Image: Matthew Loffhagen
As we’ve covered before, editing is a difficult job that requires an objective mindset and a detached approach to criticism. It’s a difficult stage of the writing process – the disconcertingly lengthy final stretch that sees many promising projects bite the dust. Consequently, many authors are always on the lookout for tools that will make editing easier. One such tool is ProWritingAid – I touched on it briefly in 6 Great Pieces Of Writing Software You Need To Try, but its enduring popularity and ever-evolving features mean it’s worth a second, more extensive look, especially as many of you have been in touch since asking if it would suit your requirements.
In this review, I’ll be taking a closer look at ProWritingAid; exploring what it does for authors as well as the pros and cons of the user experience. All of that to answer the question – ‘Is ProWritingAid right for me?’
What does ProWritingAid do?
ProWritingAid is an attempt to provide advanced editorial services through software – a style-checker rather than a spellchecker. Able to be used on its own or in conjunction with Microsoft Word, Google Docs, Scrivener or Google Chrome, it provides the sort of information that is usually the purview of editors and beta readers.
Because of this, ProWritingAid themselves advise writers to use the software only after they’ve written at least the first draft of a project. The advice given on sentence structure and word choice is far easier to provide for a whole document, and much easier to implement after – rather than during – the writing process.
We would recommend using ProWritingAid once you have finished your first draft (either of part or whole of the document). It is not a tool you use as you are writing, but one you use after you have written something to improve it… Many professional authors use ProWritingAid before they send their work to their editor. It helps reduce the time and cost needed to edit a book by highlighting a lot of the quick wins allowing your editor to concentrate on more important stylistic and plot issues. While ProWritingAid will never replace a professional editor, it will help improve the quality of the end product.
– ProWritingAid manual
Obviously, ProWritingAid can’t give substantive advice on plot, but it does look at the document as a whole in ways a human can’t. Even the best editor has to approach a document as a linear process; we can only know a phrase is overused once we’ve seen it a few times, but software can look at the entire document in the same instant. This means that it can catch certain issues (reoccurring sentence beginnings, overused phrases, repeated words) quickly, simply and without bias.
ProWritingAid’s advice results from statistical analysis, machine learning, and our proprietary algorithms. ProWritingAid helps you spot the things that are difficult for a human to spot. It can run a statistical analysis on your whole document and quickly identify areas for improvements, something that would take a human copy editor much longer to do.
– ProWritingAid manual
For example, a human reader experiences the first use of a phrase as ‘new’, but the second or third as repetition. Because of this, they’re more likely to excise later uses as being ‘surplus’, even if a later use is actually more effective than the original. This can be done without thinking – a quick tap of ‘delete’ when we realize that we’ve repeated ourselves – but ProWritingAid has no such biases. By definition, it takes the long view, and that can provide unique, helpful feedback that you wouldn’t otherwise have received.
In practical terms, ProWritingAid’s advice takes the usual form of suggested changes that you can approve or reject. Despite that, ProWritingAid is deliberately devoid of an ‘accept all’ button. Its advice is less objective than you’ll find in simpler, less comprehensive editing software, and user judgement is a key facet to making use of its findings. ProWritingAid isn’t designed with the intention that you’ll do everything it suggests – in fact you’ll generally dismiss more feedback than you accept – but rather that it should suggest every possible improvement and allow you to pick and choose.
That’s how ProWritingAid works on a theoretical level, but what can it do for your work in a practical sense?
ProWritingAid is resplendent with features, and many writers won’t be able to believe their luck when they first open it. You’re able to check your text for clichés, repeating phrases, passages that would cause issues with diction, sentence and paragraph lengths, ‘sticky sentences’, and even style. The style section encompasses the use of passive verbs, adverbs and other elements of readability that are otherwise near impossible to spot in your own writing.
Some of you may be wondering what a ‘sticky sentence’ is. The straight answer is that they’re the sentences that ‘slow your reader down’. Some are necessary, but too many make for a boring read, which is why ProWritingAid also includes a ‘glue index’ that gives you an overview of how individual sticky sentences are affecting your piece as a whole.
This small picture/big picture way of working is typical of ProWritingAid’s approach; individual instances will be flagged, but you’ll also be made aware of their wider context. This is useful for making informed decisions. For example, the software might flag a particular sentence as being sticky. Seeing no real problem, you might have decided to leave it as it is, if not for the fact that your glue index is 12% too high, a fact that means you should change sticky sentences wherever possible.
The sticky sentence search is also a good example of how accommodating ProWritingAid is to users – the program itself offers a brief description of the issue and provides a link to the ProWritingAid site, where a lengthier explanation clues up curious authors. This is an important feature, because even the most hardened grammar geek is going to run up against some advice they don’t quite understand. Explanations are almost always on hand, however, meaning that you’ll seldom be left feeling that you have to implement a change just because you don’t know what’s wrong with it.
ProWritingAid goes out of its way to offer all the feedback it can, and I’m confident in saying that it does just about everything you could expect software to do in terms of editing. That doesn’t mean it’s all you’ll need to finish your book – there are things only a human editor can catch – but it does place ProWritingAid in the upper echelons of editing software. If you’re trying to choose between ProWritingAid and a similar program, rest assured that you won’t lose out on features; personal preference and ease of use should be the tie-breaking concerns.Personal preference and ease of use are vital when choosing editing software.Click To Tweet
ProWritingAid review road test
All of that, however, is dry fact, and it’s important to know how a piece of software works in practice. To that end, I road-tested ProWritingAid using a hastily written stand-in for a first draft and Julio Cortázar’s ‘Axolotl’. Cortázar is generally regarded as a master of the short story, meaning the software would have to dig deep for improvements, and I’d be able to see how the statistical approach fared in regards to a style of writing with a very conscious use of pace and voice.
My chief worry, and something that my first draft test wouldn’t reveal, was that the software might ‘improve’ all pieces of writing towards a single state, sanding off the uniqueness that can make a truly great piece. I should mention, however, that even before the test, it’s something the makers have clearly considered. ProWritingAid can be adjusted for a variety of styles, including ‘creative’, ‘technical’, ‘business’ and ‘web’, and can even be adjusted to accommodate a ‘house’ style.Don’t be afraid to disagree with editing software; odd writing choices often produce great passages.Click To Tweet
This latter feature will be a boon for authors who want to ensure that certain things are consistent across their writing, or with the requests of a publisher. I wrote about how useful style guides can be recently, and here ProWritingAid takes off a lot of the burden of using one. You still have to tell it what to watch out for, but after that, it will remember and apply your decisions whenever you want.
The first draft
ProWritingAid offered up instant improvements for the first-draft prose, catching multiple instances of repetition that would have otherwise needed a sharp eye and unrelenting attention. One of the things that most impressed me was its approach to tricky areas – the software informs you where it has found adverbs, and explains why you might want to cut down, but this is presented more as helpful information than a problem to fix.
The use of red crosses and blue information symbols allows for a differentiation between what the software suggests you change and what it points out could be changed. Likewise, green checks tell you frequently where you’ve done well (for example, where an index is at it should be, or where no repeated sentence starts have been found), a feature which I found surprisingly influential.
Being told where you’ve gone right not only makes flagged issues more palatable, but stops suggested feedback becoming overwhelming. It’s also something that authors can easily use to improve their craft. ProWritingAid is an editing tool rather than a teaching tool, but there’s value to giving an author such intensive feedback on their style – seeing your strengths may influence what you choose to write next.
The provision of checks also helps to make the software feel consistent across different pieces. It’s clear that the same things are being inspected each time. Were just improvements listed, writers would be faced with unexpected criticisms – things they’d never considered until they got it wrong. It’s an unsung necessity of editing software that it should avoid making the writer feel that a piece is irredeemable. ProWritingAid never sends this message but does manage to give you an idea of the relative work involved in improving an individual piece.Editing software shouldn’t make you want to quit, it should show you where to begin the rewrite.Click To Tweet
Another important feature of editing software is that the user has some inkling of when to stop. As I’ve noted before, there’s always something to edit, and authors can lose themselves to the process by making incremental changes that never produce a finished work. There’s always the danger that editing software will encourage this kind of behaviour, able to pick out minor issues for as long as the writer wants to hunt for them.
With this in mind, I thought I’d see what ProWritingAid thought of an excellent piece of writing. The consistency of feedback I mentioned earlier put paid to most of my concerns here – it was clear from the nature and amount of feedback that the software judged ‘Axolotl’ to need far less work than the first-draft prose. There were still many issues flagged, but far fewer, and often in terms of possible, rather than required, editing.
My concerns about the propensity to sand off individuality were less mollified. The software suggested a raft of simplifications (changing ‘immediately’ to ‘at once’ and ‘reveal’ to ‘show’) that misunderstood the voice and style of the piece, and flagged repeated sentence starts that were used with a clear intention. It also flagged adverbs with no real sense of how they were used, offering no differentiation between that which was unnecessary and that which added to the nature of the story – a big ask, but not impossible with modern technology.
One feature which wasn’t relevant to this piece, but which I think is worth mentioning, was that the software flagged adverbs in dialogue separately to those outside it. This differentiation is good news for authors, as it’s often advisable to have characters use adverbs or clichés in a way that usually harms prose. That ProWritingAid can tell the difference means that authors won’t be asked to second-guess character details.
The issues I found with the ‘Axolotl’ test are minor, but something that users should be aware of. Editing software is designed to edit, and it’ll keep trying to do so even when a piece should be finished. Likewise, there’s a uniformity to being ‘correct’ that can work against an author’s voice or the mood of a piece, an ingredient that the user has to bring themselves.
Here’s a free online training session with bestselling author, Jerry Jenkins, where he explains all the writing issues that ProWritingAid helps correct.
Overall, ProWritingAid is an amazing tool for writers. The only caveat I’d apply is that in offering up as much advice as possible, it could be intimidating or disheartening for writers who lack faith in a piece – whether they’re unsure it’s worth continuing or are early on in the drafting process.Build confidence in a piece before using editing software - it’s not designed to hold your hand. Click To Tweet
The ProWritingAid manual suggests using the software only after the first draft, but I’d suggest waiting slightly longer. There are a lot of things that authors can catch on their own, and they should catch those issues before turning the piece over to software. At that point, ProWritingAid is in a better position to offer substantive advice to a user ready to hear it.
This is completely in line with the creators’ intentions. ProWritingAid requires active use, and authors need to be in a place where they feel comfortable receiving feedback as a (well-informed) suggestion.
Whilst you’ll find much of the advice useful, you will need to exercise caution when applying it. As with any advice, you should use your own common sense before taking it… A computer can never hope to capture all of the finer nuances of the English language. There are, however, some things that computers are better at than humans.
– ProWritingAid manual
Also, be aware that ProWritingAid doesn’t work like a spellchecker – the goal isn’t to get a ‘clean sweep’ with no issues raised, and if that’s what you need to consider a piece finished, this may not be the software for you.
Aside from that, ProWritingAid is an amazing tool that will suit many authors. Currently, there’s a gap between what most authors can catch for themselves and how a human editor is best utilized – a lot of fiddly stuff that relies on attention to detail and extensive technical expertise but doesn’t require specific, case-by-case judgement. ProWritingAid slots into that gap perfectly, tackling the bulk of technical feedback, saving authors time and allowing editors to focus on the elements that require a human touch.
What do you think?
That was my ProWritingAid review, a free version of the service is available here, allowing potential users to sample what’s on offer. If my test has piqued your interest, give it a try and let me (and everyone else) know what you thought of it in the comments. What did you love? What did you hate? How does it stack up to the competition? Everyone’s different, so the more voices in this discussion, the better. You can also get a discount code by signing up below.
For more on great writing software, check out 6 Great Pieces Of Writing Software You Need To Try, or to find out what you can do without the help, try 4 Simple Tips To Catch More Errors When Proofreading.