One of SmartEdit’s checks has been singled out by users as the cause of much frustration and hair pulling. Not because there’s anything wrong with the check itself, or the manner in which it presents its results. More because it makes the writer question their own understanding of the English language, and that can be painful for any writer.
The trouble maker is the List of Possibly Misused Words. The purpose of this check is to pull out every instance of a particular set of words — words that are often misused in place of similar sounding or similarly spelled words by a small portion of writers. That misuse may be unintentional misuse due to a lack of understanding of which of the two words should be used. Or it may be unintentional due to a misspelling or typo that will not be caught be a spell checker.
Here’s an extract from the result set for The Wonderful Wizard of Oz — a terrible choice of book for a demo, as it can hardly be called unedited. You should see what happens when you run a 200,000 word fan-fiction novel through SmartEdit.
The grid presents the writer with a list of words used next to the sentence fragment where they were found, along with a possible alternate word that the writer might have meant to use instead. In 98% of cases, the word will have been used correctly, but in a small number of cases — or a large number, depending on how good your knowledge of the English language — the wrong word will have been used.
And here is where the frustration often sets in. In some cases, the decision is easy to make: a canon shoots balls, a cannon wears black and looks solemn. In others, many of us have to stop and think for a few seconds: should you bare with me or bear with me?
That’s the trouble with software. It can pluck a word or phrase that it’s been told to pluck out of a novel, but it can’t know with any degree of certainty whether there’s an actual problem. That’s for the writer to decide, and if the writer has been neglecting his or her reading over the past few years, that decision can sometimes be difficult to make.
But not for you, of course. I’m sure your knowledge of English is sufficient that 99.9% of your word usage is spot on. But do you really want to run the risk of letting that fraction of one percent loose on an unsuspecting readership? Is your vanity today worth risking your reputation tomorrow?
Because make no mistake, if you write Literature with a capital L, and are publicly proud of doing so, a sew/sow kind of slip up will be even harder to live down.
Below, you’ll find the Misused Words results list for this blog post.
The earliest version of SmartEdit, way back in 2011, contained a small set of tools that counted words and phrases in a manuscript. Word repetition counters were not new — they had appeared in one form or another in various tools and utilities, the most common incarnation being the ever popular word cloud that showed up on the sidebars of blogs a few years ago.
The phrase counter was new — or if not completely new, it had not been incorporated into other software packages that I was aware of. Hardly surprising, as unlike the word counter, coming up with a list of unique phrases and the number of times they are used is not an easy task — not if you want it to work on a 150,000 word novel as well as a 500 word blog post.
Writing code to extract useful information from a snippet of prose is easy, which is why web based utilities pop up every few weeks doing just that. Extending that functionality to handle novel length works is not easy. Which is why these same web based offerings fall over at the first hint of an 80,000 word novel.
The word and phrase counters formed the core of SmartEdit, as it first appeared within PageFour and later as standalone, free software. They still exist in SmartEdit Lite, the free version of SmartEdit available to download from this website.
Instead of selling the benefits of the phrase counter to you, I’m gong to show you. As part of the early (and ongoing) testing of SmartEdit, a large number of published novels were run through the various checks, as were a number of fan-fiction novels.
My reasoning behind running the fan-fiction works through SmartEdit was that they were likely to be of less quality than published novels by established authors, and as such, would throw up a lot more issues for SmartEdit to catch. Basically, they would be a better representation of a first-draft of a novel than a work that had already suffered through an editor’s pen and many months of editing by the writer.
This proved to not always be the case. In some instances, published works were delivering shocking results, the kind of results that might mean the book should never have been published. I have little doubt that if the authors of some of these works had been no-name writers submitting a first novel, that that novel would have been rejected.
I won’t name the writer whose work was used when writing this blog post — I wouldn’t like to embarrass them — but will say that they are a New York Times best selling author, with double digit blockbusters under their belt.
The novel runs to about 150,000 words, not untypical for the genre, and the results are a fair representation of this writer’s most recent work. Here are some samples from the phrase counter list in SmartEdit:
for that matter
on the other hand
at the moment
shook his head
shook her head
in the first place
whether or not
after a moment
There’s a lot of head shaking going on in this novel, and probably amongst readers of the novel as well.
Phrase repetition is a tool often used deliberately by writers — Martin Luther King’s I Have a Dream speech being one of the most famous examples. But in the case of the sample data shown above, there is nothing deliberate going on. It’s simple laziness and lack of editing. The handful of phrases I pulled out represent only the tip of the iceberg for this writer — once the number of occurrences get lower, the number of repeated phrases rises dramatically.
The nine phrases shown above would have been problematic if they had occurred even ten times each. The actual figures demonstrate the lack of editing that can happen when a writer becomes so popular that they feel editing is no longer necessary.
If you think your writing is so polished and your editing abilities so strong that you wouldn’t benefit from seeing a list just like this, then I challenge you to send me a copy of that draft. Many writers are afraid of lists like this, feeling it detracts from the creative process, but how creative does that list above look to you? Is a novel full of these sorts of repeated phrases something you would be proud to put your name to?
You don’t need to buy the professional version of SmartEdit to avail of this particular feature. It’s available in the free, Lite version as well, though the user interface is not as powerful.
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  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.
 If you’re American, Man Booker = English Pulitzer.
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.