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[Article has now been updated - new version here.]
I sometimes use tools to help me with writing. Or rather, re-writing and editing. I try to get a first draft banged out while in the flow of the story, just making up details, and leaving errors in - it's best to keep on going and try to stay within the fictional world for as long as possible. Then I go back and edit and rewrite (and edit some more). Once it's all done I then run it past your editor, proofreader, or whoever else provides the professional human input. But when revising a first draft prior to another human's intervention I use tools to help me spot common errors I make, and fix them myself. And in that process I learn to avoid making those errors so much in the future.
During a discussion with some other writers recently I found out that they didn't know such tools existed, and I decided it would be a good idea to talk about them a bit here. Finding one that helps point out areas where you are weak can be really good, like having someone looking over your shoulder, and it makes a good precursor to a human editor, fixing some mistakes in advance.
Here you go. Hopefully useful to some of you! They may even help with non-fiction writing too. Paste in part of your report/thesis/essay and see what you think. I tested them with samples from my next work, a short story horror collection (provisionally entitled Dark Harvest).
The first ones are all free and don't require an account.
Paste text into the box, choose which things you want it to report on (I tend to leave it on the defaults), and click "Edit". You'll get a summary analysis, then when you scroll down you'll see your text with some of the words highlighted - hover over them to find out why (the colours should match the summaries at the bottom right of the browser). As with all the tools, have a look at everything that gets flagged up - some will be false positives (e.g. a passive sentence that is fine), but some will be things that are worth considering changing. The main things EditMinion points out are: adverbs to consider removing; weak words: homonyms; prepositions at the end of a sentence; passive voice; clichés (which always runs onto a second line). Overall it is a useful quick tool, especially for free.
Select the sample text, delete it, paste in your own. The tool is live, immediately reporting on what you've pasted or typed. It will point out sentences which are complex and you might want to simplify; and like EditMinion, it will highlight passive voice and adverbs. A nice extra feature is a readability grade, and Hemingway App is also good for flagging up redundant words (phrases with simpler alternatives). As with all these tools you should analyse what the tool is showing and decide if it is an improvement that needs making or if the thing flagged can be ignored. For example, you may want to be writing long and complex sentences, or using a lot of adverbs, for an effect. All these tools also tend to fall down a bit when analysing dialogue in dialect. In those cases I mostly just pay attention to what they say about the surrounding prose.
Online Consistency Checker
As the name suggests, this is purely for consistency - it does not do the checks mentioned in the tools above, so is a useful addition rather than a replacement. Upload a document; download their report. It will flag up things like inconsistent spelling and hyphenation (though again, sometimes it may not be an error e.g. if you hyphenated when it was a compound adjective, but not when they appeared as two words). Like all these tools it is just a list of suggestions of things to consider, which enhance your understanding of good writing along the way.
Below are the paid tools some people use. I've not used any of them properly but am intending to try them out in the near future, possibly via free or trial subscriptions. If any of them wow me (or don't impress me at all) I'll do a follow-up post.
You can paste in a sample and get some feedback, but it is only a small sample, and it also requires entering personal data and answering questions - a black mark (see my tip at the end of this post). All the main features require an account and paying a subscription fee. If you wanted an overview of a work longer than 8,000 words (e.g. to pick up consistency and vocabulary issues in a whole novel) you would need the Professional Subscription at $12 a month ($144 for the year in one go - c.£100 per year, so far from cheap). Full pricing details and features here. AutoCrit will give you summaries and statistics about the work, a visual guide to sentence length, commonly used dialogue tags, how they think your work compares to published fiction on various metrics, passive voice indications, warnings of possible cliches, your most commonly used or repeated words and phrases, plus my personal favourite report: unnecessary filler words. Note that it is a US site, so I was worried that it might give errors regarding UK/US spelling differences, but the AutoCrit staff told me: "We don't look at spelling and grammar, so there is no issue with UK / US Engligh. Our focus is definitely on helping you improve the style, flow, and readability of your novel and we have customization options specifically for fiction writing."
I've only tried the free sample so far (3000 words max, and requires an account even to try it and see what it looks like with the free sample - a black mark). As with AutoCrit there is lots more in the paid version. You get a summary, then more in-depth reports on over-used words, sentence length, grammar issues, vague or abstract words and so on. It's a lot cheaper than AutoCrit - ProWritingAid is $35 (c. £25) per year, and cheaper if you pay for multiple years; a lifetime subscription is only $120 (c. £83) which is less than a year's subscription to AutoCrit. Though something I'd add as a thought here: I'd assume that over time all these tools would find fewer errors, since you'd train yourself to avoid them and write better. Therefore over time you might find less and less use for AutoCrit/ProWritingAid and the like. Just an observation. Note that despite the US prices, this is a UK-based site. I've been in touch with ProWritingAid and they said there shouldn't be any UK/US language issues, whichever country you're in, because "We highlight any inconsistencies in terms of UK vs US spelling in the consistency report." Another good feature is that "Unlike AutoCrit and WordRake, we also offer grammar checking. They only include style checks so you need a separate grammar checker as well."
I haven't tried this at all. I think it can plug into Word and offer a better grammar checker, but this isn't clear from the homepage (which only has big buttons to install it into my browser). I think it requires an account and payment, but again this is not very clear - one place says it is free, another lists monthly pricing.
I had been quite interested in this. A tool that "scrapes" redundant words out, making suggestions for replacements, so you have shorter, tighter, clearer language use. Although not aimed primarily at fiction writers it has obvious uses. It's not cheap - the plugin for Word would be $129 (c. £89) a year, with reductions for subscribing for multiple years. That's quite a lot for a tool that only serves a single purpose. Not a problem for lawyers perhaps, but for a writer who might not use it much it would be prohibitive. I must also add that their demo wouldn't install on either of my PCs. I install hundreds of pieces of software a year and the only problem I have had is with WordRake - presumably because of the DRM it uses (any standard installation would go without a hitch). As regular readers know, I am not a fan of DRM! So the price plus those problems meant my enthusiasm faded away.
That's all for now. I hope you found something useful to help with your writing!
Tip: when signing up for trials, I rarely give a company my email address. The only reason they would require one is to spam you, so in those cases I recommend using something like Guerrilla Mail or 10 Minute Mail (and just use a fake name if the site requests one - people are entitled to their privacy). There are hundreds of temporary email address sites you can use for free.