Monday, September 24, 2012

Want Help With Editing? Try Free Editing Programs


Are you sick of hearing about sock puppets? Do you want to shut the world out, march into your writing cave and scribble like a madperson? I do! But when you emerge, pale and blinded by the light, you will have to decide: How are you going to edit all the glorious content you've created?

If you're anything like me, you understand you must edit your manuscript before you publish but you'll look for ways to reduce the cost. Some editors change less if your manuscript is mostly error free, so eliminating as many errors as you can before you send it off makes financial sense.

Apart from the cost, it's always nice to get your manuscript into the best possible shape before you send it out to readers. Which brings to mind something acutely embarrassing that happened to me last week: I emailed a short story to my critique group and only later--much later--noticed I'd sent them a first draft as opposed to the nearly final draft I'd intended to send! Although they were gracious, I still feel like I'd walked to the grocery story naked. Yes, that's a little off-topic, but I guess part of the reason for this post is I've resolved to make everything I send out as good as I can make it.

What's the solution? Editing programs! Preferably free editing programs.

What follows comes from a blog post of Virginia Ripple: Paid and Free Editing Software For Manuscripts. Here are the three programs Virginia uses: EditMinion, Pro Writing Aid, ClicheCleaner. She writes:
I use EditMinion first because it highlights adverbs, weak words, said replacements, sentences ending prepositions and passive voice in different colors. It wasn’t until I ran my first couple scenes through this free editing software that I realized I was in love with adverbs and had a real problem with passive voice.

Next I use Pro Writing Aid. This free editing software catches things like sticky sentences (sentences with too many glue words), vague and abstract words, overused words, repeated words and phrases, complex words and pacing. Like passive voice, I have a real fondness for sticky sentences, and this program finds those with ease.

Last of all, I use ClicheCleaner. It’s great for finding cliches and redundancies. You can download a free demo version that lets you scan up to 20 documents before needing to pay $12.95 to do any more. I downloaded ClicheCleaner because I always thought I had issues with using too many cliches. After using this free editing software, I was surprised to find I don’t have a big problem after all. Of course, even one can be too many.
I put the first three paragraphs of this post through EditMinion and Pro Writing Aid [1] and feel it did help. But, for me, that's not the real test of an editing program. I want to see what the program has to say about the prose of a writer I admire. I want to see what the program says about those paragraphs I read and I think, "I wish I could write like that!" THOSE are the kind of paragraphs I use to test editing programs.

Stephen King, On Writing
From the time I read his first book I've loved Stephen King's writing, so it's natural--or at least predicable--that I came to regard On Writing as something of a bible. How better than to test the editing program with Stephen King's prose? As you can see, I've also included Jim Butcher's work. I did this because if any editing program tells me that man can't tell a good story, then the program has spaghetti for circuits and is getting the old heave ho.

This is from page 153 of Stephen King's, On Writing:
Once I start work on a project, I don’t stop and I don’t slow down unless I absolutely have to. If I don’t write every day, the characters begin to stale off in my mind—they begin to seem like characters instead of real people. The tale’s narrative cutting edge starts to rust and I begin to lose my hold on the story’s plot and pace. Worst of all, the excitement of spinning something new begins to fade. The work starts to feel like work, and for most writers that is the smooch of death. Writing is at its best—always, always, always—when it is a kind of inspired play for the writer. I can write in cold blood if I have to, but I like it best when it’s fresh and almost too hot to handle.

I used to tell interviewers that I wrote every day except for Christmas, the Fourth of July, and my birthday. That was a lie. I told them that because if you agree to an interview you have to say something, and it plays better if it’s something at least half-clever. Also, I didn’t want to sound like a workaholic dweeb (just a workaholic, I guess). The truth is that when I’m writing, I write every day, workaholic dweeb or not. That includes Christmas, the Fourth, and my birthday (at my age you try to ignore your goddam birthday anyway). And when I’m not working, I’m not working at all, although during those periods of full stop I usually feel at loose ends with myself and have trouble sleeping. For me, not working is the real work. When I’m writing, it’s all the playground, and the worst three hours I ever spent there were still pretty damned good.
I'm only going to focus on two reports: The Overused Words Report and the Adverbs/Passive Report. For the following I use Pro Writing Aid. (I'm only using one editing program because, for me, the question isn't whether one program is better than another, it is whether any editing program is very good, and I think Pro Writing Aid is one of the better ones.)

Overused Words, Stephen King, On Writing:
Overused WordsFoundSuggestion
could0Awesome
feel/feeling/felt2Remove about 1 occurence
generic descriptions0Well done
had0Nice work
have4Remove about 2 occurences
hear/heard0Perfect
initial -ing1Very good
it/there7Remove about 3 occurences
just/then1Just right
knew/know0Excellent
initial conjunction0Way To go
look0Great work
-ly adverb2Nice job
maybe0Awesome
see/saw0Well done
smell/taste0Nice work
that6Remove about 4 occurences
was/were2Perfect
watch/notice/observe0Very good

 Adverbs/Passive Report, Stephen King, On Writing:
 I can't copy and paste the text, but no passive constructions were found and two adverbs were listed:
- Absolutely
- Usually

Jim Butcher, Small Favor
Pick any of Jim Butcher's Dresden books and, if you like urban fantasy with witty characters, then you'll end up becoming a fan of the series. Really. Try it. (If you want to read the series, start with the first book, Storm Front.)

The following are the first few paragraphs from Small Favor:
Winter came early that year; it should have been a tip-off.

A snowball soared through the evening air and smacked into my apprentice’s mouth. Since she was muttering a mantra-style chant when it hit her, she wound up with a mouthful of frozen cheer—which may or may not have been more startling for her than for most people, given how many metallic piercings were suddenly in direct contact with the snow.

Molly Carpenter sputtered, spitting snow, and a round of hooting laughter went up from the children gathered around her. Tall, blond, and athletic, dressed in jeans and a heavy winter coat, she looked natural in the snowy setting, her cheeks and nose turning red with the cold.

“Concentration, Molly!” I called. I carefully kept any laughter I might have wanted to indulge in from my voice. “You’ve got to concentrate! Again!”

The children, her younger brothers and sisters, immediately began packing fresh ammunition to hurl at her. The backyard of the Carpenter house was already thoroughly chewed up from an evening of winter warfare, and two low “fortress” walls faced each other across ten yards of open lawn. Molly stood between them, shivering, and gave me an impatient look.

“This can’t possibly be real training,” she said, her voice quavering with cold. “You’re just doing this for your own sick amusement, Harry.”

I beamed at her and accepted a freshly made snowball from little Hope, who had apparently appointed herself my squire. I thanked the small girl gravely, and bounced the snowball on my palm a few times. “Nonsense,” I said. “This is wonderful practice. Did you think you were going to start off bouncing bullets?”

Molly gave me an exasperated look. Then she took a deep breath, bowed her head again, and lifted her left hand, her fingers spread wide. She began muttering again, and I felt the subtle shift of energies moving as she began drawing magic up around her in an almost solid barrier, a shield that rose between her and the incipient missile storm.

“Ready!” I called out. “Aim!”
Overused Words, Jim Butcher, Small Favor:
Overused WordsFoundSuggestion
could0Awesome
feel/feeling/felt1Well done
generic descriptions0Nice work
had1Perfect
have3Remove about 1 occurence
hear/heard0Very good
initial -ing0Just right
it/there2Excellent
just/then1Way To go
knew/know0Great work
initial conjunction0Nice job
look2Remove about 1 occurence
-ly adverb9Remove about 3 occurences
maybe0Awesome
see/saw0Well done
smell/taste0Nice work
that2Perfect
was/were3Very good
watch/notice/observe0Just right

Adverbs/Passive Report, Jim Butcher, Small Favor:
I can't copy and paste this, but there are 9 adverbs:
- early
- suddenly
- carefully
- immediately
- thoroughly
- possibly
- freshly
- apparently
- gravely

The program also mistakenly flagged the name "Molly" as an adverb.

Stephenie Meyer, Twilight
I was going to stop there. Both Stephen King and Jim Butcher are marvelous writers and if any editing program says otherwise, it's not an editing program I want to use. So far I like what I've seen.

But I couldn't leave it at that. I wanted to see how Pro Writing Aid did with a piece of writing that Stephen King thinks is horrible. Now, Mr. King isn't the kind of guy to read a piece of prose to the world and mock it, dissect it, criticize it, and I don't want to be that kind of person either. That's just being a jerk.

So, before I continue, I want to say that I read Meyer's Twilight series and liked it. Whatever flaws anyone sees in it, it works beautifully and is another brilliant caution against taking what anyone says about good or bad writing, grammar and all the rest of it, too seriously.

The following is from the beginning of Twilight:
Eventually we made it to Charlie's. He still lived in the small, two-bedroom house that he'd bought with my mother in the early days of their marriage. Those were the only kind of days their marriage had — the early ones. There, parked on the street in front of the house that never changed, was my new — well, new to me — truck. It was a faded red color, with big, rounded fenders and a bulbous cab. To my intense surprise, I loved it. I didn't know if it would run, but I could see myself in it. Plus, it was one of those solid iron affairs that never gets damaged — the kind you see at the scene of an accident, paint unscratched, surrounded by the pieces of the foreign car it had destroyed.

"Wow, Dad, I love it! Thanks!" Now my horrific day tomorrow would be just that much less dreadful. I wouldn't be faced with the choice of either walking two miles in the rain to school or accepting a ride in the Chief's cruiser.

"I'm glad you like it," Charlie said gruffly, embarrassed again.

It took only one trip to get all my stuff upstairs. I got the west bedroom that faced out over the front yard. The room was familiar; it had been belonged to me since I was born. The wooden floor, the light blue walls, the peaked ceiling, the yellowed lace curtains around the window — these were all a part of my childhood. The only changes Charlie had ever made were switching the crib for a bed and adding a desk as I grew. The desk now held a secondhand computer, with the phone line for the modem stapled along the floor to the nearest phone jack. This was a stipulation from my mother, so that we could stay in touch easily. The rocking chair from my baby days was still in the corner. There was only one small bathroom at the top of the stairs, which I would have to share with Charlie. I was trying not to dwell too much on that fact.

One of the best things about Charlie is he doesn't hover. He left me alone to unpack and get settled, a feat that would have been altogether impossible for my mother. It was nice to be alone, not to have to smile and look pleased; a relief to stare dejectedly out the window at the sheeting rain and let just a few tears escape. I wasn't in the mood to go on a real crying jag. I would save that for bedtime, when I would have to think about the coming morning.

Forks High School had a frightening total of only three hundred and fifty-seven — now fifty-eight — students; there were more than seven hundred people in my junior class alone back home. All of the kids here had grown up together — their grandparents had been toddlers together.

I would be the new girl from the big city, a curiosity, a freak.
Overused Words, Stephenie Meyer, Twilight
Overused WordsFoundSuggestion
could2Awesome
feel/feeling/felt0Well done
generic descriptions0Nice work
had7Perfect
have4Very good
hear/heard0Just right
initial -ing0Excellent
it/there15Remove about 8 occurences
just/then2Way To go
knew/know1Great work
initial conjunction0Nice job
look1Awesome
-ly adverb11Remove about 2 occurences
maybe0Well done
see/saw2Nice work
smell/taste0Perfect
that9Remove about 5 occurences
was/were15Remove about 7 occurences
watch/notice/observe0Very good

Adverbs/Passive Report, Stephenie Meyer, Twilight:
- Eventually
- Gruffly
- Only
- Easily
- Only
- Dejectedly
- Only 

Passive word phrases
- "was born"

Conclusion
I found it helpful comparing Meyer's work with King's and Butcher's. If I had more time, I would also analyze a passage from her newer book, The Host. My guess is that, like all people who write regularly, Meyer's prose has improved.

I haven't compared my own work to King's or Butcher's yet, but I will, and when I do I'm sure I'll cringe and blush. I do hope, though, that what I write today is better than what I wrote a couple of years ago. I think it is, and I believe reading Stephen King's book, On Writing, and taking it to heart, accounts for much of that improvement.

Other articles you might be interested in:
- Jim Butcher, Harry Dresden and the Dresden Files
- Stephen King's Joyland (June 4, 2013): Cover Art Just Released
- Writing Resources

Notes:
1. ClicheCleaner required me to download software, and cliches were covered by the first two programs, so I didn't use it.

Photo credit: Georges Méliès

14 comments:

  1. You can also turn up your grammar settings in your editor. Also it's helpful to actually look at the little squiggly underlines (I know, I shouldn't forget, but I have before). I just finished my book, which I wrote in Apple Pages, but needed to mail it over to my PC so that I could translate it into HTML via Word. I used the grammar checking of both programs and they found different things. They both also found things that weren't there, so you have to look carefully.

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    1. Thanks Rich, it's true, the grammar checker on my word processing program often goes unused. My experience has been that while MS Word is pretty good when it comes to catching spelling errors, it is wrong more often than it is right when it comes to grammar. I know this might sound like a commercial--they aren't giving me any money, honest!--Pro Writing Aid was one of the better programs I'd used for catching (what I call) bloated sentences.

      Thanks for the comment!

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  2. I just wanted to thank you for pointing out these pieces of software. They will surely help me with my novel!

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  3. Thank you for trying to help other writers....

    To me, few things are more enjoyable than is writing. I enjoy it largely bcause I can engage my creative and immerse myslf in other worlds. The freedom of exprssing myseelf as I see fit is an elixir of the soul. That has much to do with why I am way beyond sick and tired of dealing with critic trolls, style ayatollahs, and the popes of literary orthodoxy. Being leonine to the core and a rebel and a heretic by nature, I would prefer to wander the wilderness of literary obscurity for the remainder of eternity than kowtow to their dictates and write as Hemmingway wrote. Even if I wished to do so, however, it would prove unfeasible. I write in character. Each narrator has his or her own style. The primary two write similarly to my natural style...In my not-so-humble opinion, there is no such thing as a correct style or a wrong style. Writing is highly personal. To dare suggest that somone's style of writing is wrong or bad is tantamount to saying their personality is wrong or bad. Sure it might be. But that is up to God to decide. None of us is wonderful enough to condmn anyone else's personality or writing style...As a litrary lion once told me, there is no accounting for taste. Then there is the old saying "Beauty is in the eye of the beholder." Just because most folks like a particualar style of writing, cinema, art, or TV show does not make that style better than all others or even good. The converse is also true. I write how I write what because I am inspired to do so. If other people dislike it, tough! I will use so-called weak words, adverbs, cliches, passive phrasing, and be redundant if that is what my muses prompt....
    Lastly, I do not have the spare time or energy to perfect and polish my writing excessively. Likewise, I have no funds to pay someone to edit and proofread for me. So, I do the best I can with the time allotted and move on. Too much waits to be written to allow myself to become bogged down in any particular project....

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    1. Hi James, thanks for your comment. I think that much depends on why a person writes. If one writes for self-expression then there really are no other considerations.

      If, however, one writes hoping to sell one's work then there are certain rules of thumb (there are no hard and fast rules, that's for sure!) that I think it helps to keep in mind.

      Writing is hard work, something that is both inborn and learned, every bit as much as being a chef is a combination of skill and leaning.

      At least, that's my view. :)

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  4. I concur, Karen. But I get upset when the ayatollahs and popes of the literary univrse make it sound as if their opinions equal those of gods in all things literature....

    Every story and book that I have ever read needs some improvement. But I usually try to look past the flaws and appreciate them, anyway...To me, the most important aspect of a story or book boils down to this: Does its stream of words flow or become stagnant? I care far less about the makeup of its components unless the writer overuses adverbs and adjectives or writes something that is ridiculous. Cliches do not bother me. Yet I would not reccommend someone use them....

    I do not respect a writer who writes primarily to acheive fame and fortune. Writing is an art that should be pursued for the sake of art--not for profit and glory. Sure, I would love to sell millions of my books. But the chance of becoming famous and wealthy through my writing is a tertiary consideration. The reason why I would love to be succssful (in the worldly sense of that term) is for the influence that I woulld gain. Forgive me for praising my own agenda, but I entertain noble considerations, which I promote through my writing--both prose and expository, as well as prophetic. Even so, I primarily write for the sake of the art--to express myself as I see fit. I constantly do my best to upgrade my writing skills and talents. All of us need to improve as writers and as individuals....

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    1. "Every story and book that I have ever read needs some improvement."

      Agreed! Your comment reminds me of something Tina Fey said in Bossypants: "The show doesn’t go on because it’s ready; it goes on because it’s 11:30.”

      "All of us need to improve as writers and as individuals.... "

      No disagreement there! And I can say from my own experience that my writing has helped me to grow as a person. Some folks write because that's how they put a roof over their head and food in their belly and other folks write for other reasons.

      I think that one of the great things about living in this day and age is that all sorts of different kinds of writers can get their work out there and find an audience.

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  5. Grammarcheck.net is missing on this list, but anyway a solid article!

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  6. I'm sorry, but I consider paying one's bills and feeding one's children a noble goal. There is nothing wrong with making money off writing, James. While I agree that Writing is an art form to be admired and refined, I also feel that every writer should consider the potential income from it.

    Especially if it can be used to support a family. Don't get me wrong, there are dues to pay. Just as a doctor has to intern for a time, writers go through a period of writing and not making a profit. That doesn't mean they should not try to.

    It's been my experience that writers who say it is all about the art form and not the money are the ones who either lack the developed skills or have not had the opportunities other writers with success have had.

    I feel that if a person does not enjoy writing (or reading) that person should not write. On the other hand, if a person is going to write novels, short stories or pretty much anything that others will read, then they have a responsibility to the craft to produce increasingly better work.

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  7. Karen,

    This is one of my favourite articles on proofreading software. I have gone for Pro Writing Aid Premium version (I am not affiliated) partly due to the integration with Word and WordPress.

    I spent a lot of time evaluating options (see my post: http://thecraftofwords.com/2014/07/tools-editing-proofreading/) though didn't try the classic text test that you used.

    Thanks again

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    1. Thanks Tony! And thanks for the link to your article. I too like the Pro Writing Aid software.

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  8. I just want to say that this is wonderful for prose writers, even though our format is very different these tools can check for repetition which can often be an issue, and of course useless words (great when trimming down for the final copy)

    Thank you

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Because of the number of bots leaving spam I had to prevent anonymous posting. My apologies to anyone this inconveniences, I wish I didn't have to do it. I do appreciate each and every comment.