The number 84.73 popped up inside a red circle. Not bad. But I could do better.
I whipped open my manuscript, already familiar with my most common writing pitfalls, thanks, in part, to a new editing software I decided to try out: AutoCrit. (No, don’t worry, this is not a marketing spiel for the editing program, merely a good example.)
There is a distinct pattern in my AutoCrit assessment, which breaks down writing into categories and provides a numerical evaluation. For pacing and strong writing, I generally score well. However, I offset that with poor scores in word choice and repetition. I tend to overuse certain words, a lot. My kryptonite: just, look, has, it, said.
Before I used AutoCrit, I was unaware of many of my common writing errors. Using an editing program like AutoCrit, one that goes far beyond simple grammar, has (there I go again) been extremely helpful in identifying the kinds of writing foibles many humans do not actively realize when reading (but subconsciously influence their perception of the material).
However, AutoCrit also exposed a dark side to my editing process. I have a nasty perfectionist streak and that AutoCrit number is a gauntlet thrown at my feet, challenging me to do better.
And like Marty McFly being called chicken, I fall for it every time.
After I get that number assessment, I work and rework my manuscript until the clock hands turn past midnight. Finally, with drooping eyes, and a number still not reaching the pinnacle, a 100, I realize I’m being a complete lunatic and it’s nearly impossible to get a perfect score from a computer program incapable of understanding the nuances and subtleties of human writing. (Computers can beat us in chess, but they don’t get jokes, at least not yet. For that we still need human imagination.)
So, while I love AutoCrit for all it’s taught me, I also hate it because it brings out my obsessive nature. I could easily edit a manuscript for eternity and never be happy with it. (There’s a story with a larger moral in there somewhere.) However, I also know, in doing so, I can completely ruin my story. At some point, I have to stop and believe it’s as good as my feeble human brain can make it, even if the computer doesn’t agree.
So, like anything, using editing tricks and tools requires balance. Too much editing and over-thinking flattens the work, removing the quirks that make a writer a writer. Too little and you’re a Netflix reboot (aka, no check on the writing monster urges.)
My Editing Process – Editing Programs
My obsessive editing ways lead me to many editing programs. There is no one program, for me, that does it all. Instead, I use a combination of programs and editing tactics to help with my editing process.
That said, everyone approaches the process differently. The following tricks and tools are helpful for me. Even if you’re not a novelist and you do another type of writing, such as business writing, these tools together or individually can be helpful!
Until a few weeks ago, AutoCrit had a free version with basic options, which I used daily, ignoring the notification of “if you buy a subscription, AutoCrit can do these 1500 other awesome things.”
Then they got smart. They stopped the free version and offered a 7-day free trial only. No more free version.
Although I liked the free version, I didn’t find it so impressive I wanted to jump right into paying. So, I tried the trial. Seven days later, I signed up for the monthly subscription. For me, it was worth it.
If you didn’t get a “small loan” of a million dollars from your parents and can’t spend a monthly stipend on your book writing habit, there are tricks. One of the best I’ve heard from other writers is sharing a subscription. They all pitch in a certain portion of the total amount each month and share a login for writing programs. This could easily be done for AutoCrit or other programs you may like. And could encourage you to get more writer friends! (Beware of programs, however, where only one person can log in at a time. It may cause problems if too many people share one login.)
You can also cancel/restart AutoCrit at any time. Therefore, if you have bouts of writing followed by bouts of editing, limit usage to the months of editing.
Or, buy a monthly subscription and really analyze your work. Like me, you’ll likely see patterns. Once you know them, you may not need AutoCrit anymore.
Grammar Check (https://www.grammarcheck.net/editor/)
Since I have a monthly subscription to AutoCrit, it’s not likely I’m going to pay for a bunch of other editing programs. Luckily there are many great free options out there.
Although I write and edit medical material as my day job, I find it very difficult to notice grammar issues in my own work. (It’s way easier for me to find the grammar problems in something someone else has written.) Therefore, I prefer using a combination of programs for grammar, one of which is Grammar Check.
What I like about Grammar Check
- It highlights passive voice and idioms/colloquialisms.
- It flags redundancies (eg, knelt down).
- It’s simple and easy to use.
What I don’t like about Grammar Check
- The dictionary portion is missing some key words (since when is “soundlessly” not a word?)
- It makes some strange suggestions for changing content.
- Text restrictions/format require breaking up of a full manuscript into annoyingly small chunks in order to evaluate and review comments.
In terms of grammar, Grammarly is more robust than Grammar Check, but it doesn’t always catch the same problems. This is why I use both programs. They augment each other well.
What I like about Grammarly
- The interface is sleek.
- It provides context and explanations for flags.
What I don’t like about Grammarly
- The free version is only available on certain browsers (Chrome, Firefox and Safari).
- Note: this doesn’t seem like a big deal, but when your computer decides it suddenly likes to shut down every time you open Chrome, but for some reason Internet Explorer is fine, this can become annoying.)
- It doesn’t understand the usage of certain very basic words.
- Example: For some reason, it hates the word “stared” and wants to change it to “started” or “starred” or some other weird word that makes no sense in the context of the story.
- Text restrictions can also make it difficult to evaluate an entire manuscript.
With both programs, a writer must be very careful. The suggestions don’t take into account creative license. They follow very strict rules. With that said, using both can identify some of those major grammar issues, like the one I’m best known for, leaving out connector words and misspelling anything with an “ea” in it. Steel. Steal. Heal. Heel. I’m notorious for that!
Editing Beyond the Computer
While computer programs are useful tools, there are other editing tricks I’ve also found helpful.
Reading a Manuscript Out Loud
When I first read this advice, I thought, what a pain! It’s going to take forever! But it really is worth it. Reading it out loud highlights pacing issues and oddly worded sentences. It helps you spot missed words (my biggest issue! which I’ve noted many times now…perhaps repetition really is my other biggest issue…)
Review Chapter by Chapter
This may seem obvious. But what I mean by reviewing chapter by chapter is apply all tools and tricks to each chapter at one time. For example, don’t put your entire manuscript into AutoCrit and then a grammar check. Or read it out loud straight through. Mostly, because that’s exhausting. Reading chapter by chapter allows for editing focus and honing of material. If you edit a few chapters a day, you avoid editing fatigue and missing major issues.
Related to editing fatigue, I don’t know about other writers, but by the time I get to the end of editing my book, I am ready to be done. It’s possible I might get a little lazier, be more OK with an AutoCrit assessment of 82 instead of 90. Usually, by then, I have another story idea (or four) hanging in front of me like a carrot on a stick and I desperately want to snatch it off and start chewing on new material.
Therefore, starting at the end of the manuscript and reading backward by chapter can help ensure the end is as well edited as the beginning.
Create an Outline of Your Story AFTER You Write It
I’ve always done this, even before a speaker at a writing conference told the crowd what a great idea it is. Why after, though? Aren’t outlines meant to help with writing the draft.
I don’t use outlines when writing. I have an outline in my head, but I don’t write it down. I like to see where a story goes, for better or worse. But, when I’m all done, I always create an outline by chapter. For each chapter, I identify key plot points in a succinct manner.
It helps me:
- Identify plot holes
- Make sure there are no redundancies
- Fix issues with flow
- Create a story summary
Are All These Things Necessary? Can’t I Just Write and Be Done?
Oh, if only…
These tools and tricks don’t even represent every aspect of the editing process. I haven’t even mentioned the importance of humans! We need beta reviewers and line editors and developmental editors and writing partners to complete the editing process.
Autocrit, and other programs like it, can’t replace humans. You need actual readers to help identify where your manuscript doesn’t make sense, character development or problems with plot. But using all these tools, both human and computer, together makes for stronger writing and a stronger writer.
So are they all necessary? It depends on the person. I’m sure there are other tools and tricks out there I don’t know of other writers use. If so, please feel free to drop a line in the comments section and let me know what programs or tricks you love to use! I’m always looking to try something new!