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Writing and editing with digital tools

By Peter Hulm

I'm a fan of computerized spelling- and grammar-checkers, even electronic editing aids. They are sometimes my first recourse, but once I have used them I don't think my job is done. They just give me an idea of how near the text is to being publishable, rather than doing the job of editing for me.

Daniel Heuman, the managing director of Intelligent Editing, producer of the $99 stylechecker PerfectIt, points out : "Some 80% of documents over 1000 words that are published online contain capitalization inconsistency, and over 60% contain a hyphenation inconsistency. Even if we restrict it to spelling, over 20% of documents over 1000 words that are published online contain a spelling inconsistency" (acknowledgements to proofreader Louise Harnby).

Use your computer

There’s a slew of digital tools out there to make life easier for writers and editors – some free, others going for a few dollars, and some fully fledged all-purpose programs that will cost you $100 and more.

In fact, it doesn’t make sense to me NOT to use what your computer offers you out of the box, no matter how little writing or rewriting you need to do in your everyday life.

I have compared several commercial writing aids, using the same four texts throughout: a collection of error-ridden sentences from the U.K. Open University’s manual Plain English, a one-page collection of the 20 most common errors that U.S. university students make in essays, an article I wrote for a website, and an academic paper commemorating the 100th anniversary of Marshall McLuhan’s birth. McLuhan, you may remember, famously declared “the medium is the message”, though in later life he was wont to joke “the tedium is the message”. I’ll try not to make these sections too tedious.

Here are the texts

Spellcheckers

Probably all free word processors nowadays offer spell-checking and even grammar correction. But let’s deal with the elephant in the room first.

Microsoft Word

This is the program all the others are trying to beat. Since there are lots of add-ons, including the more expensive options, I deal with its add-ons on another page later. For the moment, I’ll just focus on the built-in facilities it offers.

Grammar checker

You should know that you can check grammar as you write by clicking the checkbox in the File|Options|Proofing panel.

How effective is it in practice?

Daniel Kies of the College of DuPage created a one-page text with the 20 most frequent usage problems found in 3000 college essays and tested it against the commonest wordprocessors’ grammar checkers (1). He reports (2016):

“After ten years of benchmarking the progress of these grammar checking programs, not one of them has made significant improvements toward creating a system that can reliably find and correct the twenty most common usage errors made by first year composition students at American colleges and universities. In ten years of product development, Microsoft, for example, has only managed to improve Word's grammar checking functionality a mere 10%, judging by these test results. Small improvement. All word processors had considerable difficulties identifying and correcting most of the twenty most common and frequently occurring usage errors.”

My version of Microsoft Word (2016) picked up just these three booboos from the 20:

So you wouldn’t want to rely on Microsoft Word’s facility. It makes more sense to look at some of the pay-for alternatives.

Commercial grammar checkers

I’m sure you want me to cut to the chase immediately and tell you what performed best.

It depends on what you call best. Grammarly, the one that performed best picked up on 17 errors but flagged several that weren't.

Nevertheless, I have a soft spot for PerfectIt, which is more of a consistency checker than a grammar aid (and Windows only), and myWriterTools, a 32-bit Windows-only program.

What the professionals do

PerfectIt asked 100 of its professional users (editors) how they work on texts with the program. Close to six out of ten run PerfectIt after their own editing. But 34% ran it both before and after (and 7% before). An academic editing specialist said his team ran PerfectIt after each stage of editing and then twice before sending manuscripts back to clients.

"Perhaps the most revealing fact our survey showed is that not a single user runs PerfectIt instead of editing / proofreading the text," the company notes.

Recommendation

Not surprisingly, the recommendation has to be that you hire a live professional proofreader or editor for any reputation-critical texts you are preparing. Many professional editorial services use the commercial programs but still check your texts by hand.

Costs for online services seem to be about $9.50 for a 275-word page and $6.25 a page for proofreading with a seven-day turnaround. Double the price for a 24-hour turnaround. If you need something within 90 minutes, count on 10 cents a word with a maximum of 800 words (i.e. up to $80).

Even so, any of these digital proofreaders and grammar-checkers can save you money by requiring less time from a paid proofreader/editor for your texts and for day-to-day production of texts they can provide a fail-safe for any busy person.