Can Using Editing Tools Improve Your Writing?

writing tools

By Corina Koch Macleod and Carla Douglas
@CKMacleodwriter @CarlaJDouglas

This post appeared first on June 17, 2015 at The Book Designer.

In the tongue-in-cheek post How to Write a Book Even Faster, the author suggests that writers are not editing their writing. That can’t be true! (Right?) How do you edit your writing? Perhaps you use one of these self-editing approaches…

Approaches to Self-Editing

There are many ways to improve your writing. You can

  • set your writing aside for a month or two and tackle it again from a renewed perspective
  • get structured feedback from beta readers
  • hire an editor to assess your first draft and suggest improvements
  • run editing tools on your writing

Let’s look at each of these self-editing approaches.

DIY Feedback

You may be exhausted from your first-draft efforts. Setting your writing aside for a spell may give you the time you need to recharge and become excited about your book project again. It may also afford you the perspective you need to see where your writing needs fixing. This approach to self-editing is most effective if there aren’t time constraints, and if you’re able to see what needs improving.

External Feedback

The remaining items on the list above are different from the first item in one important way: they offer feedback on your writing from an external source — from someone, or something, other than you. Because it’s difficult to be objective about your own writing, external feedback can alert you to your writing blind spots.

Not everyone responds well to feedback from beta readers and editors. Writers need to be able to develop resilience for receiving feedback, but this takes time and practice. If you’re still working on developing your resilience, we have another “external” self-editing option for you: editing tools.

Editing Tools

Many editors use automated editing tools to efficiently find problems in a piece of writing. If writers want to learn how these tools work, they can use them to diagnose their own writing!

Below is a list of some our favourite editing tools, linked to articles that describe how to use them. We’ve organized them into the four levels of editing that every manuscript should go through.

Not all tools are diagnostic and automated.* Some of them, such as the paragraph-level and big-picture tools, will help you when it’s time to fix your writing. We’ve selected tools that we think will be most helpful to writers, but there are many more tools that you can explore and try.

Self-Editing Tools for Writers

Tool Word-level Sentence-level Paragraph-level Big-picture level
Consistency Checker* x x
Hemingway app* x x
PerfectIt Pro* x
Self-Editing macros* x
Scrivener’s Binder+ x x
Word’s Navigation Pane+ x x
Split-screen feature in Scrivener+ x x
Split-screen feature in Word+ x x

 

*Diagnostic tools: these tools will check for one or more potential writing problems with the click of a button.

+Fixing tools: these tools will help you fix writing problems, once they are identified.

As far as we know, there aren’t automated diagnostic tools that will point out paragraph-level and big-picture problems. At least not yet. For now, you’ll need to educate yourself about common paragraph-level and big-picture problems, or get some direction from beta readers and editors. You can use the paragraph-level and big-picture tools in the table above to efficiently fix problems, once you know what they are.

Advantages of Editing Tools

Editing tools have a few distinct advantages over the other self-editing methods mentioned at the beginning of this article:

  • They aren’t people, which means that writers probably won’t respond to feedback emotionally, or take feedback personally. A tool also won’t roll its eyes because you’ve forgotten to close quotations and parentheses 54 times in a 300-page book. It’ll point out these errors, without judgment. And we could all use a little less judgement.
  • If you consider what these tools are telling you about your writing, you will sharpen your self-editing skills.
  • You can use diagnostic editing tools five minutes after you’ve typed the period on the last sentence of your first draft. This makes editing tools brilliant for on-demand writing.
  • These tools are widely available, and some of them are cheap or free. (Editors are widely available, but they’re not cheap or free.)
  • If you plan to use tools for self-editing, and later decide to hire an editor, your editor may have less to do, and that can save on editing costs.

Can these tools help you to become a better writer? We’re still gathering data on that. From what we’ve seen — with authors who’ve been willing to act on the information suggested by diagnostic editing tools — it does seem possible.

For example, if a tool suggests that you’ve included needless words in your writing, after deleting 103 needless words in the first 50 pages of your manuscript, there’s a good chance that you’ll include fewer of them in your writing in future!

Limitations of Editing Tools

Editing tools will not do it all. They have limitations that are important to understand. They will not write your book, cook your breakfast, or collect your kids from school. And they also won’t do these three things:

Won’t Think for You

An editing tool can alert you to potential problems with your writing. You need to decide when to address a highlighted instance and when to ignore it.

For example, the Hemingway app will highlight adverbs in blue, so you can, presumably, obliterate them. Why? Adverbs can clutter your writing and indicate instances of telling instead of showing. (Show, don’t tell!)

But does that mean you need to excise every adverb in sight? No. Depending on what you’re writing, you may choose to sprinkle adverbs as you would expensive fleur de sel.

Won’t Fix It for You

Editing tools are not designed to fix your writing for you. They identify problems, or help you fix problems efficiently. You have to do the heavy lifting.

For example, if your tool has highlighted a sentence that’s too long, you will need to divide that unwieldy beast into two shorter sentences. Your tool won’t do that for you.

Won’t Do the Footwork for You

If a solution to a writing problem isn’t obvious to you, you may need to dig around in writing craft books or style guides for help with interpreting what a tool is telling you.

Consider the example below. PerfectIt Pro 3 is asking the author to check the use of a hyphen in this instance. Has the author used the hyphen correctly?

Looking things up isn’t a waste of your time. The more you know why something might need fixing, the better your writing will be. If you let them, editing tools will show you where you quirks are, teach you what to pay attention to, and inspire (or provoke) you to make adjustments.

How to Use Editing Tools

As with any kind of learning, you need to go slowly or you could become overwhelmed. Here are some tips for keeping things manageable:

  1. Remember to begin with big-picture editing fixes and work your way down to word-level fixes. Editing order matters.
  2. Run diagnostic tools, one chapter at a time, until you become familiar with how these tools work. Exceptions: Run Consistency Checker and PerfectIt Pro on your entire book. Why? They’re designed to check for consistency across an entire manuscript.
  3. Run one tool at a time. Don’t run several tools at once. You’ll have too many things to pay attention to. The key is to remain focused and to improve your writing by degrees.
  4. Be strategic. You don’t need to run every tool on your writing, every time. Once you’re familiar with the tools we recommend, you’ll know which ones best address your most persistent writing quirks.
  5. Consult self-editing books for solutions to the writing problems your tools uncover.

Editing tools can help you to become aware of your writing blind spots and sharpen your self-editing skills. They may even help you become better at writing.

If, however, you’ve decided that learning how to use these tools is not for you, and you prefer to have writing problems fixed for you, we have yet another solution. Hire an editor! (You had to know we were going to say that.)

Note: We used the Hemingway app and PerfectIt Pro 3 to edit this article.

Image by Mark Hunter

How to Improve Your Writing with Macros—Tips for Beginners

by Carla Douglas
@CarlaJDouglas

Paring down your prose is immensely satisfying—it makes images and turns of phrase come alive, and it helps clarify your meaning, too.

Finding ways to trim what you’ve written is drudgery, but macros can help you by automating part of this process. In her post a couple of weeks ago, Corina mentioned three macros that are especially helpful to writers: NeedlessWords, TellingWords, and -ly Words.

Get a snapshot of your writing habits

These macros locate and highlight potential offenders—words that clutter your writing and cloud your meaning. They’re easy to use and can be adapted and tweaked to suit your task. I love them because they provide a rudimentary data visualization of your personal writing ticks: they show (don’t tell!) you exactly where your bad habits reside.

Give them a try—if you need  help adding a macro to Word, you’ll find it here. To run a macro in Word, you’ll find instructions here. If you have 20 minutes to spare, this free 20-minute macro course will have you up and running with macros in no time.

What to do with highlighted text

So, you’ve run the macro and all the possible culprits are magically revealed on the screen before you. What’s next?

The macros have done their part—now you have to apply your own sweat. You need to look at the highlighted words and assess them, one by one. Here’s a preview of what your decision-making process might look like for the three macros I’ve mentioned.

NeedlessWords

Needless words are the words you can eliminate without changing your meaning. Words like that, which, to, in order, really, very, barely—in short, many prepositions, adverbs and adjectives—that stand in the way of what you’re trying to say.

Which words are needless?

In this sample text, you can easily see which words could go and which need to stay. I need to keep begin but can do without then, almost, just and just. (Who knew that I just love the word just?) These words cause drag in the writing: they qualify, delay and postpone the point I’m trying to make.

The other highlighted words need to stay to make the sentences they’re in grammatical. The macro can’t identify what part of speech a word is acting as—that’s your job.

-ly Words

The -ly words can be a pox on your dialogue: “He said sadly,” “she replied enthusiastically,” “they chirped boisterously.” And when you’re trying to bang out a quick first draft, these adverbs appear fast and furious, both in your dialogue and in straight narrative. Here are two sample passages with some -ly words highlighted:

Adverbs are almost always optional, as are those in this short passage. They’re not strictly needed, but they might function in ways that aren’t obvious—by adding texture to the narrative voice, for example.

The -ly words in the sample below, however, should be zapped. Adding adverbs to dialogue tags almost always results in flat, inanimate speech.

TellingWords

Telling words are different than needless words and -ly words—they provide a broader diagnosis. A cluster of these words is a symptom that you might be doing a lot of telling, and eliminating them one by one won’t solve your problem. Here’s an example:

Telling words appear most often in narrative passages, in which writers are trying to fill in story gaps or provide background information. The telling words macro can act as a red flag: if you see too many telling words, ask yourself if the narrative has become boring or flat. And if it has? This could be a good place to switch to dialogue.

What stage of writing is best for using a macro?

Most writers actively suppress their inner editor during a draft, and plenty of writing advice also recommends writing a first draft quickly and paying little attention to details like word choice. Writing macros come in handy at the end of this stage, and point to areas that will need more attention.

You can also run a writing macro when you’ve completed two or three chapters, to point out some of your writing habits. And they’re also useful in later stages, if you’re trying to reduce your word count. In other words, run them any time you want an objective snapshot of your style and habits.

Finally, many of the words targeted by these macros are needed, but maybe they are not needed as often as you think! Rhythm, pacing, tone, voice—these aspects of your writing make it distinctive and interesting, and you don’t want to strip that away for the sake of efficiency. And whether a word should be excised also depends on your audience, subject, genre and purpose.

Macros won’t fix your writing. That’s up to you. What they will do is point out what you should be thinking about—they’ll help you switch off autopilot, and that’s an enormous first step.

Image by ProAdventure

Related Posts

2 Tools for Improving Your Writing

by C.K. MacLeod
@CKmacleodwriter

Learning to write well is a process, and there is so much to consider—from story structure to the words you choose.

In self-publishing circles, there is a lot of discussion about perfecting plot, characters, and dialogue—the elements of story—but comparatively little airtime is given to the building blocks of stories: words.

Sometimes, the words we use can clutter our writing and jolt the reader out of the story. Strunk & White calls these words “needless words.” That’s good news. If these words are needless, we don’t need them, and if your writing will be better without them, the solution is simple!

Needless Words

So, what are needless words? In a nutshell, any word that can be deleted without altering the meaning of a sentence or threatening correct grammatical construction is a needless word.
Strunk and White list some examples in the Omit Needless Words section of their famous style guide. Janice Hardy’s Words to Avoid list is another terrific resource for learning which words you can do without.

Hunting down needless words is an easy way to clean up your writing because it often requires nothing more from you than to find the offending words and press the delete button. Excise these words from your writing and you’re well on your way to communicating clearly.

Finding Needless Words

I know what you’re thinking… Do I have to pick through every word in my 300-page book? You can, but I’m not suggesting that you find needless words manually in a word-by-word manner. Oh, no. There are tools for that. Nowadays, simple tech tools can help you root out those words that muddy your writing.

Below, I’ve listed two tools that authors can use to polish their prose: one for Word users and the other for Scrivener users.

Word Tool

In Microsoft Word, you can use a simple highlighting macro that will hunt down and highlight all of the needless words in your book in a matter of minutes. I call it the Needless Words macro, in honour of Strunk & White. You can then decide how to address those highlighted words (delete them!).

NeedlessWords macro in action

You can find the Needless Words macro at Tech Tools for Writers.

Scrivener Tool

Scrivener’s Word Frequency tool is less sophisticated, but still worth a mention. It doesn’t highlight needless words, but it indicates words you may have overused. You can then use Scrivener’s Find and Replace function to find and scrutinize those words you’ve used most. In Scrivener, you can find the Word Frequency tool by going to the Project, Text Statistics, Word Frequency.

Scrivener’s Text Statistics tool

Scrutinizing words is best left for the revision stage of writing, after the the big-picture elements and paragraph-level elements have been addressed. Taking the time to give your writing attention at the word level will ensure a smoother read for your readers.

Image by Matt Scott

Related Posts

Omit Needless Words with a Macro
How to Write a Quality Book Fast
Words the Make Your Squirm: Writers and Word Aversion
Use Google’s Ngram Viewer to Craft Authentic Fiction
Don’t Touch My Words: How to Tell if You Have a Good EditorFinding the Meaning of Familiar Words and Phrases