DIY Sentence Level Editing

Everyone tells you to hire an editor to polish your text. And I’d love to do just that. But my book is over 140K long and at roughly £12 per 1000 words to edit, that means it would cost me about £1700. That’s just not in my budget! And, to be honest, I haven’t been that impressed by the couple of sample edits I’ve had. Call me old-fashioned, but I like to have a verb in my sentences, and I don’t like the POV to change within a single sentence. Both occurred in suggestions for sample edit ‘improvements’ to my text. Maybe I was unlucky, but it’s made me a bit nervous about shelling out a load of cash for line/copy editing.

I’ve already paid for a developmental edit, and for specialist beta-readers. This is big-picture stuff which is hard for an author to see (and harder to fix). This was really worth paying for, but when it comes to line-editing/copy-editing – making sure I’m using the right word, the right punctuation, the right grammar, making sure my sentences ‘flow’ – I decided to do it myself.

OK, I get that you don’t always see your own faults. On the plus side, I think I write pretty well to begin with. Writing rubbish with the hope I can fix it at the editing stage isn’t a strategy that works for me, although I know others swear by it. I try to get it right first time. Obviously, I don’t 100% succeed, but I’m most of the way there. Also, I’ve spent a lot of my working life correcting other people’s grammar, punctuation and style, so I think I’m pretty good at that side of things.

But I’m not perfect, and I do have faults. Some of them I know about and try to correct at my first edit, but I do have others that sneak through. So I recently invested in ProWritingAid, a writing analysis software app, and this has been really useful, not only at telling me what I’m bad at, but what I don’t need to worry about. So, is it helpful for editing? Absolutely! Is it the answer to everything? Absolutely not! But for anyone who wants to improve their writing, but who can’t afford a human editor, it can be a useful tool. Even if you intend to hire an editor, it may save you money if improve your text as much as you can beforehand.

So here’s a run through of the features, some of which I found useful, and some of which I didn’t use:

  • Real-time  Unless you turn it off, ProWritingAid will analyse your writing as you go. In the text above, I can see style suggestions, a place I used a passive verb, some spelling queries, and a missing comma suggestion. I find it quite annoying so I turn this off.
  • Summary  This is the first analysis I run. It tells you areas you need to focus on. I’m generally ticked off for my grammar, style, spelling, conjunction starts and dialogue tags. On the other hand, I score well within the ‘guidelines’  for sentence length, sentence variety, readability, use of passive voice, complex paragraphs, slow pacing, very long sentences, quote and acronym consistency, long repeated phrases, emotion tells and weak adverbs. Some of this surprised me. I think I’m good at grammar and spelling and I’m careful with dialogue tags. I have a weakness for long complicated sentences and the passive voice, but apparently I’m better than average.
  • Grammar and style  This is the next tab, and since the summary tells me I need to do some work on these, this is the first thing I check. Usefully, ProWritingAid underlines different issues in different colours, and if you click on each underlined bit you get suggestions or information. Given that I score between 50 and 60% for my grammar, I check this, but when I look at the ‘mistakes’ a lot of them make no sense. ProWriterAid isn’t human. It works on an algorithm which sometimes gets it wrong. I usually accept less than half of the suggestions, and these are mostly missing commas, although I’m not convinced it picks up all of them. If it says ‘possible missing comma’ it’s often wrong. The same goes for spelling. I’m a good speller so my ‘mistakes’ are almost always in personal and place name so I can ignore these, but it will pick up typos. I also ignore the passive voice suggestions, and I generally ignore the style suggestions. For example, the first underlined phrase in chapter 20 of The Wolf in Winter is ‘His only hope had been …’ which ProWritingAid thought I should change to ‘He only had hoped …’ What? That’s not right!  Often, the grammar or style ‘mistakes’ are in dialogue, but people don’t speak in perfect grammar, so I leave them as ‘mistakes’.
  • Thesaurus  I don’t use this tab because Word has a perfectly good thesaurus.
  • Overused  I check this, but my overused words are fairly common. In Chapter 20, they are watched/watch/watching/noticed. I’ll pick up any serious overuse in one of the later tabs.
  • Combo  This is something you can set up to include more than one analysis, some quite weird. One option is ‘eloquence’. I checked my ‘eloquence score’ and was told I had one epistrophe and no hendiadys. I have no idea what either of those are. One useful feature on the set-up page is that you can choose which well-known author to compare your writing to. I chose Bernard Cornwell, but there are lots of others.
  • All repeats  This picks up repeated phrases of various lengths. I use repetition deliberately, but sometimes repeats I don’t intend sneak in. I find this very useful, although the suggestions for ‘fixing’ a repeat are usually laughable.
  • Echoes  This picks up the same word used in close proximity. Again, this is really useful as I tend to overuse names and it picks up repetitions I haven’t noticed –  three ‘shrugged’ in one paragraph! – but I can see the program misses some repeats.
  • Structure This tells you about how your sentences start and how they compare to published writing. I’m inclined to start too many sentences with a coordinating conjunction such as and or but so I try to fix those.
  • Sentence  This tells you about sentence length and length variety.
  • Transition  This analyses transitional words such as but, although, also, so, however. ProWritingAid recommends you have 1 transition in 4 sentences, ie, 25%. Which seems high. I ignore that. This is particularly annoying since this programme also recommends reducing the number of coordinating conjunction starts, such as but, although, also, so, to 12%.
  • Readability  A measure of Flesch Reading ease. I don’t know how this is worked out, but I do quite well on this, with only a few ‘very difficult’ or ‘slightly difficult’ paragraphs. Often, when I look at them, they’re not difficult at all (in my opinion), but sometimes I’ll break up a paragraph to make it easier to read.
  • Sticky  This measures the number of ‘sticky sentences’ which apparently slow the reader down. The following is the first sticky sentence in Chapter 20. And I’d love to do just that. This has 62.5% glue words, which are and, to, do, just, that. Sticky sentences are ‘a bad thing’, but I don’t get it. So I ignore this one.
  • Cliches  Speaks for itself, although I’m not convinced ProWritingAid is very good at picking them up. Apparently, in Chapter 20 I have 15 cliches, but I’d only call one of them a real cliché – didn’t stand a chance. It also picks up redundancies. In the text above, it picked up close proximity. Fair point.
  • Diction  This picks up ‘vague and abstract words’, which in my chapter 20 include words like would, anything and the like. There’s no way I’m trying to find alternatives for these. It also picks up ‘diction’ problems, which seem to be overly fancy words, like substantial and magnitude, and gives suggestions for replacements – large and size. Boring! I don’t use this tab.
  • Pronouns  This tells you about the number and position of pronouns. In Chapter 20 I have 12% pronouns and the ‘target’ is between 4 and 15%. But I have slightly too many pronoun starts – 32% when the target is 30%. I don’t worry about this because a later tab picks it up.
  • Alliteration  I have a weakness for alliteration and probably write it without realising, but it’s part of my style so I don’t bother checking this. Here’s an example from chapter 20: … harbour, a huddle of houses. I like it and I’m not changing it.
  • Homonym  Picks up words that sound the same but mean something different such as their and they’re. I know I don’t make this mistake so I don’t check this. It could be useful, but the program highlights every second word – some, one, in, etc – which is tedious.
  • Consistency  This checks things like dialogue tag quote marks, hyphens, en and em-dashes. One useful feature is initialisation. For example, I have King (as a title) and king (as in one of a group of kings) so I need to check I’m being consistent.
  • Acronyms  I don’t have any acronyms, so I don’t check this.
  • Style  This is a very useful tab. It picks up repeated sentence starts, adverbs, emotion tells, etc. I have a look at most of these.
  • Dialogue  This is one I always check. It picks up ‘unusual’ dialogue tags and dialogue tags with adverbs. I try to keep these to a minimum so don’t have that many to change but I can usually get rid of a few more after running my text through ProWritingAid.
  • Pacing  This highlights slower-paced paragraphs. Quite useful, although I generally ‘score’ well on pacing so I don’t check this. The summary tab shows where slow paragraphs are so I only check if there are lots one after another. Usually it’s backstory.
  • Sensory This is useful and a bit depressing. I try to include smell, taste and touch in every scene, but don’t score too well on this. In chapter 20 I have 122 sight words, 63 hearing words, 17 touch words, 6 taste words, 2 smell words. One of my other chapters has not a single smell word. Not great.
  • House  You can set up a house style and use this tab to check it. I haven’t used this yet.
  • Plagiarism  This scans your document against other documents on the web (what, all of them?) I ran chapter 20 through this tab and it picked up ‘opened his mouth to ask a question and thought better’ which appears in a harry potter fan fiction site. I’m not going to worry about that. (You only get so many plagiarism checks in the paid version, but more in a premium paid version.)

Summary

So that’s it. ProWritingAid is a useful program, but it’s not the answer to everything and should be used judiciously. If I changed everything it recommended I’d end up with a text that is wrong in places and, worse, boring, and not in my ‘voice’ anymore. But it has certainly improved, tightened and clarified my text – and this is text I’ve already edited I don’t know how many times. So does my text ‘sparkle’ after my ProWritingAid polish? Maybe not. But it definitely gleams!

Cost

A final note on cost. There’s a free on-line version, but it only checks 500 words at a time which isn’t much use. There’s a free chrome add-on which is great when writing blog posts. You can get a free trial but it’s not clear from the website how long this lasts. For a desk-top version and Microsoft word add-in (which is what I use)  there are different payment options. Monthly, yearly and for life, are currently £20, £79 and £399. I went for the yearly one. (It was 25% off at the time.) . Will I renew it? Not sure. It took me about a month to run my novel through ProWritingAid – it’s quite a slow process – so when I come to edit The Swan in Summer next year, I may just take out a month’s subscription, if my year’s subscription has run out.

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1 thought on “DIY Sentence Level Editing

  1. This is a thorough program. It is great to know about. For someone who writes as well as you do, I can’t imagine needing more.

    I am like you. I can’t just write straight through no matter how rough and unfinished the pages may be, just to say I’ve got it down. I need to do a fair amount of editing before I move on to new pages. It’s the way I work. I’m going to have to do the editing anyway, and more yet afterwards, so why come back to a massive amount of editing. I actually like the polishing process.

    I am also fortunate that my sister was a professional editor for 30 years; both for content and as a copy editor. And she will give my poetry book a careful look over as a copy editor. I should have had her do my children’s book. I left the final editing to the publisher, being ignorant, and there are more mistakes than if I had done the final editing myself. That has been a big disappointment. I just assumed the publisher took pride in the final product. Now I’m self-publishing and want to do it right.

    In any case, I think, with your advanced skills and this program, you are going to be in excellent shape.

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