Many months ago I looked into a range of tools to support writing and came up with several recommendations. One that I recommended was ProWriting Aid. Time has moved on and I am considering more extensive use of such tools for reasons I will outline below. Before I discuss the choices some language needs clearing up. I think the following post: Editing vs. Proofreading: What’s the difference? sets out the definitions well. The post is by Amanda Foley from the oDesk Blog. In terms of Amanda’s definitions I want something to do a mix of editing and proofreading.
This post is rather longer than normal – be warned! I also include some updates based on contact with a couple of the vendors.
After discussing the economics of using tools I will give a description of the ideal package (for me), list the packages I have looked at then discuss why each of them falls short in an important regard.
As an indie author I need to cover every step of production and either do it myself or outsource it. I have no publisher covering all the costs of getting a book to market. Editing my own work is difficult both due to the natural blindness we all have to our own words and various bad habits I have acquired over the years. Hiring an editor is the right way forward except for cost. I single pass through a book of even 15,000 words (and yes that’s a small book) might cost £100 – £250 [$150 – $375] (I have a range of outline quotes). To cover just that cost if I sell on Amazon for £2.50 and get the full 70% on kdp (which doesn’t happen) I would need to sell well in excess of 100 copies to cover my costs. Now it might sell 10 or 1,000 and you can argue I should have faith and invest.
The other choice is magic software. If a good tool is even 25% as good as an editor then it might be worth £50 to invest in and then use over multiple titles. If it is good enough to move your quality to the point where it is acceptable (ie no typos, no inconsistent use of hyphens, sensible range of vocabulary, grammar rules followed) then a budget of £100 isn’t stupid.
It may be that you will need a human editor later but if they quote on a sample you have already worked through a tool they should quote a lower price than if you send a messy first draft.
My perfect tool
My requirements are:
- Cheap within reason and here annual vs one-off costs are interesting. Budget is not unlimited but there are economic considerations as noted in the previous section
- Compatible with MS Word (and others would be a big bonus, such as Scrivener)
- Prefer not to use an online package for performance reasons
- Must handle large files (my metric is >60k words, others might want much higher)
- Suitable for fiction and non-fiction
- No bugs
- After the Deadline / Polish my Writing
- ProWriting Aid
- Stylewriter 4
Since writing this I also discovered, but didn’t evaluate in any detail the following:
These are my notes based on no more than fifteen minutes with each tool / website. I spent much longer on a couple of choices. You would be well advised to try these for yourselves as your needs will be different from mine.
Well worth looking at – this is free and integrates with Word. It offers a bit less than other tools which may not be important. My main comment is that I can’t see how to tune it. For free it is definitely worth evaluating.
After the Deadline / Polish my Writing
This is the tool inside WordPress and is available as a webpage in which you can paste text. I use the WordPress option but didn’t look further as it has no Word integration.
This tool from Serenity Software goes out of its way to blind people with data on its website. The look and feel is a bit old-fashioned and I struggled with the clunky integration with Word. I think there is potential in this software but for me I don’t have the inclination to invest time into working their way.
Update: the authors of the code read this review and got in touch. I tried to repeat the tests but had trouble as their installer didn’t want to re-install a demo. They did point out that their website also includes a detailed comparison of many tools. Even if you discount their offering it makes interesting reading and is here: comparisons.
I do believe there is lot of knowledge built into this but I found the workflow very trying. Even on a few tests I wasn’t happy with the way the product worked. I do believe that it finds many errors. I also tried on a clean build of Word 2013 on a Windows 8.1 machine and had no better experience. It is a shame as a group of skilled, sincere individuals have produced something they care about but are, possibly, unable to invest the time in modernising.
This is a very widely rated package and works on-line only. It is very expensive which put me off evaluating it further.
A relative newcomer I liked this and it integrates well with Word. It is aimed for non-fiction and I would suggest worth keeping an eye on to see how it evolves.
I rated this before in the free version and the subscription version isn’t the dearest. I don’t like the fact that it is web-based though the Word integration is pretty good. It does complain at anything over a few thousand words and takes minutes to analyse even 16,000. It does give back a lot of information. Pricing is one year $35, two years $55, three years $70 and lifetime $120. I suspect that if I go this route I will pay for a year then take stock as to how much I have really used it.
On further examination, they also have a premium plug-in for WordPress also provided if you subscribe.
This is expensive compared to a one year rental of ProWriting Aid coming in at $90, $150 or $190 for various flavours. The payment is a one-off and the product runs off-line. It also runs on files of the order of 75k words. It runs offline so is quite fast. My main complaint is that the features you get for the $190 version over the $150 version don’t work consistently and I have had dozens of crashes. I had a response which suggests try to highlight areas of under 10,000 words. I tried a chapter of less than 3,000 words which still crashed!
It integrates well with word and if it didn’t crash I might consider buying the pro version.
Update: the support team at Stylewriter were very keen to help me with my crashing problem and couldn’t reproduce it at their end on the same files. I struggled to clean my installation (too many demo packages in one week) but when I then had the chance to try on a new laptop with Office 2013 and Windows 8.1 I had the same crashes. In a nutshell, I liked their interface and being off-line and had it worked might well have swallowed the relative cost.
Last up is WhiteSmoke another web-based package with Word integration. It is very expensive – $119 per year for the premium version with Word integration or $299.95 lifetime subscription. Ouch! The so-called demo is just an irritating graphic sequence as well. The front page has a ‘paste your text here’ box. I gave it a few thousand words and it claimed no critical errors (unlike every other package). It then tried to sell me the package without giving me any more information. This is highly rated if you look for reviews so maybe it is just me that it wound up.
When you get to the actual demo / on-line test it allows 10,000 characters and gives a reasonable report though I can’t see how to customise (it likes Oxford commas for example).
A word of caution
[pullquote]after a few hours you might want to give up writing all together[/pullquote]
The whole experience of testing lots of packages with your own work is dispiriting. Each finds a range of points to criticise and they don’t completely overlap with their results. The net result is that after a few hours you might want to give up writing all together. I decided to grab some text from my kindle and try that in a couple of options; I cheered up when a best-seller attracted as much comment as my own work!
You also need to realise that these packages despite the claims of artificial intelligence and experience will still complain about any number of things that are either not important or a mis-understanding. There may help you eliminate bad habits but should not be a substitute for your own voice.
I’m very keen to hear of other people’s experience – please get in touch.