Friday, 21 September 2012

Editing Software: Pros and Cons



As those of you who read this blog are well aware, I am an avid proponent of writers using editors. Real editors, flesh and blood people, with qualifications and experience in the publishing industry, who can review and edit your work with a human touch and exercise discretion in the way they apply the writing ‘rules’, such as they are, to your work. Editing software is not a replacement for a human editor. 

But that is not to say it doesn’t have its uses, as long as it is used appropriately.

I recently subscribed to the AutoCrit editing wizard, so I’ve had reason to become acquainted with the advantages of the software, and the places where it falls down – and it’s the places where it falls down that mean you still need an editor afterwards. I regard this software as a tool for use during my last set of revisions before the WIP goes to my editor. 

So what is the software good for? I recently did a workshop on the editing process which suggested using extensive checklists for each aspect of the editing process e.g, setting, characterisation, sentence structure, word use etc. I find this a cumbersome process. I can’t possibly remember to look for everything in one checklist on one pass through my manuscript, never mind everything on all the checklists. If I make one pass for each item, I’d be re-reading my 100,000 word WIP forever. 

This approach may be feasible when reviewing a ten page legal document for compliance with a dozen requirements. I don’t find it helpful for editing a 100,000 word fiction novel for dozens of requirements, many of which likely occur on nearly every page. 
I don't know about 5 minutes... it's a bit time-consuming!

Even when I do focus on one requirement, such as overuse of words like was, were, there, is, that etc., I miss some. I know I miss some. I know because I find some of them, but not all, on my next pass, and I sit there wondering how I missed them. 

So the CritMe software is helpful in finding some of (but not all) of these issues. It can’t find characterisation problems, plot holes, or setting problems, but it does:

  • Generate a list of overused and redundant words, like was, were, it, there, that, hear, heard, knew, know etc. and give you an indication of how many of each should be removed;
  • Identify use of clich├ęs – and boy was I surprised to realise how many there were;
  • Identify sentence length to help you find where you’ve fallen into a rhythm that might hypnotise your reader to sleep;
  • Identify repetitious use of pronouns to start sentences so you can mix up your sentence openings;
  • Find repeated phrases – this is useful since most authors have a favourite phrase they knowingly repeat, and this can help you find them, even if the instances of repetition are quite far apart;
  • Find instances of repeated words close together – I was surprised to see I’d repeated the same word in sentences or paragraphs and not noticed;
  • Identify sentences starting with conjunctions or ‘ing’ words;
  • Identify overuse of adverbs.
This helps me to fix some of those problems before it goes to the editor. It won’t fix all of these kinds of problems, and there are other problems it won’t help with at all, but it’s a useful tool when I’m trying to weed out these issues.  

However, there are some drawbacks to the software:

  • It can’t distinguish between dialogue and narration, so it will identify words as overused or inappropriate, when they may be completely natural and fine in a dialogue context;
  • It generates a pacing report, but doesn’t explain, only marks the paragraphs it considers has a problem. I have no idea what to do with this information (such as it is) as I can’t identify the specific issue. This one I’ll leave to my editor;
  • It doesn’t distinguish between unintentional repetition and deliberate repetition to create more impact;
  • It doesn’t suggest alternatives, where an editor often will;
  • It applies rules rigidly, and can’t assess the actual impact on a human reader – only the likely impact based on its rules, which isn’t always accurate.

So while I would recommend this kind of software as a tool to help you in your final revisions, to help you weed out some of these problems, I would strongly urge you not to consider this a replacement for your editor. It’s not. It can’t exercise the discretion and judgement of your editor, and it can’t offer the advice of your editor. It’s a tool only; a kind of complicated checklist to help your limited human eye spot patterns and problems you might otherwise not discern in your own work. 

By all means, make good use of editing software; but make sure it’s good use, and use with caution. 


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5 comments:

Penny Jo Barber-Schwartz said...

I'm an editor that's used AutoCrit for a couple years, It gives me an at-a-glance idea of what the biggest issues are in a manuscript, so I can focus on the biggest problems first. For instance, if it's flagging see, saw, hear, knew, I'm looking for pov filtering. Too much was, were, could have - can alert me to passive voice or passive construction. And if it redlines 'ing' beginnings, you can bet I'm finding present participle errors & dangling modifiers. If the LY count is high, odds are there's plenty of non-LY adverbs and adjectives that need replaced with stronger verbs and nouns. It's a great tool, but it does need a human to know *if* & *why* those words are an issue and what to do about them.
Those green blocks in the pacing tab may not be a problem. You should have some slower pacing scattered in. If there are a lot, or huge chunks, look for back story and info dumps to break up.
I love the statistics and difficult word/sentence reports. No need to dumb up your writing, but making sure it's accessible to your audience is a good thing.

Ciara Ballintyne said...

I can tell you're an editor just by the way you talk about the reports LOL. The issues you've identified I know to look for, but not in those terms. It is at least gratifying to know an editor finds the software useful too! All tools, I think, need a human to use them appropriately. Thanks for the heads up on the pacing report too! There aren't many green blocks - a half dozen or so short ones (single paragraphs) per chapter (8000 words or so), so perhaps it isn't an issue.

Natalie said...

I tried two different software demos. The second one I love and it has made me think a lot more about my style. I never realised before just how many glue words I was using. As long as you remember they can not replace a human being, I think they are a great tool.

Ciara Ballintyne said...

The key is definitely remembering it can't replace a human being.

chnlovegirls said...

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