A StepWiser Guide

 

 

Writing and editing
with digital tools

 

 

By Peter Hulm

Use your computer

There’s a whole host 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 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’ll profile all the tools I could find and report on my experience. To maintain consistency, I’ll use the same four texts throughout for my comparisons: 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[1], 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.

Spellcheckers

Even your plain-text editor is likely to include a spellchecking function these days. For example, I use NoteTab (www.notetab.com), which comes in a free and pay-for version. This is where you can find its spellchecker:

It even has a facility for checking in the Oxford Dictionary online for any word you highlight or finding an explanation in the Internet encyclopaedia Wikipedia.

By the way, the text in the window is the Plain English collection of sentences with mistakes that need correcting.

I like NoteTab for its many built-in shortcuts (see the panel on the left) for working with texts. Not that I have ever looked up quotes for a word or sought a rhyme. But I do use the HTML Tidy code facility and collect URLs from webpages. There are many other clip libraries, as NoteTab calls them, all free and easy to import into the program.

Your word processor

Even free word processors nowadays offer spell-checking and even grammar-checking. But let’s deal with the big boys 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 last. For the moment, I’ll just use the built-in facilities it offers.

Dictionaries

I’m sure you know Microsoft Word has a dictionary that you can set to various languages in the same text. If you want to switch languages, for example, for a citation in French, highlight the text then in the Review ribbon choose Language|Set Proofing Language. The first option is to set the proofing language for the Selected Text. Choose French (and probably France) in this case.

Quick Access Toolbar

Should you find yourself using this option a lot, consider putting it into the Quick Access Toolbar.  From the down-arrow offering to Customize Quick Access Toolbar chose More Commands (the shortcut from the menu is M). This will take you to a panel with the Popular Commands listed. This is not the one you want. Choose Commands not in Ribbon or All Commands and add Language to the list of Quick Access commands.

By the way, I put the New file command, New from Template, Save, Undo, Redo, Insert Symbol, Grammar/Spellchecker, Macros, Navigation Pane, Zotero’s Add-In Citation facility and the Insert Footnote icon in my bar of Quick Access commands.

You need to go to the More Commands panel to put them in the order you want. The standard New File command opens up a blank document for you. Add New File from Template in the All Commands section to open the list of Templates available.  The Spellchecker option is available from the first dropdown list of customizations. It opens up a window on the right and starts checking the whole document from wherever you are in the text.

If you write or edit for international organizations I suggest choosing U.K. English as your default language. It forms the basis of most U.N. organizations’ stylebooks, including the U.N. Editorial Manual, available online, which makes Word’s track changes facility for revisions one of its three options for editors submitting reports.

The online manual also indicates specific rules for formatting official documents, but the chances are you will not be working within these limitations, since many of the organization’s published texts are not strictly official. But the better you know the content of this manual, the easier you will find your editing or writing job.

 

Grammar

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

 

This I recommend. But 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. 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 professional alternatives.

Word’s Readability Test

I also check the box to show readability statistics. But it only appears onscreen when you have completed your spellcheck. So I rarely get to the point where I use it.  I prefer the following technique.

Readability Statistics

Rather than using the standard option for readability statistics, I normally run a to macro (tiny program) I created in Word to call them up any time.  Below is the macro I created to append the stats to your text.  The Sub stats line give the name of the macro. rs=readability statistic. If you want to use this macro, copy the text, then in View chose Macros|View Macros then Create. Then  paste the text and save it (in Normal to use it in all Word documents) and go back to Word (Alt-Q). Then run the stats macro.

 

Sub stats()

'

' stats Macro

' Macro by Peter Hulm

'

' Go to end of file

    Selection.EndKey Unit:=wdStory

' Add a paragraph

    Selection.TypeParagraph

' Go through the Readability Statistics list spelling out each result

For Each rs In Selection.Range.ReadabilityStatistics

    Selection.TypeText Text:=rs.Name & " - " & rs.Value

' Add a carriage return after each result

    Selection.TypeParagraph

Next rs   

End Sub

On separate lines the program will print out the number of words, characters, paragraphs, sentences, sentences per paragraph, words per sentence, characters per word and the two most salient statistics you will want to consider.

Reading Ease and Grade Level

The Flesch Reading Ease score marks the text out of 100, using all these statistics and weighting them according to Rudolf Flesch’s criteria. Higher scores mean the text is easier to read, and usually better.  The Readability Formulas website gives a rough indication of how texts rate according to their scores.

90-100: Very Easy 
80-89: Easy 
70-79: Fairly Easy 
60-69: Standard 
50-59: Fairly Difficult 
30-49: Difficult 
0-29: Very Confusing

This guide scores around 59, i.e. close to standard (60-69).

The Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level indicates how many years of schooling are thought necessary to comprehend the text easily. This guide has a grade 8 score. So 13-year-olds should be able to understand it.

The Flesch tests have come under severe criticism for what they fail to pick up as much as how they can mislead. Short but puzzling words (such as jargon or arcane vocabularies) can put your score higher, and choppy sentences are just as good as well-balanced ones. I wrote my master’s thesis on the news agency stories and how they expect readers to be au fait with specialized political and economic terms while getting good Flesch grades, and in fact scores have not improved since they were introduced (at the Associated Press) in 1940.

Word shortcuts

I suggest that you become familiar with the Word keyboard shortcuts for the facilities you use most. In my case, for academic writing, I need to know how to insert footnotes quickly (Alt-Ctrl-F). There’s a full list at the Microsoft website but you probably don’t need them all. Here are some of my favourites:

Alt-Q

Alt-Q puts you in the “Tell me what you want to do” section. It’s a step more than clicking with your mouse but can come in handy if you are typing. Now all Microsoft has to do is improve the help if offers. For example, Word Keyboard Shortcuts requires me to tap on Help before it brings up the same page as on the website, where Alt-Q is at the top.

Alt-Ctrl-Z

I presume you know Ctrl-W for closing a file, Ctrl-E to centre text, Ctrl-Z to undo, Ctrl-Y to redo, Ctrl-H to call up the replace panel, Ctrl-K to insert a hyperlink, and Alt to bring up the shortcut keys for the Ribbon choices. But did you know that Alt-Ctrl-Z will switch you between the last four places where you edited? And Shift-F5 will take you to your previous revision. When you have just opened a document, it will take you to the place where you were working when the document was last closed. But you knew that.

Alt-Ctrl-Shift-S

Take a look at the headings facility when you have Outline View (Navigation Pane) visible. Alt-Shift-LeftArrow will promote a heading and Alt-Shift-RightArrow demote it, while Ctrl-Shift-N will demote it to body text. To call up the Styles Pane, press Alt-Ctrl-Shift-S.

Formatting

Shift-F3 circles through the case of the selected letters, while Ctrl-Shift-C and Ctrl-Shift-V cut and paste the formatting of a text. Ctrl-M indents a paragraph from the Left (Ctrl-Shift-M removes it). Ctrl-T is for creating a hanging indent. Ctrl-Shift-N applies the Normal Style.

Extend a selection

In the Extend a Selection group, I use F8 to turn Extend Mode on, particularly when I am selecting text or recording a macro. After that F8 selects a word, twice for a sentence, and continue pressing for paragraph etc. Reduce it with Shift-F8 and turn it off with Esc.

Copy header or footer

Alt-Shift-R was new to me: it copies the header or footer used in the previous section of the document.

Many of the others may seem too complicated to bother with. Spike (Ctrl+F3) enables you to collect text from different locations to paste them somewhere else, with the first cut being the last to be pasted, like paper documents on a physical spike found once upon a time in newspaper offices. Sounds great, but I’ve never used it.

Who performed best?

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.

The 20 student errors

Grammarly picked up nine of the 20 student errors and highlighted eight others for which I would have to pay extra (monthly, quarterly or annual plan, with no option for a trial).

Standard:

Premium:

Seventeen out of twenty might not seem a bad score. But it failed to catch the repetition in the second sentence or “The man to whom you were speaking to” and the comma in place of a semi-colon or period in the sentence after as well as the switch in tense in the sentence starting “John looked right at me”. Several points it highlighted were not in the list of 20 original errors.

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. 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 editors 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.

 

 

StyleWriter

This U.K.-based product is the glitziest of add-ins for Microsoft Word but it can cost you $190 for its “professional” version, probably the one you’ll want, and $220 for its three-computer extension pack. There’s a 14-day free-trial version to decide whether you need it (or any of the three versions) and a $90 cutdown Starter edition if you don’t want all the bells and whistles. To save some money watch out for special promotions (I got $50 off through PerfectIt because I had purchased a license to the rival checking program).

StyleWriter’s webpage points out that professional proofreading can cost you $100-200 an hour, and says that Word’s spellchecker accepts texts such as:

• the firm’s pubic image when promoting our products in the United Sates,

•  which fag to fly when the Quean opens our new offices,

•  the sprit of staff when asked to forego the end-of-season bonus, ad

•  the meeting to asses the effect of new laws on corporate disclosure.

This is not exactly what my version tells me. Setting my wordprocessor to flag mis-spellings produced this result:

Microsoft Word’s spellchecker still let some embarrassing typos through, however.

The website offers some fascinating cost estimates of the benefits of clear writing.

The United Kingdom’s National Audit Office estimated the cost of producing one page in government departments varied between £3.50 ($6) to over £100 ($180).  The low figure was for a one-page letter, typed, printed and sent to 200 people resulting in a bill [of] £700 ($1,120). The higher figure was for each page of a short report that goes through several authors and drafts, before a senior manager presented it to the management committee. This means the cost of such a 50-page report read by 15 senior managers was £5,000 ($9,000).

 

General Electric saved $275,000 by redrafting manuals into plain English.

 

StyleWriter advises:

·       Work out the number of sheets of paper, e-mails and faxes in your organization produced in one working day.

·       Estimate the cost of each of these documents at $10 a page.

·       Now calculate by the number of people who have to read them and add $1 for each person reading each document. (To give you an idea of this figure, a typical office worker receives over 100 e-mails a day).

·       That will give you rough idea of the cost of your paperwork for each day.

·       Then multiply the figure by 240 to find out a realistic cost of paperwork in your organization every year.

·       Plain English will cut this bill by 30 percent.

It lists the City of Los Angeles, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Halifax Bank of Scotland among its clients.

Smart-Spell

StyleWriter says its newest version has a Smart-Spell facility, which knows each word’s frequency of use and the probability of it being an error even if spelled correctly.  “The program’s Questionable category is a filter on the main spell checker word list highlighting words that often fool other spelling check software. The program’s other categories of Confused Words, Misused Words, Difficult Words, Unusual Words and Miscellaneous categories also find thousands of errors missed by conventional spelling checkers.”

Editor’s List

The Professional edition offers an “Editor’s List” facility that checks your documents against a number of problems that texts often throw up, such as wordy sentences or phrases, jargon, plus passive and hidden verbs. It will also scout a document for “peppy” words thought to make texts more interesting. You can also create your own lists (House Style or Banned Words,  for example) and StyleWriter Professional will also flag difficult words through the Editor’s List. Some of these facilities, including the ability to create Users’ Lists, are also in the $150 Standard Edition.

 

Bog Index

The Bog Index is a measure using a weighted difficulty score for more than 200,000 graded words, sentence length and style issues.  It gives credit for many writing features that make documents easier to read.  A Bog Index below 20 shows a clear and readable style. 

The essay text

How does StyleWriter do on the 20 student essay errors? Of the 373 words in the one-pager StyleWriter rates it as excellent on the Bog index, excellent on passive sentences, good in style, and easy to read. This is what its product looks like:

 

 


 

One of its useful options is to insert its suggestions as comments into your document:

But StyleWriter did not pick up on all the errors, and was misleading in some comments. For example, it flagged “all day” as normally hyphenated. It found nothing wrong with “the same strategies that the…” but noted “that” can usually be deleted.

 

 

Writing Course, HouseStyle

StyleWriter also offers an electronic writing and editing course for $75. “The Course teaches professional writing tips and tackles different writing tasks such as letters, reports, regulations, instructions, and e-mails. [It is] based on training tools we designed for US Federal Government employees,” the company advertises.

In addition, the company offers a “premium service” to set up StyleWriter to check inhouse styles across a whole organization, but that is on the basis of a separate price quotation. For example, it says the Federal Aviation Administration has bought 1500 licenses for the software, and its writing course can cost as little as $10 an employee.



[1] Drawn by Daniel Kies of the College of DuPage from a corpus of 3000 college essays (Robert J. Connors and Andrea A. Lunsford. “Frequency of Formal Errors in Current College Writing, or Ma and Pa Kettle Do Research,” The St. Martin's Guide to Teaching Writing 2nd ed. Ed. Robert Connors and Cheryl Glenn. New York: St. Martin's, 1992, 398).