ProWritingAid – Efficiently clean up your long-form writing

Editor’s Note: This post focuses on ProWritingAid, a tool for writers, but raises an interesting question that is more broadly applicable. So many creative projects get left at the ‘90% done’ stage because the final steps to complete it are so tedious. What ways can we use technology to smooth out that toilsome home stretch? Have you found a tool that’s worked for you? Please share in the comments!

I recently had the chance to kick the tires of ProWritingAid, an online automated editing service. I rarely get to write product reviews, but the timing on this one worked out perfectly. Particularly given all the just-been-finished NaNoWriMo manuscripts floating around out there.

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If you’re one of the many first-time NaNo winners gazing bemusedly at your 50,000-word achievement and wondering, “Now what?” – editing is a fine answer. Editing, however, requires a very different skillset than what’s needed to write an original draft. Luckily for us, there are automated tools that can help us along the way.

What is ProWritingAid?

If you’re reading this website, there’s a good chance you’re interested in leveraging technology to quantify and improve your productivity. RescueTime does that by watching how you spend your time and providing tools on how to use each valuable minute more effectively. ProWritingAid works to provide a similar technological edge, applying rigorous proofing algorithms to written works.

Unlike in-line contextual editors you may be used to with Microsoft Word, Google Docs and Scrivener, ProWritingAid doesn’t track words as you produce them. Instead, it offers a series of tests that may be applied to a finished manuscript, work-in-progress, business report — anything written, really.

Most of us take things like spell-checkers and contextual grammar editors for granted in our word processor of choice. We see a word underlined in red and right click to correct it. They’ve worked that way for decades.

ProWritingAid will definitely edit for spelling and grammar, as well. However, the program is intended to do more than simply correct writing mistakes. It is also meant to teach; improving a writer’s skill by identifying overused words and phrases, highlighting cliché passages and generally improving grammar and diction.

Features I liked

There are a ton of editorial tests – called “Checks” – available in ProWritingAid. And both the online and plug-in versions allow writers to mix and match features into a more comprehensive, customized “Combo Check.”

I’ll talk about the online app versus the plug-in installations in a little later, but first I wanted to talk about the editing tools I found most valuable.

Just for kicks, I dropped a bit of dialogue from one of my old stories into a Google Doc and ran every test available. At least my hyphenation is consistent!

Repetition

Hands down, my favorite tool is the Repeat Words & Phrases report. We all have our little pet verbs and descriptive phrases, right? Those comfortable writing crutches we lean on when we get stuck. This is a great tool to ferret out those overused passages.

I’ve got one of these writing tics that shows up in first drafts of my fiction. My characters all seem to need something to do with their heads, and each one of them comes to the apparently universal decision to nod like a lunatic when speaking. Each time I read one of my early drafts I am greeted by a cast of bobble-heads.

The Repeat Words & Phrases report alone is probably worth giving ProWritingAid a look.

Writing Style

The Writing Style Check is probably most analogous to traditional word processing tools Microsoft Word’s contextual grammar checker. You know, the green, underlined reminder-bits we get every time we try to use a semicolon?

The report seems comprehensive, and it’s interesting to see all those passive verbs and repetitive sentence structures bundled up into a single report.

I have a reasonable grasp on grammar and my drafts are usually pretty clean. Even so, it’s educational to see where I’m leaning on adverbs a bit too heavily or using needlessly complex wording.

The system also makes suggestions to improve readability, and I agreed with the recommendations more often than not. For me these suggestions usually showed up as unnecessary qualifiers like “very” or “some.” I’m curious to see how the mileage varies for other users. If you try out the app, definitely let me know in the comments.

The Writing Style report draws attention to the overarching use of passive verbs and lazy writing while offering suggestions for improvement.

The Writing Style report draws attention to the overarching use of passive verbs and lazy writing while offering suggestions for improvement.

Choose your editing experience

ProWritingTools is available online as a browser-based application, and also as plugin for Microsoft Word or Google Docs.

I tested the app using a premium account and the interface is a straightforward, predictable web utility.

Understanding the results generated by each of the editing checks was also relatively simple. There is a user manual available on the web site, but I didn’t need to use it. Perhaps it’s a valuable tool for interpreting report results if you don’t have a lot of experience with editing and grammar.

Most of my work with ProWritingAid happened in Google Docs. The add-on was simple to install in both Google Chrome and Safari. Again, the interface was intuitive. I tried to duplicate everything I did in Google Docs on the website version. Although the interface was different, I didn’t notice any variations in the meat of the reports.

The one add-on I couldn’t test was ProWritingAid’s Microsoft Word integration. That plug-in is only available for Windows versions of Word, although not through a lack of interest by the developers. The Mac OS versions of Word simply don’t support the creation or installation of add-ons.

Another tool in the toolbox

Don’t expect manuscript editing software to shore up a weak plot or fact-check statistical figures. That’s why developmental editors have jobs. However, content editing and proofreading are laboriously detail-oriented tasks. I think ProWritingAid is a reasonable way to ease that editing burden.

I believe the tool is best suited for newer writers, or writers without a high degree of confidence in their prose and grammar. That said, established writers might benefit from testing a chapter or two to identify overused word or phrases. Or to see if they’re slipping into bad habits.

If you think you might enjoy something more robust than your stereotypical spell-checker, ProWritingAid might be a great place to start.

If you’re interested, head over to ProWritingAid.com and check out their free or premium versions.