manuscript in WordPerfect and Word side by side and make changes to the Word document. It’s a little more work that way, but it ensures no new errors or problems creep in. This method really isn’t much different from the other grammar-checking programs because some of them won’t open and edit a Word file directly either, and the programs where you have to paste the document online make for even more work on your part.

(No, I do not plan to use the free Grammarly add-on to Word because I don’t want to get myself worked up. At least with WordPerfect I understand how it works and what its quirks are.)

In the end there are no shortcuts to editing. You can use one or more of these editing programs as a crutch, but in the end, editing a manuscript and cleaning it up properly is a lot of work. You can learn to do it yourself, or you can hire an experienced person to do it for you.

However you decide to approach editing your work, please don’t take any shortcuts. If you expect your work to sell, it needs to look like you know what you’re doing as an author, no matter who handles your actual editing.


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