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Saturday, 22 June 2013

ProWritingAid, a Review.

When a member of my writers group suggests a writing tool might be useful, I sit up and take notice. When April Taylor sent the group an email about ProWritingAid, I decided to explore. We’re an odd bunch, but all professional published writers with varied experience and we tend to filter out the dross for each other.

ProWritingAid is a text editing suite. A trial version allows a writer to paste text into the program and obtain an analysis. It’s a useful introduction to the application, but doesn’t give a comprehensive understanding of the wide variety of tools on offer.

I rarely write articles, other than the posts I place here or as a guest on other blogs, so some of the features are of less use to me. Fiction doesn’t require the rigid guidelines that often apply to reports and corporate writing. However, if you write such matter, you’ll find you can set house rules and the analysis will show where these have been broken.

For my fiction, I’ve used a number of methods for editing my text to produce a level of competence that I can present to readers with confidence. I still use that multi-layered system but I now employ ProWritingAid as the penultimate tool. My wife, hawk-eyed, reliable and honest, makes the final check. Since I’ve employed this editing tool, she’s found very little, and that’s been mostly opinion rather than grammatical or syntactical queries.

So, how does the tool work? You paste a copy of your text into the box on screen, press ‘Analyse’ and wait a few moments for the program to scrutinise it. This can take three or four minutes for a piece 5000 words long, depending on the complexity of the language (for this post, it took 17 seconds). Once complete, the result is a series of reports, which detail the findings and suggest changes where necessary. One aspect I enjoy is the praise for being right. Along with the errors, the notes show where the writer has avoided them and gives a brief note of approval.

The following list of reports shows the depth of analysis:
Summary – just that; a listing of all errors found.
Overused words – frequency of commonly overused words.
Sentence variation – gives a visual representation of sentence lengths and highlights long sentences.
Grammar – a check on grammatical accuracy.
Writing style – checks for passive and hidden verbs.
Sticky sentences – finds those sentences that contain any of the 200 most used words: these sentences can slow the reader down.
Clichés & redundancies – highlights clichés and expressions that say the same thing twice.
Repeated words & phrases – highlights repetition of words and 2, 3 and 4 word phrases within short stretches of writing to give an opportunity to introduce variety.
Corporate wording – shows ‘jargon’ usage, which you may or may not wish to avoid.
NLP Predicates – I had to look this up – Neurolinguistic Programming relates to how we express ourselves and use language to express feeling, amongst other things. For more info, try this website: 
Pronouns – highlights repeated use of pronouns to start sentences.
Diction – shows possible diction problems and suggests alternatives.
Vague & abstract words – shows those words that lack strength or that might lack specificity.
Complex words – indicates word length by number of syllables – suggests simplification where appropriate.
Alliteration analysis – shows phrases where alliteration may have crept in inadvertently.
Pacing – identifies places where the pace is slowed by introspection, backstory, etc.
Consistency – points out inconsistencies in spelling, hyphenation and capitalisation.
Sentiment – shows where sentiment might vary suddenly from positive to negative, etc.
House style – allows the user to develop a house style and ensure it remains consistent through the piece.
Time – allows the user to check for consistency in the usage of time references.
Dialogue – finds those rogue dialogue tags that you might want to avoid.
Homonyms – checks for those words that sound alike and therefore may have slipped through your spell check.

I’ve avoided giving examples in the list above, as it would have made the post too long. I hope most serious writers will be sufficiently aware of the content to understand the context. I’d advise those who aren’t to invest in a couple of good grammar books, as an understanding of language is an essential prerequisite for a professional writer. In the same way that you’d be unlikely to employ a plumber who lacks a knowledge of his trade, you shouldn’t expect a reader to struggle through work that displays no understanding of the tools of the trade: words.

Using this program as my penultimate editing tool has helped me enormously. I can’t honestly say it’s speeded up the process, because it hasn’t! But it’s made it much more thorough and I feel far more confident about sending my words out there into the reading world.

There are a few niggles, which you need to know. If you use a PC with MS Word, you can download an application that will allow you to make changes within Word. But if you use a Mac, like me, you can’t yet do that (they are, apparently, working on a fix.) I haven’t found a way of preserving the formatting of my text. I paste it in the form of a normal fiction template, which has no line spacing between paragraphs and uses indents. But the copied text, when corrected, is returned as line-spaced paragraphs without indents, and the font is changed. This is easily corrected, of course, but it would be helpful if such changes didn’t occur!

Having discovered that I can email the reports to myself as a .pdf document, I now use this and place the MS document on the left of the screen and the .pdf reports on the right and make the changes that way. Works a treat, if a little laboriously. 

There is also a visual aid, producing a word cloud, as in the illustration, that gives a graphic impression of the weight of the words you’ve used. Useful in the way that it really draws attention to word usages you might otherwise overlook.

Do I recommend the software? Absolutely. It’s relatively inexpensive at £22.70 ($35.00) per year and it certainly does all I need. If you decide to try it, here’s the link:
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