Why automated proofreader and editor programs are unhelpful

I remember when there was talk of computers one day taking over the world. Until we began to suspect the danger in that, computers were seen as the solution to every problem. Everything is easier when it’s automated right?

Unfortunately, not everything benefits from automation. Computers are great at quickly crunching numbers and coming up with accurate answers, even drawing conclusions where appropriate. They even do a decent job of proofreading. We’ve come a long way since typewriters, correction ribbon, and whiteout. Our ability to make changes that show up immediately, without the need to re-type everything, is something for which I am cognizant and grateful every time I sit at my computer to write or edit. But computers are only as good as the programs that run them, and programs are written by humans, which means perfection is not likely.

In researching the kinds of services available out there, I ran into a website that offers free proofreading and editing services through an automated program. The tagline for ProWritingAid is: BECAUSE YOUR WORDS MATTER. Our software helps turn your good writing into great writing. Improve readability and eliminate errors. Sadly, I did not find their claims to be true for me. I do encourage you to experiment with their site, and I’d love to hear about your experience, but before you do, check this out:

Example Edit:

“It is only by embracing change and expanding the programs designed to effect change that we can expect to see the kind of lasting transformation that so many of us desire.”

There were a total of six comments for my thirty-one word sentence. So, there are suggestions to “improve” about 20% of my writing. If I understood WordPress better, I would copy and paste the results exactly as they appeared, but since I can’t figure out how to do that (yet), the comments below will have to suffice.

In order, here are the suggestions:

  1. “It” could be replaced with “There”
  2. “only” ends with -ly, therefore it’s an adverb
  3. “see” could be replaced with “saw”
  4. “kind of” – avoid using to indicate degree; use “somewhat”; omit in formal
  5. “desire” – simplify: Try “want” or “wish”
  6. Long sentence – 31 words

Let’s take a closer look at this. Would “there” be a good replacement for “it?” Hardly. Do I need to be told that “only” is an adverb? No, and I don’t need to be told that “hardly” is also. Can “see” be replaced with “saw?” No. I cannot believe they are actually suggesting changing the verb tense!

My use of “kind of” is appropriate, not only because it accurately expresses my thoughts, but also because the word “kind” means benevolent or thoughtful and the subliminal implication is that this is the transformation being sought. I can’t help but wonder why I would want to substitute “want” or “wish” for “desire” – a much more evocative  and visceral word. Finally, I’m being told that my sentence in the example is too long at 31 words.

Now, perhaps this website is designed for a different kind of writing, and a different kind of writer. I found it frustrating and the alternative words being suggested were unnecessary and, in my opinion, inferior to the ones I had chosen.

Using the same sample sentence, I also tried a website called Hemingway Editor, another free service with the tagline: Hemingway App makes your writing bold and clear. Here, I did a bit better, the only suggestion being to simplify the sentence. I was also informed that my sentence was written for a Grade 15 level reader while I should be aiming for Grade 14. Notably, both websites are inclined toward pointing out adverbs and suggesting the removal of them. Personally, I love adverbs so this is advice I won’t be following. Considering the bulk of my clientele is indie authors, adverbs are a necessity.

I imagine both programs would be effective proofreaders, but the editing capabilities are questionable, at best. For example, inserting a sample from one of my clients, both programs failed to recognize that “gagged” was incorrectly used when the author meant “gaped.” Punctuation was not addressed at all, and verb tenses were sketchy.That is why hiring a real-live skilled editor is essential if you want to present your best written communications

Please go to www.prowritingaid.com and try the program. While you’re at it, try the Hemingway Editor at  www.hemingwayapp.com. You’ll find similar results. Then, come back and let me know what you think. Are there any other free editing programs you have found helpful? What about paid programs?

Just for fun, I suggest taking the writing sample from my website and plugging it into one of the free editing sites. Compare the results to my re-write and see if you think it’s worth it. I’m inclined to say, you get what you pay for!

Update: I’m willing to admit when I have changed my mind about something. Upon further reflection, I have come to the realization that automated programs do have a legitimate use. In fact, they are a great first step in the editing and proofreading process. I recommend that all of my clients utilize the services that are available for free before contracting for my services. This will virtually ensure that my editing services will be available for the lowest price offered.