Wednesday, 30 March 2016

Analysis Tools For Writers

Over on the ALLi website you'll find an article where I talk about useful tools for writers. Here's a backup of the article. Oh, and critique groups can be another good way of getting feedback; and the obvious one of using a real editor.

Intuition and human experience combine in successful writing and editing. However, just as chess software can analyse thousands of options per second, software can also analyse thousands of words quicker and more consistently than a human. We want our books to be as good as they can be, so the canny writer makes use of  whatever tools work for them to create a bibliographic arsenal.

  • First draft banged out while in the flow of the story: just make up details, leave errors in – it's best to keep going and stay within the fictional world for as long as possible.
  • Edit, rewrite, edit. Use software tools (next section) to help with the rewriting – they help me spot common errors I make, and fix them myself – issues such as word repetition, redundancy, consistency. And in that process I learn to avoid making those errors in the future.
  • Read the work aloud (at least the dialogue), or get software/Kindle to do it for me. Fix awkward phrasing.
  • Once it's all done I then run it past editors, beta readers, proofreaders, or whoever else provides the vital human input.
During a discussion with some other writers recently I found out that they didn't know writing analysis tools existed, so here’s a summary of the ones I’m aware of.


Free! 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). The main things EditMinion points out are: adverbs to consider removing; weak words: homonyms; prepositions at the end of a sentence; passive voice; clichés.

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 phrases with simpler alternatives.

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.

The full version requires an account and subscription fee. You can get an idea of what it does without paying, or even ask them to set you up with a free trial. 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 clichés, your most commonly used or repeated words and phrases, plus my personal favourite report: unnecessary filler words.

Another subscription tool, though not expensive – a lifetime subscription to ProWritingAid is only $120 (c. £83) which is less than a year's subscription to AutoCrit. Again, you can request a trial and get a good idea of what it does that way. It gives in-depth reports on over-used words, sentence length, grammar issues, vague or abstract words and so on.

A paid tool. This tool 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. I like the fact that it ran in my word processor with its own tab, so no need to upload and analyse documents online, though installing WordRake was problematic on my PC. I only used about a quarter of the suggestions WordRake made, but they were good ones.

I haven't tried this but some writers are fans. Supposedly like an upgrade to Word’s grammar checker.

Tools are not a cure-all, and amongst the useful suggestions there will be many false positives. Tools are also not a replacement for the human touch. However, they invariably provide some useful insight. Why not try some of them out on your current or past works and see what they flag up? As indie authors it's easy for us to edit and upload improved versions of our books at any time.

  • If the tool is a paid one, think about possible usage patterns. For example, because of the cost of AutoCrit I don’t plan on having a permanent subscription, but whenever I finish a new book I’ll probably subscribe for a month and run my text through it. That’s the most cost-effective way for me.
  • Make use of the free trials that are available, and see if they make any suggestions on your work that are useful. We learn from many sources as we grow as writers.
  • Over time I’d predict that these tools would find fewer errors in your work, since you'd have learnt from issues flagged up in the past. Another reason to think about usage patterns when considering a subscription – as years go by you might find less and less use for some of these if you are a reflective writer.
  • Even the free triaIs were useful: I made a note of repeated errors on my part in my revision checklist document. I can then check for some of those myself in future without an external tool (or in conjunction with CTRL-F in Word).
  • 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.


Karl Drinkwater said...

I'd just like to re-state: none of these will replace substantive/story editing. Nor will any of replace copyediting, they just help as a final check - but as an extra check that won't necessarily save time, it will increase it. What it does is help make sure fewer things get missed.

Molly Cutpurse said...

It will forever be a mystery to me why I am able to see errors on a printed page where I cannot find them on a screen!

Karl Drinkwater said...

Good tip!

Sue Hart said...

This is a huge help to me. I often read by words and this points them out. Edit Minion was my favorite. Thank you for sharing this.

Karl Drinkwater said...

Glad to hear it Sue! Yes, Editminion's a lovely tool.