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Beyond Spellcheck: Software Can Help You Polish Your Prose

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Beyond Spellcheck:

Software Can Help You Polish Your Prose

January 2014

by Robert Etheredge

Because small mistakes can make readers distrust and abandon books, it obviously pays to prune misspellings in a finished manuscript with the help of the spellcheck program you already have. But other turnoffs may lurk in the manuscript too—including clichés, jargon, misused words, sexist language, adverbs ending in -ly, long sentences, repetitive words and phrases, and sentences that will be hard to read. It’s important to get rid of them.

That’s the goal of several software programs, including two I created. I examined seven of these programs—AutoCrit, myWordCount and myWriterTools (both mine), ProWritingAid, RightWriter, SmartEdit, and StyleWriter. Two of them, AutoCrit and ProWritingAid, are Websites that analyze pasted documents online, and most of them have additional features beyond the scope of this article.

Here’s how they deal with the eight problems mentioned above.

Clichés. Are clichés always bad? Not necessarily. They have their place, particularly in spoken dialog. But readers may react negatively to them. Remember that definitions of cliché usually include words like “overused” and “lack of original thought.” Run your document through any of these programs and you will get a list of all the clichés found in it. Some of the programs highlight each cliché in the document and some also display the meaning of the highlighted cliché.

SmartEdit lists all the phrases containing clichés in a list below the text. You can double-click on the phrase in the list to highlight it in the document.

Jargon. Jargon as used here includes:

● words or phrases specific to an occupation, geographic location, or group and generally unknown outside that group

● confusing, obscure, pretentious, or overly lengthy words and phrases, such as those that writers of professional or scholarly documents sometimes feel they must include to appear learned

● popular phrases containing redundant words, such as “link together” or “absolutely certain”

Most of these software programs will do the hard work of finding and highlighting words and phrases considered jargon. If a word or phrase fits the first definition above, consider your target audience to determine whether it needs to be changed. Look for programs that not only suggest replacements for jargon but also let you modify their jargon list.

Misused words. Spellcheck won’t help with this one, although many books on writing or editing include lists of words that are often confused with each other. The words may be similar in spelling or pronunciation (e.g., affect vs. effect), or easily mistaken for each other (e.g., disinterested and uninterested). Some pairs have subtle differences in meaning that may require consulting definitions (e.g. sensual and sensuous). And some may have differences that are just hard to remember (think semiweekly and biweekly). These programs can help you find misused words, and two programs, myWriterTools and StyleWriter, let you modify their lists of such words, display definitions, and even replace words with a click of the mouse.

myWriterTools shows a popup dialog that lets you click through all the misused words in your document. You can see both definitions and choose to either replace a word or leave it alone.

Sexist language. Gender-neutral (aka nonsexist) writing is now required by government, businesses, and schools. Even if it isn’t required for your work, you should still incorporate its principles. Being gender-neutral is not always possible, particularly in dialogue, but you should understand the general philosophy and common solutions.

The main goals of gender-neutral writing include:

● Do not use a male pronoun, such as he, with a subject such as everyone or when referring to both males and females.

● Do not use gender-specific terms in connection with jobs. Choose words such as firefighter and staff member rather than fireman and workman, and don’t write as if nurses are always women or jockeys are always men.

● Nonsexist solutions may not come to you at once. Sometimes you can simply remove the offensive word or phrase; sometimes you may have to rewrite a sentence to eliminate the need for it. Three of the programs tested (myWriterTools, StyleWriter, and RightWriter) can find sexist language and even recommend suitable nonsexist replacements, and both myWriterTools and StyleWriter can directly replace offending words.

Adverbs ending in -ly. Not all words ending in -ly are adverbs, but most are, and they tend to weaken sentences. Using a strong verb that doesn’t require an adverb is preferable. Instead of saying, “He ran quickly . . . ,” you might say, “He sprinted. . .” or “He raced. . .”

Once you use a software program to identify and highlight all the -ly adverbs in your document, you can use your imagination (and a good thesaurus) to find strong verb replacements.

Long sentences. Longer sentences are harder to read (see below). But successive sentences of similar lengths are boring, so it’s good to intersperse long, informative sentences with short, snappy ones.

Most of the programs produce histogram bar charts showing sentence length distribution, which will help you see how well you are mixing up sentence lengths. Four of them, AutoCrit, myWordCount, ProWritingAid, and StyleWriter, also produce bar charts showing the length of each sentence. StyleWriter and myWordCount add the ability to click on the chart to jump to any sentence. You may even find some accidental run-on sentences due to improper punctuation.

StyleWriter displays a bar chart of all sentence lengths allowing you to click on any bar to jump to that sentence in the document. It also displays a chart of each sentence’s “bog index,” which is similar to the Flesch-Kinkaid grade level values discussed below.

Repetitive words and phrases. Repeating words or phrases for effect is one thing. Repeating them without noticing is another. If the repeated items are close to each other, your readers will almost certainly notice, with negative effects. Four programs, AutoCrit, myWordCount, ProWritingAid, and SmartEdit, will help you quickly find repetitions; and the best of them, myWordCount and SmartEdit, make it easy to jump to the proper location in your document to make changes.

Sentences that are hard to read. As noted, reading difficulty is related to sentence lengths. Most methods that measure ease of reading use the number of words per sentence and the number of syllables per word to calculate a relative measure of readability. A document with longer sentences and more polysyllabic words will generally be harder to read.

The Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level and Reading Ease values are most commonly used to measure reading difficulty, and if you write for certain markets—government and schools, for example—what you write may need to be rated at a specified grade level. Determining the proper level is a matter of knowing the rules and knowing your audience.

Most of the software programs I examined provide a total grade for an entire document, but myWordCount and StyleWriter provide a grade for each sentence. This is important because it gives you a way to find and fix sentences that hurt your rating.

Two things to keep in mind when using these features:

● Sentences containing only one or two polysyllabic words have high grade-level scores even though the sentences are short. Making the sentences longer and the words shorter will help reduce their effect.

● A document’s grade-level score may not indicate whether the entire work is easy to read. It is just an average. Moby-Dick has a Flesch-Kincaid reading grade level of 10th grade. Sounds good, right? If you analyze this novel with one of these software programs, you will find that 1,948 sentences (out of 10,122) score higher than a 16th grade level. One sentence even scores at 157th grade level, whatever that means.

myWordCount highlights all sentences with a Flesch-Kinkaid score of 10th grade or higher. The bar length indicates the sentence score. Clicking on the bar scrolls to that sentence.

The chart below should help you choose a program for putting the final polish on your work. See the URLs in the Program column for leads to more information.

A Table of Tools

(Note: many of these programs have more features than are listed in this table. See their Websites for more information.)


Robert Etheredge owns MiraVista Press, publisher of Poetry for a Lifetime and of his latest book, The American Challenge. He also writes software, including myWriterTools and myWordCount, for writers, proofreaders, and editors. To learn more: MiraVista.commyWriterTools.com, and bob@miravista.com.

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