Writing and editing with digital tools
Use your computer
There’s a whole host of digital tools out there to make life easier for writers and editors. Some are free. Others go for a few dollars. Fully fledged all-purpose programs can cost you $100 and more.
In fact, it doesn’t make sense 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
- Plain English
- Twenty errors (1)
- Website article
- Paper on McLuhan (Word document/PDF/HTML – not recommended)
Probably all free word processors nowadays offer spell-checking and even grammar correction. But let’s deal with the elephant in the room first.
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.
My favourite MsWord trick
My favourite tool in Word? Highlight each proper noun you come across, rightclick your mouse, and choose Ignore All in the spell-checker (if it is properly spelled). Then any other mis-spellings will show up. People hate having their names garbled. I still use it all the time.
You can also see what the earlier version of this page looks like when Word saves it as a webpage. Just don't look at the code or the folder it creates of related files.
You should know that you can check grammar as you write in Word by clicking the checkbox in the
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 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 seemed to perform best picked up on 17 errors but flagged several that weren't. I also tested PerfectIt, StyleWriter, WhiteSmoke, Hemingway, ProWritingAid, and Editor' s Toolkit Plus.
Each appeals to a different market. PerfectIt can proofcheck according to U.N., W.H.O. and/or E.U. editorial preferences. Hemingway tries to shorten and simplify your sentences. Editor's Toolkit Plus intervenes after this stage, making things easier at the technical editing stage, before the text goes to the designer.
Not surprisingly, the recommendation has to be that you hire a live professional proofreader or editor for any reputation-critical texts you are preparing. 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).
A local proofreader can cost you CHF800 a day. Even so, you will get much more than punctuation and style-checking from a good one, and it will be worth the money. Proof-readers can't do it all day. I have to take frequent breaks to ensure I don't lose concentration and let errors through. I have to pause after every couple of pages to be sure. I'm lucky to get three hours work out of my day, i.e. 12 pages = 3000 words = $300, though the official rate is $120 an hour for full editing.
That said, 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.