Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Pro Writing Aid: A Reflection

Everybody’s been there: you spend long hours working on a new chapter of your novel, finish it, and let it rest for a couple days. When you go back, you spend even longer hours revising, correcting punctuation and eyeballing every single sentence in search of typos. You finally finish. It’s perfect. It’s you.

That is, until the people in your critiquing group gets their hands on it. Then the ugly errors you missed bob to the surface: that missing quotation mark, “their” instead of “there”, even though you know the rules—and how the heck did you manage to repeat “door” three times in the same sentence?

But I read it a million times! You yell as you bash your fists against the keyboard.

Bingo! That might just be the problem: a quirky little phenomenon I’ll call writer’s saturation, a combination of exhaustion and boredom caused by reading the same lines over and over. Its main side effect: not noticing errors that are waggling their fingers and sticking their tongues out at you.

Luckily, there are several tools which can help catch your mistakes before sending the manuscript off for others to see. Thanks to Kelly Walker, a fellow member of Critique Circle, I recently discovered an online tool with great potential.

Pro Writing Aid

Pro Writing Aid isn’t the only manuscript editing tool you will find online. There are several other sites which offer manuscript editing such as Grammarly, Master Edit, StyleWriter or Autocrit. All of these, however, charge a monthly or yearly fee, with the exception of Master Edit, which charges a one-time fee of $30. But still, that’s $30 you have to pull out of your pocket, and are these sites really worth the money only to have a computer go over your work? I mean, will a computer really understand what you mean?

My belief is that they can only go so far. The best way to make sure your text is outstanding is to work on it, have critiquers and beta readers check it and, if possible, have it edited by a professional. However, during the first stages of revision, when you’re sitting all alone in front of a cold, glaring screen, an online editing tool can still be helpful—if used correctly. And here is where my reflection begins. What’s so cool about Pro Writing Aid?

First of all, it's absolutely FREE. Secondly, you don't need to sign up or register, so you can start using it right away. Simply paste the text in the box and click Analyze. The wizard focuses on these seventeen points:

Overused words
Sentence variation
Sticky sentences
Clichés and redundancies
Repeated words and phrases
Phrases summary
Vague and abstract words
Complex words
Alliteration analysis

Apart from the general analysis, you can also click on the Grammar button to have the wizard review your grammar.

Once Pro Writing Aid has analyzed your text, it shows you an Analysis summary. Here’s an example of the wizard’s results.

On the blue left-hand menu, you can navigate through all the different issues and see each one in detail.

For example, I think the Repeated Words and Phrases analysis is absolutely priceless! Just this simple tool is what makes me come back to Pro Writing Aid day after day. Here is an example from the chapter I was editing earlier this morning. As you can see, the Repeated Words and Phrases option highlights words and phrases which appear more than once in short spans of text.

Sometimes the repetition is intentional, as it is with the word “stars”. It’s a part of my style and I choose to keep it because I want to emphasize the main character’s awe at what’s happening around him.

However, other times the repetitions are a result of bad writing, not paying enough attention, or simple writer’s saturation. Until the wizard pointed it out, I hadn’t realized I repeated “swayed” twice in the same paragraph. The moment I saw the highlighted words, I remembered I had just added that last sentence during my revision, and in my haste hadn’t checked the rest of the paragraph for redundancies. So Pro Writing Aid really slapped me on the wrist for that one.

Another great option is Phrases summary, where you can see a list of frequent phrases made up of two, three or more words. This comes in handy to see if you’re repeating yourself too much all across the text. For example, imagine that in a short chapter you wrote “he looked at” ten or eleven times. Depending on what the text is about (let’s say the heroes are debating how to raid a castle), you might want to consider using a different action or a more specific word.

So Pro Writing Aid can really serve a purpose, though you will also see that the wizard isn’t always right. Take a gander at the following example:

Here, the wizard identified “over the hills” as the cliché “over the hill”. One glance at context shows us it is wrong. The same happens with the redundancy “retreat (back)”. The words appear close together in the text, but are not even part of the same clause.

Another questionable aspect of Pro Writing Aid is the Alliteration analysis. I think the team behind the program will eventually fix this option, but right now it seems that the wizard only checks for alliteration using the first letter of words. Thus, it highlights false alliterations such as “she straightened” and “cry chilled”.

Fortunately, the wizard doesn’t go beyond highlighting words and sometimes offering suggestions, and it shows the results of its analysis in context for almost all of the options. For me, that is one of the most important highlights of this tool: it signals out possible issues and then hands the power over to you, the writer.

This brings me to the final point I would like to emphasize before closing up for the day:

Using your noggin

When writing and revising, don't forget to use your good judgment. Automatic editing tools like Pro Writing Aid can be great. They can help us see what slipped by us just because we looked too hard, but they cannot substitute a human brain. The program merely highlights possible issues so you can go to your manuscript and make the changes you deem necessary.

That’s important: you have to decide which changes are necessary.

A common problem in unconfident or inexperienced writers is that they follow every single suggestion made on their work. These suggestions can come from fellow members of a writing group, or even from a computer program. However, this can be risky since, as we have seen above, computers make mistakes! Humans are also prone to mistakes, and I am sure almost everybody who has ever joined a writing group has come across someone who prefers to repeat well-known "rules” (“avoid all passives”, “erase said bookisms”, “get rid of –ly adverbs”…) instead of enjoying the writer’s personal style.

So it's up to you, as a writer, to know where to draw the line. It’s your story, after all.

So use your noggin. Jog that gray matter and make educated decisions on how to edit your manuscript. Each writer should have enough confidence in herself to trust her good judgment on her work. Pro Writing Aid is exactly what it calls itself: an aid for writers. It's not the authoritative writing solution. It's not a gun to your head. It's simply a tool which, used wisely, can help improve your stories.

If you feel you’re really in the dark when it comes to grammar, punctuation or style, study. There are dozens of great books and websites out there which will help you boost your writing skills. Seek help. Ask questions.

Have confidence in your own voice, in your own style. Stay true to your story and your characters. It might not please everybody, but it sure has to please you.

So what do you think? Are automatic editing tools such as Pro Writing Aid useful, or useless? Have you ever felt overwhelmed by suggestions on your work? Leave a comment and tell me all about it!

Mentioned links

Kelly Walker Writes - Kelly Walker


  1. I haven't used this kind of tool yet, but your post was really informative :)

  2. Excellent post thanks for the information, very useful. As you say Pro Writing Aid is much better value (i.e. free) than the others.

  3. Is it useful to use pro writing aid to edit academic writing?

    1. I have been using it so far and quite happy with it. English is my second language and I have been learning a bit from it!

  4. This comment has been removed by the author.

  5. Hi Nadine. A great post - I'm also a big fan of the free online Pro Writing Aid tool, use it regularly, and would have to seriously think about buying it if it wasn't free! You've highlighted the advantages, and how to use it, in a clear helpful way.

    (Deleted the previous comment as I found an error!!!)

  6. I just added Pro Writing Aid to my Google Docs as one of their add ons. The very first thing I tried to use it for required a paid subscription. A simple check for overused words required a payment. Needless to say, I quickly removed it, gave it the lowest review possible, and am now scouring the internet finding various places to continue doing just that. I absolutely loathe the tactic of letting you download it for free, then having one function before being required to pay. Either what they advertise is free, or it is not, simple as that. I have a small list of companies that I will make it a point to never do business with, and they just made it.

    1. That's a shame, Bill! This post is from 2012, so I'm guess Pro Writing Aid must have changed their policies since then. The version I used was all online--on their website. I never downloaded any add ons. I can totally understand your frustration: if it's free, then it's supposed to be FREE.

    2. It was free then, but the overuse dramatically slowed their servers. I guess they revised their offer. You still have free use but limited by word count and options. I've used all the above mentioned software...I bought PWA and think I've gotten a good deal based on its performance. As far as bait and switch I abhor such tactics, shame if they did that.

    3. This comment has been removed by the author.

    4. It is both free and paid. The download page clearly states, that is the paid version. Perhaps Bill's complaint prompted the addition.

    5. To stay in business, surely Pro Writing Aid will need to charge for some of their services?

  7. Thank you so much for this information. As a first time writer, I really needed to read this!

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