In this snippet of overheard conversation, the Mentor runs the Student Writer through the process of using ProWritingAid, one of many editing software programs available on the market. As with all these programs, the Student Writer finds the process tedious and repetitive, but the Mentor draws his attention to how much his writing will be improved by the end of the process. Let’s listen as the Mentor starts off…
…okay. You’re going to try ProWritingAid. Let’s upload the first chapter of the Great Canadian Novel and see what the computer has to say about it.
I’ve done a pretty thorough edit. I doubt if it will find much wrong. What do I do?
You’ve already created an account and a password. You’re logged in. Now we go to the top menu and select “Editing Tool.”
You’re in the Editing Tool, and you want to cut your chapter from your manuscript and paste it into the program. You could use the “Document” button to add a “New” document, but it’s quicker to just click once on the blank space below “Go Premium” and paste your chapter there. What’s “Go Premium?” Let me guess. This is the expanded part that you pay for.
Exactly. The vendors are hoping that you like the free program so much you’re willing to pay for more. I think this is enough for now. Let’s Paste it in.
Okay. Here goes… Hey, it worked!
Hey, what’s this? It’s exactly what it says. Free users can only upload 3000 words at a time. You have the choice of cutting off 598 words or dividing the chapter in half and doing it in two sections.
Or signing up for Premium?
That’s right. Then you can upload your whole novel, integrate directly with MS Word, and a bunch of other stuff. More convenient, but it’s cheaper at the start to just write short chapters.
Since I’m not sold on this whole deal yet, let’s just chop a hunk off the bottom and get this over with.
Fine. Do a simple Select and Delete. Now hit “Analyze” again, and away we go.
Like I said, I doubt if it will find much wrong. I’m pretty good at editing…Hey, what? Overused words, 4 issues, writing style 8 issues, Sticky Sentences 29? What in heck is a sticky sentence. I’d like to stick their sentences…
…we’ll get to sticky sentences later. Let’s start at the shallow end. For the moment, click on “Writing Style Check” in the left-hand vertical menu. Looks like your main problem is adverbs. No surprise. Here, let’s look at this one.
You’ve used “meaningfully” and “suddenly” in the same sentence.
And I meant to. What’s wrong with that?
Well, adverbs are a real bone of contention with writers. There is no specific rule, but you have to remember that if you use too many, some people will be bothered by them, and some people will take it as a sign of bad writing. So you try to minimize your use.
For example, I think that “meaningfully” is reasonable. I can’t think of a better verb than “fell” in this case, and the adverb does add to the meaning. However, a lot of beginning writers overuse “suddenly” because they think it adds tension to their story, so you have to be very careful about using it. If you took it out, what would change?
Well, nothing much.
Then take it out.
How do I do that?
You can’t change it on this screen. That’s a disadvantage of the free program. Look for the “My Text” button at the top of the left-hand vertical menu, go back to your text, find the spot and change it. When you’re finished the whole passage, you copy and paste the edited section back into your manuscript. It’s pretty unwieldy. That’s the advantage of working on a desktop computer with a big screen. I have my MS and Pro Writing Aid both open at the same time, and I switch back and forth.
It’s great that the program gave an explanation for my supposed mistake. But why did it give the same one twice?
It’s only a computer. You’ll be pretty tired of the “Use adverbs sparingly…” line after a few days of this. Soon you’ll start using adverbs sparingly in your writing, if only to avoid the reminder. Which is the main idea.
Okay, okay, I get it. Wait a minute. You said “days?”
That’s right. It will take you several days to do a complete edit of your novel. And it will be worth it.
(Sigh) I suppose. (Fake Enthusiasm) What wonderful fun do we go to next?
If we were doing a real edit, you would look at every one of these and make a decision whether to change your MS or not. Since this is only a trial run, let’s look at something else. Just go to the left-hand vertical menu and click on the area you want. How about “Sticky Sentences?”
What’s a ‘Sticky Sentence?’ I never heard that in grammar class.
I suspect it’s someone coining a term they hope will be picked up. If you look at the sentences the program selects, they all have a lot of words in them. Just check one over to see if you can shorten it in any way.
Look at this one. My sentence reads, “Hey! Don’t let that ugly thing in here!” Do you see anything wrong with that?”
Then why are they jumping all over me about it?
These people have listed about 200 common words often used unnecessarily. So the computer compares that list to every sentence. Your sentence has 6 in it. See, they list them. “do, let, that, thing, in, here.” There are only 9 words in the sentence. So it’s a sticky sentence.”
But I like it. I don’t want to change it.
Then don’t. The computer is only making suggestions. You make the choice every time.
How about this one? “And you don’t see that there is any chance that the situation will change?” What’s wrong with that?
Well, the program suggests, “And you don’t see any chance the situation will change?”
Wait a minute. I can do even better. “And you don’t see the situation might change?”
How about, “And you don’t see a chance for change?”
Hey, not bad. Fourteen words down to eight!
There you go. This program teaches you to be a better writer.
I see. Yeah. Let’s go on. “He waited for her to continue.” What’s wrong with that?
Nothing. I’d ignore that one.
There seems to be a lot of ignoring in this process.
There is. But that means there’s a lot of making choices.
I like that.
And one other thing.
Always. I check every sticky sentence, because often sentences the computer picks up are awkward for some other reason, usually because they’re too wordy. It brings the potential problems to my attention. I don’t try to make them “less sticky.” I make sure they say exactly what they are supposed to, with a minimum of words.
Let’s move on to “Grammar.” Besides grammar “mistakes” that you may or may not want to change, it picks up punctuation and spelling errors, open quotation marks, and a lot of crucial proofreading errors.
All right. Hmm. “This sequence of punctuation is unusual. Maybe consider revising it.” Say, that’s the first polite sentence this thing has used.
Well, the program was created by computer programmers. People skills are not their top priority. Check that sentence over and make up your mind.
Okay, here we go.
At this point we relieve the reader from experiencing a long and painstaking process, only picking up the conversation for interesting tidbits. Like…
…but I keep going over the same problems time after time. Even after I’ve corrected them, they show up in another classification.
If that bothers you, you could re-copy the amended chapter half way through and paste the corrected copy back in and analyze that.
That takes extra time.
But you wouldn’t be seeing the old errors.
I suppose. You know, every solution you give me makes it harder.
Don’t be a wimp. You want to learn to edit? Practise…
…but there’s nothing wrong with that sentence!
Correct. But until the computer told you to check, you could have been wrong. Now you’re sure you made the right decision.
I think I like Grammarly better. It doesn’t tell me all this stupid stuff.
Grammarly is great, but it only checks your grammar, not your writing style. Of course, it will pick up a few things Pro Writing Aid doesn’t. The difference between “beside” and “besides,” for example. So if you really want a good job, you should probably use both.
No, no, that’s okay.
Are you beginning to see the advantages of a real, live editor? By the way, you know this program doesn’t replace a real, live editor.
Hey, even I can figure that out. It’s much too dumb.
(Aside) Well, I don’t know. Some editors I’ve worked with…
…you know, I don’t mind editing. I even enjoy it sometimes. But this has got to be the most boring, frustrating, job I have ever done on a book.
Good motivation to learn to write properly in the first place.
Because when you’re really confident, you don’t have to do a complete scan. You just ask the program to check the areas you know you need help. Everyone should do a “Repeat Words” check.
I can do that?
Why didn’t you tell me?
Because you’re not a good enough writer yet.
So back to the grindstone with your little nose. That’s one chapter finished. Only 50 to go. Does the Great Canadian Novel have to be 51 chapters long?
I’m beginning to wonder…
…by the way, what is the difference between “beside” and “besides?”
I’m your mentor, not your kindergarten teacher. Look it up.
You don’t know either, do you?
Actually, Grammarly caught me on that one, so now I know. But I’m not telling. If you do it yourself…
…you learn it better. I know, I know…
And so we leave our Mentor and Student Writer merrily (or not, as the case may be) continuing with the never-ending task of becoming better writers. Believe me, the Mentor is learning, too. He doesn’t put up with all this whining out of the goodness of his heart, you know.