Category: Novel Editing Software

It’s / its, there / their / they’re, your / you’re

I’m not going to insult your intelligence by suggesting that you don’t know when to use each of the above words. Of course you do. But your spell checker doesn’t know the difference between them. Regardless of which one appears on the page as you type your 120 words a minute, your word processor will not raise a red flag.

When you’re in the zone, when your creative side is buzzing away at speeds faster than your fingers can type, that’s when the most embarrassing typos put in an appearance. You’re not even looking at what you type, which is why you often end up with three lines in ALL CAPS before you realise you hit the caps lock key. Your fingers know the words, but they occasionally type the wrong one.

Maybe it’s a muscle memory thing, or maybe it’s because your fingers don’t have a brain. The reason doesn’t matter.

It’s the worst amateur mistake a writer can make. Scorn will be heaped upon you. Your fans will desert you. They’ll demand you return the Pulitzer, and the film rights will be back up for sale — with no takers. Yet we’ve all done it, and cringed and wept afterwards.

These words used to form part of the Possibly Misused Words list, but the blowback from writers was so severe that I removed them. (Who, me? Make a childish mistake like that? Never!) Yet you still need to watch out for them. Typos like these, it hardly bears thinking about.

Which is why they were added to the monitored words list by default. This particular check — available in both the free and licensed versions of SmartEdit — allows you to keep track of any word or phrase you wish, and to see each instance alongside the sentence it sits in. The sample below is from a blog post I wrote a few months back.

Misused Words List

There were no errors or typos in the post, but running it through SmartEdit allowed me to quickly check for just those high-school type mistakes (which you never make). Reading the sentence fragments only took a minute, and I could post my post reassured that whatever other grammatical or spelling mistakes I might have made, at least I hadn’t made one of those.

I’ll be running this post through the same check in a couple of minutes, so don’t bother trying to catch me out. Seriously though, you might never tell your friends, fans or writing partners that you check for this sort of thing in your work, but you’d be a fool not to.

If you’re running an earlier version of SmartEdit, these words may not appear in the Monitored Words List, but you can add them yourself in a few seconds, along with any other word of phrase you want to keep an eye on.

08 Apr 2014

Excessive and misused punctuation

I’ve got a cousin who doesn’t understand punctuation. She writes blog posts on marketing and business related stuff and fills her sentences with misused semicolons, ellipsis that are not ellipsis at all, and question marks after exclamation marks as if to say: “This; is a question……. no it’s not, yes it is?!!?

I’ve got a sister who doesn’t understand what a full stop is for. She’ll use a comma instead of a period, joining two unconnected thoughts together in ways that make me scratch my head. Sometimes she leaves out the end-of-sentence punctuation entirely, leaving a paragraph hanging off a cliff without any kind of protective barrier to keep it from falling.

Overuse and misuse of punctuation is a problem that plagues a certain type of writer. If reading Twilight fan-fiction is your guilty pleasure, you’ll have encountered it on many occasions. Usually, this sort of carelessness is caught and tidied up by an editor, but in the self-publishing world we now live in, where many see editor as an ugly word, it’s creeping into published fiction.

Which brings me to the Suspect Punctuation checker in SmartEdit. This neat little piece of functionality is still in its infancy, and will probably be expanded upon over the coming year. As it stands, it draws your attention to crazy punctuation such as ?!!??. It highlights all use of exclamation marks, and as usual, gives you a quick sentence fragment to eyeball so you can check if you really do need to shout out loud at every turn.

I’m considering expanding the Suspect Punctuation checker to highlight all usage of a host of commonly misused punctuation marks — even the semicolon. If you know how to use a semicolon, it won’t be much use to you. Unless you’re John Irving, in which case seeing all those semicolons in one place might make you reconsider when it comes to penning that next novel. There was a reason I had such difficulty getting through those early chapters of A Widow For One Year.

How often you do things is a question that SmartEdit likes to answer for a host of writing related questions. It’s not easy to spot the forest for the trees when you’re editing your own work, which is why it can be useful to see a detailed analysis of just what you’ve been getting up to on those dark evenings in front of your monitor, tapping away into Word or Scrivener.

31 Mar 2014

Catching Inconsistencies in your Novel

There’s more to editing than polishing your prose and fine tuning your story. Let’s assume that you’ve got the basic spelling and grammar checking nailed. Let’s also assume that you’re pulling your hair out at every editing session trying to impress the Man Booker [1] judges in two year’s time. The story is the story, love it or hate it, you’re not changing that.

What does that leave?

The boring stuff. All that dull, grunt work that doesn’t have a creative side, that doesn’t require a spark of anything to complete. The price checking of your novel, the manual lifting that anyone with a pair of shoulders can do, the toilet cleaning that has to get done or someone will lose their job.

Spotting inconsistencies in your novel is one of the hardest things for a writer to do. Every one of those 80,000 words was written by you. You re-read paragraph after paragraph, page after page. Only you don’t, not really. You wrote it, you sweated over it, it sang to you. You remember, on some level, every one of those sentences. You start to read, but more often than not you’re reading from your memory, not from the page.

Did you rename a secondary character half way though? Is there a lingering mention of that first name on page 57 and page 321? If there is, chances are you won’t see it. In your mind’s eye Bill and Jethro are the same person.

What about those minor characters? Rafael the Spanish doorman in chapter one, who resurfaces as Dimitri, holding the door open in chapter eighteen.

Or the Deluded Pyromaniacs Organisation (DPO), who were responsible for a particularly nasty letter way back when your protagonist was getting out of bed for the first time, only to become the Deluded Pyromaniacs Association (DPA) when he notices a placard wielding chain smoker on a street corner as the plot comes to a close.

Spotting these sorts of minor inconsistencies is hard work for a writer. But your editor, and reader, will notice them every time. It’s the sort of carelessness that gets you one star reviews on Amazon, and a head smacking over on Goodreads.

Here’s the sales pitch: SmartEdit helps with this. The dull, boring, shelf stacking side of editing that nobody wants to do but that still has to get done.

There are two checks in SmartEdit that draw attention to just these sorts of inconsistencies — the Proper Nouns List and the Acronyms List. Both work in the same way, pulling out lists of every proper noun and every acronym in your novel, and displaying them alongside a sentence fragment for context.

Running this check will throw up a list that includes DPO and DPA, probably right next to each other, and also D.P.O., if that’s the direction your inconsistency runs. Deluded Pyromaniacs Organisation will be there, as will the Deluded Pyromaniacs Association, sitting side by side.

Bill, Jethro, Rafael and Dimitri will all put in a cameo. A quick eyeball, outside the cushion of your beloved prose really does help to identify phantom character names that were consigned to the trash months ago.

There’s nothing creative about ironing out these sorts of issues, but it has to be done. If you’re a professional writer, you need to produce professional work, and that includes getting rid of the inconsistencies that plague amateur and poorly edited work.

[1] If you’re American, Man Booker = English Pulitzer.

20 Mar 2014

Why there is no Free Editing Software for Writers

Most dedicated software for creative writers is aimed at early stage writing. The market for this software is huge. Poll ten people in a room and at least two of them are writing something—that’s assuming they’ll admit to it, as many writers are a bit shy about their work-in-progress.

The sheer number of people who occupy this early-stage writing sphere is so large that writing software cannot be termed niche software. A host of products, both free and paid, have sprung up to feed this market. The common thread that runs through all of this software is that it is aimed at first-draft writing.

When it comes time to edit that finished first draft, and time to share it with another person, none of this early-stage software can be used. Even powerful and widely used and recommended products such as Scrivener fail when it comes time to share and edit.

Why is this?

Two reasons. Firstly, because that’s when things get complicated—from a programming perspective that is. Features such as Microsoft Word’s Track Changes—used by professional editors all the time—are very difficult and time consuming to design and build. Which leads into the second reason that most writing software fails to properly handle the post-first-draft stage.

Most ‘writers’ never finish a first draft.

This is rarely talked about, but it is THE key reason so much writing software stops at the first-draft stage. If 95% of the users of your software never finish a first draft of a novel, that means only 5% will ever have use for the complicated post-first-draft feature set. Track Changes and whatever alternatives might have popped up are never incorporated into the software because it would only benefit 1 in 20 users.

Building polished, commercial software takes time and effort. A business decision has to be made for each feature that is added, and for low priced writing software (under $100), the business case for hard-core editing functionality cannot be made.

What does this mean for editing software in general?

It means that while early-stage writing software is NOT niche software, actual editing software IS. Its target market is the 5%—those writers who have completed a first draft of their 80,000 word novel. A real achievement, not to be sneezed at, but so rare that any software product aimed at this market cannot be called anything but niche.

The downside here: because the market is so small compared to the market for more general writing software, the number of players in this field is also small. Free software for editing does not exist. Small apps can be found at no cost—such as SmartEdit Lite, or the various word cloud utilities that take all of 5 minutes to build—but heavy duty software for editing is invariably going to cost real money and take real months or years of development time, and that’s not going to change anytime soon.

If you’re waiting for the arrival of free editing software, don’t hold your breath.

[The prompt for this post: the number of search queries hitting this site with a variation of Free Editing Software for Writers. (that’d be the 5%)]

30 Sep 2013

Word and Phrase Repetition — the Proximity Question

I can write an algorithm to do pretty much anything with a simple list of words–which, at its most basic level, is what a short story, novel, screenplay, blog post, article or essay is.

Count the number of times a word appears–no problem. Count the number of times each phrase appears–a little trickier, but still no problem. And I can see the use of these checks to writers. Are you relying a little too much on a particular word or phrase? Do you have a habit of beginning one sentence too many with a particular word or phrase? Has an unusual or rarely used word turned up four times in your 80,000 word novel?

This is what computers do. It’s what they’re for. Spotting patterns, counting things, making it possible to draw conclusions by presenting facts that are difficult for the human eye to spot.

But these checks are only as useful as they are useful. Adding complexity just because you can–not a good idea.

I’ve been asked a few times by SmartEdit users to improve the word and phrase frequency counters to show the proximity of repetitions. Other software does this, so why doesn’t SmartEdit?

It’s been suggested that using the phrase “On the other hand” 250 times in a novel might not, in itself, be a problem, not if those 250 occurrences are spread out evenly over the entire work. Not if one use of the phrase doesn’t pop up within a page of another.

I disagree. Using that particular phrase half a dozen times in a full length novel, not to mention 250 times, is a problem regardless of how close one occurrence is to another.

The proximity checker?

Unless there’s real value for the writer, there’s no gain in adding such complexity. Data for the sake of data, complexity without purpose. Rather than add value, it detracts–from the software and from the results. It makes the writer’s job of editing more difficult, not less; makes them question deliberate use of phrase and word repetition.

The power of this check is not in catching excessive word or phrase usage in a paragraph or on a single printed page, it’s in catching the minor repetitions of words and phrases that jar the reader when encountered more than once.

I remember reading a novel where the writer used the word opined once in every chapter. Fair enough, they were long chapters, and the writer may have felt comfortable with the distance between each opined. But for me, the reader, every time I encountered that dreadful dialog tag was a slap in the face. What was he thinking? Had I not been inflicted with enough opines to last a dozen life times? Can his characters not simply say something?

Why write about this today?

I’m reading Jeanette Winterson’s children’s novel Tanglewreck, and have just reached a passage describing a character who I’m guessing will prove to be one of the bad guys. This wonderful description of Abel Darkwater would be flagged in bright red flashing lights by any sort of word repetition proximity checker.

Abel Darkwater was a round man.

He had a round face, and a round body, and round rings on his round fingers. The gold loops of his pocket-watch chain were round, and when he drew out his watch, which he did as the taxi pulled up to the door, his watch was round and fat and gold.

But the repetition is deliberate–obviously. As is the phrase repetition in Dr. King’s I Have a Dream speech.

Repetition, when those words or phrases are in near proximity to each other, is not the purpose of the various repetition checks in SmartEdit. Their purpose is to catch those dreadful opines, scattered like acne over the length of a novel, forever popping at the wrong times and spewing all sorts of unpleasantness upon the reader.

So, for now, the word and phrase repetition counters in SmartEdit will remain as they are. Because even though the algorithm could be written without much difficulty, I’m not convinced it should be.

07 Aug 2013

SmartEdit Version 3 — Coming Soon

Work on the next version of SmartEdit has been completed, and we’re delighted with the results. It is, without a doubt, a huge improvement over the current version, and we’re looking forward to getting it out there. Version 3 is due for release on Thursday, August 1st.

A little background: The commercial version of SmartEdit is seven months old. We’ve deliberately held off on any major changes during those months so that we could gather enough feedback from users, thereby ensuring that any changes introduced were the right changes, and not merely a quick response to the requests of a minority of users.

Over the past few months we’ve learned that most of SmartEdit’s users come from a Microsoft Word background, that most users are either published authors or authors who have finished at least one first draft of a novel, and that many of those users do not directly edit their work within SmartEdit, preferring to use the results of SmartEdit’s checks when editing in their favourite word processor — usually MS Word.

How has this impacted version 3?

We’ve redesigned the user interface from the ground up, bringing it more into line with MS Word, and other modern software. We’ve introduced a new, fuller featured word processor that can handle Word and Open Office files — no more saving to RTF or copying and pasting. We’ve made these changes so that users no longer need to bounce backwards and forwards between Word and SmartEdit. They can now complete their first draft in Word, open the same file in SmartEdit where they can feel comfortable making whatever changes are required, then move back to Word for the final manuscript preparation stage.

Here are a few screenshots of the new version:

Screenshot 1
Screenshot 2
Screenshot 3

What does this mean for existing users?

As the software is only seven months old, we’ll be allowing all current users to upgrade to version 3 at no cost. Once it’s available, you simply download and install over the existing version, and you’ll be good to go.

For new users, the price will be increasing on August 1st to $59.95. This is still a huge bargain, making SmartEdit one of the better priced editing products for writers on the market. Unlike many competitors, SmartEdit is not subscription based, so a single purchase is all that is necessary unless you wish to upgrade to a future version. If you are a new user, you should purchase before August 1st, to avail of the cheaper rate.

We hope you like the new version as much as we do.

21 Jul 2013

Extracting Character Names — How impossible it proved to be

The initial plan for version 2 of SmartEdit included extracting a list of character names and displaying them alongside all the dialog used by that character through an entire novel. This would have allowed the writer to easily check each individual character’s dialog as part of the editing process.

Sounds great, right?

If it had been possible to implement such a feature it would have been of huge benefit to writers, allowing them to monitor a character’s dialog over the course of an entire work — keeping a close watch on word usage to spot words, phrases and speech that didn’t fit the character, and allowing the writer to catch inconsistencies that are easy to miss when the dialog is read as part of a much larger work.

It wasn’t possible, and this surprised me. My early thoughts were that it would turn out to be a straight forward task. When we read a well written novel, there is rarely any doubt as to who is speaking. Dialog tags accompany most dialog (Sarah said, Mr. Smith replied, etc.), so how hard could it be to use those tags to build a dialog map for each character?

The problem I found was that in most novels, character names are rarely tied directly to dialog. Now and then, sure, but across the length of a novel they may only appear 5% of the time. The remaining 95% of that character’s dialog is attributed using “he said” or “she answered,” combinations of descriptive identifiers such as “her friend replied,” or no tags at all.

Once a well written conversation gets going, it’s not uncommon to read full pages of dialog where no actual character names are used. A sufficiently intelligent computer may eventually be able to work through this and put such a map together, but for version 2 of SmartEdit it was not possible.

10 May 2013

Version 2.101 Released on 28th March

A new version of SmartEdit was released this afternoon (Irish time). This is the first new release since the licensed version was launched in December 2012, and contains a number of small improvements based on feedback from users.

Two areas of SmartEdit have been significantly improved: the Misused Words list and the Properties tab.

The Misused Words list was very much a work in progress (and still is). The first version returned far too many results, making it difficult to use. The purpose of the feature is to highlight words and phrases that are often misused in place of other words. Examples would be: complement and compliment, advice and advise, lead and led.

The first problem with the previous version was that it also included all to common words such as “their, there, they’re” and “to, too,” which caused the results list to balloon to unmanageable proportions, often concealing genuine problems behind a long list of commonly used words. The second problem was that both words in the word pairs were given equal weighting, when the reality is that usually, only one of the two words or phrases would commonly be misused.

Example: “should of” in place of “should have.”

I cringe whenever I read that phrase, or its all too common sister phrases “would of, could of.” The new version of SmartEdit raises each instance of “should of” as a problem, but ignores “should have,” as it’s rarely used in error.

The more commonly misspelled words such as “their, there, they’re” have been moved to the user defined Monitored Words List. This means you can still keep an eye on them – if you’re prone to those sorts of errors – but you can chose to exclude them from checks if you so wish.

The second major change to version 2.101 was to the Properties tab. The Properties tab lists general information about your work, such as word counts, smart and straight quite counts, as well as hyphen and dash counts. It’s especially useful to identify misused dashes or free floating straight quotes when you thought you had smart quotes switched on.

Each result now works as a link. Clicking on the link jumps to the first occurrence of the problem, allowing you to correct it straight away. Subsequent occurrences can be reached by using the SmartEdit Find dialog, which is automatically pre-filled with the character you’re looking for.

This is a major usability improvement.

Minor changes included in this release: a re-sorting of the sentence start list alphabetically, making it easier to come back to your editing at a later point and pick up where you left off. I expect this change to be rolled out to other results lists in the future.

The 10 Day trial has been reset for all users. This means that if you tried out SmartEdit back in December, you can now download the latest version, and your trial will restart, allowing you to test the software again.

Version 2.101 is free to all registered users. To install, close your current version of SmartEdit, then download and install the new version.

28 Mar 2013

Writers don’t need special software

In centuries past, books were hand copied by monks in distant lands, laboured over for months or years at a time, then read by a few dozen, or at most a few hundred people. Then Gutenberg came along, and before they knew what was happening, monks all over Europe were looking for jobs and the ordinary man on the street was reading the latest trashy novel.

But at least those first drafts were hand written, in whatever mangled scrawl the writer used. In many cases, hand written early drafts are still proudly on display in museums all over the world. And then the typewriter came along and made first drafts just another printed page.

Woe to writing!

The English author Kingsley Amis never used a word processor. He thought they were god awful machines that could never replace his trusty Adler typewriter that had served him well for thirty years.

It’s 2013, and we still hear variations of the monk’s and Kingsley’s laments from Luddites across the world. The only difference is the target of their ire. No one these days has a problem with printed books. No one wishes to go back to the oral tradition, before this pesky ‘writing’ took hold and changed storytelling forever. No one apart from those living in Germanic religious sects in the US wants to use a typewriter.

The word processor is the new all-you-need writer’s aid. It’s the quill and the typewriter of today, and Microsoft Word is the flagship. God help anyone who suggests that something new might be of use to writers.

Absurd.

Sure, writers today could write their novels by hand. They could use a typewriter. They could turn to figure painting and tell their story by adorning the walls of French caves with pictures of the Mars Rover.

But why?

Specialised technology exists in every field. A soccer Mom drives a different car to a salesman, who drives a different car to a policeman and an eco-warrior. Travel to any large city by train, and chances are you’ll take an intercity powered by petroleum of some kind to reach the city, a light rail system run on electricity to reach your destination suburb, and a tram or bus to reach the street or building you’re heading for. Specialised technology to meet special needs. People who live different lives want different cars. Different types of travel are best served by different types of transport.

Writing is no different.

A journalist wants one thing from his writing software, a student writing an essay for college wants something a little different, the guy putting a resumé together something else entirely.

And the novelist, the poet, the screenplay writer?

They want something just that little bit unique too. And why not? It wasn’t the Adler typewriter that made Kingsley Amis a great writer. The spell checker in Microsoft Word didn’t turn mediocre writers into Pulitzer or Booker winners. The tool itself doesn’t improve writing, all it does is make the working life of the individual writer that little bit easier and more productive.

The creative stuff, that thing that great books are made of, comes from inside the writer’s head. Writers may not need special software, but why shouldn’t they have it?

27 Mar 2013