Using writing aides.
Authors are not infallible when it comes to grammar, spelling, pace, tone, etc. So from time to time, we lean on writing tools to give us a nudge in the right direction.
There are lots to choose from; the most popular are always showing up in my feeds. And for a long time, I thought I could get by without using them. But that was a mistake, and I eventually invested in one. I am not shilling or selling any product here. I am merely pointing out some pros and cons with the platform that I use. I use ProWritingAid and have an annual subscription.
Whenever I finish a tricky paragraph or chapter, I upload the document to the online tool and watch as the program underlines words and phrases in a range of colours. It’s fantastic. The program also gives useful advice on what could be wrong and even offers suggested changes. And my favourite part–the accuracy chart that tells you if your work is within an “acceptable” range. Wow.
This helps me polish my work and does a great job of educating me in aspects of grammar and punctuation that I thought I had grasped years ago. But, like many people, I often write like I speak, and have a tendency to misuse commas and semicolons, as well as falling for the simplest fault–starting multiple sentences with the same word.
However, if you’re anything like me, you’ll strive to score 100% (or as close as possible), and this is a big problem for writers. When making the suggested changes, especially if you act on everything, your voice within the pages will fade away. A computer program’s idea of perfect writing will replace the tone and patterns associated with your voice. Now, that is not a good thing. If it was meant to be this way, computers would write stories instead of writers like you and me.
To test this, I applied it to the opening chapter of August–Lost. I printed the post-edit version and put it to one side. Then, I opened it through my writing tool and acted on every single suggested amendment. Each word was carefully replaced, and I amended each phrase to bring the sliding bars into the green. By the standards of the overall report, this was the perfect version of chapter one.
Armed with both copies, I went to see a friend who loves to read and will devour a crime thriller novel in one sitting. I offered her both versions but didn’t tell her what I was doing. I just asked her to read them and tell me which she preferred, and why.
By the time I made a coffee, she was already reading through the original. She was sitting with her feet tucked under herself in the “Go away, I’m reading,” position, and had a pleasant grin on her face. She looked as though she was thoroughly enjoying it. I placed her brew on the table next to her and took a seat to wait.
My first chapter is quite long, but when she was reading it, the world didn’t exist. But when she picked up the amended version, a frown appeared almost immediately. Then she reached for her coffee, took a sip and put it back. Her body language changed, and she became distracted by the dog walking into the room. Then she took another sip.
All in all, it took her twice as long to read V2 thanks to the dog, the coffee, her phone vibrating, and changing her sitting position. Bear in mind, during her first read through, the dog, the coffee and her phone were all there. But none of it distracted her.
When she finished, I already knew the answer, but I asked anyway. Which one is better?
Without hesitation, she said version one. And I didn’t even have to ask why, because she gave a breakdown of how she felt “in the room” with the characters and how her heart was thumping as the scene unfolded. She even felt fear and sorrow and all the things I hope my readers feel when they dive into chapter one.
But V2 was a different story. She found the language to be incomplete and empty. The sense of emotion and feeling were absent. “It felt like I was reading an instruction manual,” were the words she eventually said, and her facial expression told me she was trying to be polite and restrained.
When I told her what V2 was, she said, “It read like a robot had written it,” and the proof was in the pudding, as they say. But to double check, I sent my sister the amended version too. She’d already read the entire book and loved it (I know family are not the most reliable source for constructive criticism), but she was cold and flat when she called to give me feedback. Her words were, “please don’t tell me you’ve changed it to this.” Then followed up with, “The first copy was much better. Don’t use this.”
Now, don’t get me wrong; I love the platform. I look forward to uploading my work to it because it is a brilliant tool. But that’s all it is. It’s an assistant. After all, the person handing the tools to a brain surgeon can be an excellent assistant, but it’s the surgeon who does the deed. And you are the surgeon here. The writing aid is just handing you the tools for you to do your work.
Each writer has their own voice, and with every word, sentence and phrase; the reader will hear you. But if you rely on a computer program to do the heavy lifting, your reader will notice the change. The sudden disappearance of your voice will drag them out of the narrative and they won’t thank you for it.
Don’t be afraid to lean on them for help with grammar etc, but you must trust your words. You chose them for a reason and no program is capable of understanding why. But your readers will. The world you build for them, the characters you introduce them to, and the emotions you invoke, are all real because of the human element of writing.
Trust your words and show us your world.
We are writers.