I was curious. Being a writer, I keep seeing articles about the editing software available online to help writers and, over coffee, I thought I would have a quick look. I browsed a number of them, duly pasting a chunk of text into their little blank boxes to see what they had to offer.
After five minutes, my blood was boiling.
Writers, it seems, are being encouraged to use these programmes. Not, as I mistakenly supposed, in order to check their grammar, spelling and punctuation… say, as an extension to spellcheck or as a different perspective on work we are too fond of, and too involved with, to see clearly. No. We are being encouraged to use them in order to erase our personal voice.
Okay, I know… that probably isn’t entirely fair.
There are those who swear by their usefulness, though these, I suspect, are writers who use such programmes as useful adjuncts to, rather than dictators of style. They do give another perspective… almost another set of eyes on your work. There are many who have a story worth telling who have yet to find a literary voice they feel at ease with. There are some who want to write, hearing the stories in their mind, but do not know where to begin to shape a tale. Such software can provide a useful guide. There are others, experienced and not wishing to become complacent, who will appreciate a different slant on the editing process. Many such automated sites are also free and thus accessible to those who cannot afford to outsource either editing or proofreading to the real, live professionals who really know their craft.
But honestly, after the third such site, I was raging… Let me tell you why…
1. The school report
Some will ‘grade’ your writing, judging its accessibility to age and educational levels. Some call it a readability score. Which, of course, is all well and good. You wouldn’t want an entertaining romp to be written in academic terms and, for a children’s piece, it might be useful to be aware of the average language skills of the age group for which you are intending to write.
Of course, you could, potentially, do the unthinkable and actually talk to a child. Or give the book to a child of that age group … I’m fairly sure that as a beta reader they would do a good job. It didn’t do Tolkein any harm.
2. The dictatorship
Some will tell you quite simply – Adverb. Remove it.
Now we all know that the humble adverb has come in for a lot of flak. But if it is good enough for J.K Rowling then I don’t feel we should be too worried by allowing the odd one or two to creep in. In fact, I’m not entirely sure we should worry about them at all, as long as they are well used, well-chosen and serve a definite purpose.
But – Adverb. Remove it?
Grrrr… (should that have three Rs?).
Instead, look at the adverb. Does it actually add anything? Is there a more effective way of saying it? Have you used the odd one, or shaken the pepperpot on the page?
3. The guillotine
Sentences the programme considers too long will be highlighted in virulent colour. As will phrases it considers to be too complex. So, too, will any example of passive voice. Or words of more than one syllable. Or poetry.
You can accept the dictates of the machine and let it hack away at your prose. Alternatively, you can check punctuation. Read the phrase aloud… if it still makes perfect sense and says what you want it to say, leave it alone.
4. The robot.
These programmes do not recognise humour, lyricism or personality. Nor do they understand the informal use of punctuation, the curtailed phrasing or grammatical quirks of speech. You know… as if a human being, not a literary god, is speaking…
Speech, either reported or when writing in a conversational tone, uses a whole different set of unwritten rules. What would be anathema in a literary masterpiece is perfectly acceptable here… and breaks as many rules as it likes.
If what you have written is what your character wants to say and in character… why change it?
5. The alien.
Not only should our phrases be short, snappy and to the point, but, according to the programmed literary rules, we should, it appears, erase all trace of the rich tapestry of human emotion. No flowing and lyrical descriptions here, if you please!
Nor does personality seem to have a place in these programmes. How could it? Can they understand the finer, almost indefinable shades of humour, allusion and pun? Or the emotional associations of words that will vary age to age, culture to culture? Do their emotions unconsciously respond to that creative use of imagery and punctuation that adds an indefinable something to the words? They can only judge by ‘rules’ and since when have artists… including writers… been subject to conforming to a designated mould?
In fact, stick this article into one of these programmes and it will come back, I guarantee, with more colours than a Carnival in Rio. I know. I tried.
Which was one of the things that made my blood boil.
Not, I hasten to add, because I cannot take criticism of my literary ‘masterpiece’… that’s the whole point. This is not, nor was it designed to be, anything other than the type of debate I might have over coffee with a friend. It is neither high romance nor academic paper… though it might well hold a tragedy for writers whose confidence in their own voice may be damaged by the dictates of some sites and the ‘style guides’ that inform them. Which leads me to…
6. The magic mirror.
Some of these programmes are geared towards shaping your work into the style of iconic writers.
Why should we want to write in anyone else’s voice but our own? I doubt if those same iconic writers copied the voices of others. They broke ground for themselves, though were, without a doubt, influenced by what they themselves had read and been moved by. There is a difference between aspiration born of admiration and being subtly edged towards mimicking the style of a writer seen as successful by the establishment. Nothing wrong with the former… but what motivates the latter?
There is a publicity machine behind the Big Names. Publishing is a business, and like any other, its aim is to make money. Nothing wrong with that at all… except that, as with many things, it is seen as safer to go with the known and proven that the unknown and therefore risky.
What worries me is that the programming has to be based on an accepted standard. One that increasingly appears to feel we should dumb down our writing, spelling out everything in words of no more than one syllable.
Kafka, Shakespeare, Twain… and probably all the great writers of history would, without the shadow of a doubt, make my Carnival in Rio look about as colourful as a convent had they used some of these sites!
I doubt there is a writer alive who wouldn’t be happy to earn the delight engendered by Pratchett, the financial success of a Rowling, the respect shown to King, or the love given to the creations of Tolkien. While the imaginations of such writers are undoubtedly incredible, their style and voice is their own and places their signature upon their work. And as such, they no different from the many thousands of others who may never see more than a handful of their own books sold.
But, we can dream… and from those dreams we weave our stories. Not carbon copies, poor relations or mirror images… our stories.
I have broken pretty much all of the literary ‘rules’ in this one article, from parentheses to colloquialisms. If I’ve left any out, do let me know… I did try…
These programmes do have their place. They are tools for writers. They can highlight possible areas of text that would benefit from polishing. They can suggest alternatives. They may boost the confidence of the novice and the clarity of the experienced writer. But they are just that… tools; designed to be of use to the creative mind, not to constrain it within the narrow tramlines of conformity, nor to insult the intelligence of the reader by making books so easy to skim that mind and imagination need barely be involved in the process.
Reading a book is a wonderful thing. A relationship develops between reader and writer, speaking mind to mind and often heart to heart. The writer’s vision has no life at all once it sleeps between the covers of a closed book. It is only awakened by the imagination of the reader following the echo of a writer’s dream.
We love the work of individual authors because they engage us on a particular and intimate level; their words, as much as their ideas, resonate with something within ourselves. They weave language that portrays and evokes human emotion in a way only another human being could understand. They make us laugh, pull at our heartstrings or keep us on the edges of our seats. Because their voices are unique and recognisable. Your voice too is unique and personal… and no computer programme should be allowed to erase or stifle its song.