Because professional editors are so expensive (and worth every penny), the purchase of electronic editing software can be a smart investment. Here's a review of the four best tools for authors offering "first-pass" or "last-pass" editing to clean up mistakes in spelling, grammar, and punctuation. These tools do much more work than the built-in spelling and grammar checkers in your word processor. They alert you to overuse of adverbs, clichés, redundancies, overlong sentences, sticky sentences and glue words*, vague and abstract words, diction, and misuse of dialog tags, to name just a few. Some of these tools will even connect you with a human editor with a click of a button.
*Glue words (also known as conjunctions) connect sentences, clauses or words within a clause. Some of the most frequently used are: and, but, if, through and or. They act as transitions within your sentences, linking nouns, verbs, adverbs and adjectives. They hold a piece together and help the reader navigate smoothly through the text. There are about 200 glue words in the English language. Sticky sentences contain too many glue words and not enough meaningful working words, and slow readers down with their length and complexity.
Practical Editing Software Apps for Indie Authors, Editors & Publishers
In alphabetical order, here are my picks for best editing software for creative writers, editors, and publishers. (I did not review similar editing software targeted to business users.)
It's worth noting that each tool offers a Word plugin only for Windows. Word for Mac is apparently challenging to program, and so no one offers it yet. The workaround is to import and export your doc file to the online version of the tool.
- AutoCrit for Mac and Word for Windows annual subscription $144
- Grammarly for browser annual subscription and Word for Windows plugin $139.95
- ProWritingAid free online with $35-$120 paid premium with Word for Windows plugin
- SmartEdit offers a full-featured 10-day trial, $57 online tool, $67 Word for Windows plugin
To compare these tools I used the first chapter from a book I'm writing that I thought was pretty well edited. You'll see that it could still use some work.
Pricing & Unique Features
- $144 annual subscription
- 14-day money-back guarantee
- Compare to published works feature
- Plagiarism detection
AutoCrit offers a lot of information, well organized in a clean interface. In my story, it revealed an excess of generic descriptions, passive voice, and too many initial pronouns, names, and "ing" words. I also use too many "ly" adverbs. On the plus side, I'm great at showing and not telling, and I don't repeat words and phrases or use a lot of filler words or clichés.
All these were easy fixes once I was made aware of them. But hey, if you're feeling depressed about your errors, just click the "compare to fiction" tab to show how your writing stacks up against published works, including mass-market paperbacks and bestsellers. You may be surprised.
Click the image to view a detailed manuscript analysis and you'll see that it provides a lot of constructive criticism in a clean, easy-to-read layout. I like the visual charts representing sentence length and paragraph pace, too.
Pricing & Features
- $139.95 annual subscription
- 7-day money-back guarantee
- Browser extension that follows you around the web
- Send to human proofreader feature
- Plagiarism detection
Grammarly delivers information both line-by-line and in summary form. I bought an annual subscription last March, and I like the way it follows me around the web to check my WordPress blog posts, my Google Docs, Gmail, and comment and feedback forms on others' blog posts and articles. It also corrects my social media posts and comment fields on others' posts. Because I am a professional writer, it is embarrassing when I make basic spelling and grammatical errors in quick, social media posts and emails, so I appreciate this feature.
Like most robust editing tools, Grammarly offers settings for various kinds of writing: business documents, novels, creative nonfiction, medical, technical, and casual. I set mine to creative nonfiction. And it looks like I have some work to do!
Pricing & Features
- Free online or $35 annually, 2-year $55, 3-year $70, Lifetime $120
- 14-day money-back guarantee
- Google Docs add-on
- Plagiarism detection
- Create your own rules and house-style
- Developer API
Of all the tools reviewed, ProWritingAid may offer the most value, though the interface is not as clean as the others. I was so impressed that I bought the $35 annual subscription because of the Google Docs extension and WordPress plug-in.* I'll still use Grammarly because it follows me everywhere on the web but, with their thorough critique, I think ProWritingAid will make me a better writer. As an additional bonus, I think the reports will also help me communicate better with my authors.
*An extension or add-on is a little program that adds to or extends the capabilities of a web browser in some way. There are countless extensions for the Chrome, Firefox, Safari, and Internet Explorer web browsers. (My favorite Chrome browser extensions are for Bitly, Pinterest, Evernote, and Feedly, but that's a topic for another post!)
Similarly, a plug-in allows a program to be customized to add to its capabilities. WordPress developers have created over 40,000 WordPress plugins to extend the capabilities of this popular website content management and blogging platform in astonishing ways. Your web professional has probably installed more than a few on your author website. (Here's a review of 20 Must-Have WordPress Plugins for 2015. Another good blog topic. Please let me know!)
ProWritingAid displays helpful suggestions to improve your writing
ProWritingAid also offers a couple of advanced features you may be interested in using. As a publisher, I can create my own rules and house style that detects patterns, wildcards*, overused words, dialog, repeats, and lets me create customized advice messages for my authors. Their developer API allows software developers to add writing analysis to applications they are developing.
*A wildcard is a special symbol that stands for one or more characters. Many operating systems and applications support wildcards for identifying files and directories. This enables you to select multiple files with a single specification. The asterisk(*) is a wild card that stands for any combination of letters. Specifying m* refers to all files that begin with m. Similarly, the specification m*.doc refers to all files that start with m and end with.doc. Many word processors also support wild cards for performing text searches. (Definition modified from Webopedia.)
Pricing & Features
- $50 desktop download
- Free 10-day trial
SmartEdit is the first-pass-editing tool for creative writers and novelists working on Windows. Since I'm Mac-based, I couldn't review it but gleaned a lot of information from the screenshots and user reviews on their site.
Like AutoCrit and Grammarly, SmartEdit runs a series of checks on your work and highlights areas of concern. You can open your manuscript directly in SmartEdit, or copy and paste from your word processor into the SmartEdit Editor.
Unique features include a sentence length graph and detection of curly/straight quotes, hyphen and em-dash counts. A sentence-start list displays your sentences and counts the number of times you begin them with a particular word, which can be shockingly instructive.
SmartEdit, like ProWritingAid, may deserve consideration by professional editors and publishers as it allows you to export lists of problems the program caught to Excel, PDF, HTML, CSV, and text. This kind of feedback helps a lot when communicating with writers and editors.
I don't think you can go wrong with any of these programs. I had bought Grammarly before I knew there were other options, and I like it. But if I'd been made aware of one the others first, I might have snapped it up just as quickly.
The fact is, I know that editing is the number one most critical element that determines my success in making a living as a writer. If you're an author, that's compounded. The success of a book depends on the quality of its editing, which is expensive. You want your editor to focus on the hard stuff like organization, consistency, credibility, pace, and plot, and not be distracted with basic spelling, grammar, and punctuation. You want her to help develop your manuscript into a work of art.
All these products have beautiful user interfaces, and they've managed to organize complex information into easy-to-understand formats. I think that the simple and attractive interfaces that AutoCrit, Grammarly, and SmartEdit offer are most appealing to the majority of writers. ProWritingAid might overwhelm the average writer, but I think you'll grow to like it. Anyway, it's affordable enough to pair with another tool, as I did with Grammarly.
If you're a publishing professional; that is, an editor, publisher, or you run a group blog, I think that you'll probably want to choose between ProWritingAid and SmartEdit. If you write a lot of content spontaneously on the web, the fact that Grammarly is always there with you is a big plus. I don't mean to leave SmartEdit out, but I work on Mac and not Windows.
All except SmartEdit offer plagiarism checkers. In fact, when one tool accused me of plagiarism I was quite insulted until I clicked through to the link and found part of my story in a blog post on my website.
I can see that the plagiarism tool would be handy for professors, researchers, and other academics who may have absorbed so many texts they can no longer remember if an idea came from someone else's writing. Not to mention teachers who suspect their students of plagiarizing.
It's interesting that the two products that seem more squarely aimed at writers - AutoCrit and Grammarly - are significantly more expensive at around $140 each. With SmartEdit at $57 and $67, the most full-featured product is a bargain. You can use ProWriteAid for free on their website, and they offer a free Google extension for the Chrome browser and a free WordPress plugin.
Other Writing and Editing Aids
When researching the best editing tools for creative writers I came across a lot of other good writing and editing aids I'd like to tell you about. These include free and low-cost simple editing tools, collaborative online editing tools, text-to-voice reading applications, and editing tools with unique features that may attract certain kinds of writers, editors, and publishers. I'll review them in my next blog posts.
Are the tools I've listed in this post new to you or have you been using one or the other for a while? Did I miss your favorite tool? I'd love to get your input on the tools you like (and don't like), and tools you think I should include in future reviews, in the comments below.
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