Updated: Feb 28
Freelance copy editor and proofreader in the UK shares an insight into whether software like Grammarly and ProWritingAid can ever replace a human copy editor!
So, you’re a writer. And you’ve written a novel.
First of all, you should celebrate your achievement and be really proud of yourself, because that’s way further than most people get.
But now, you’re asking yourself, “How do I polish it up, so it’s ready for submission? Sure, I can pay a professional editor a fair chunk of money to go through the manuscript in detail, find all the errors and correct them for me. But why would I do that, when I can just put it through Grammarly or ProWritingAid instead?”
Trust me, I can understand where you’re coming from.
Professional book editing services can be expensive, and getting feedback from an editor is going to take way longer than just adding a filter to your document that highlights all the mistakes for you. But, not only can a human editor give you so much more than editing software, getting feedback from a human will also help you avoid introducing errors into your work where they didn’t already exist.
Yes, that’s right – editing software will tell you to change words and punctuation where it’s actually incorrect to do so!
But before we get into that, let’s take a look at what Grammarly and ProWritingAid can actually do for you – because they do have their uses.
I’m a professional copy editor, and I use Grammarly myself! Not as a replacement for my own eyes and judgement (I always, always go through all my clients’ writing with a fine-tooth comb myself, as that’s what they’re paying me for). But editing software can be invaluable, as a backup to catch tiny errors I might have missed.
Grammarly talks a good game, offering ‘style, tone and clarity improvements’, on top of correcting errors in spelling, grammar and punctuation. It can also be used as a plagiarism checker, if that’s something you need, which a human editor can’t provide, without using some kind of software themselves.
ProWritingAid promises a grammar checker, style editor, and writing mentor in one package.
Both will highlight where they identify what they consider to be errors, and also offer suggestions as to how you can improve the clarity, smoothness and flow of your writing.
If you’re confident in your skill as a writer, you should be able to use these tools to interrogate your prose and make useful decisions about whether or not it needs to be altered, based on what the software suggests.
I will always be grateful to the client who first introduced me to Grammarly and insisted I use it to check my editing work on her book, before submitting it back to her. It was very early on in my career as an editor, and I had never considered I might need to use checking software.
But it’s saved my bacon many a time, because it nearly always spots one or two minor typos and tiny errors I’ve missed in a document, which otherwise would have remained uncorrected. And it also sometimes makes me think about specific changes and consider whether or not I’ve made the right choice.
And that’s where you might need a human editor to help you out, if you don’t have enough knowledge or experience to identify where the software’s suggestions are correct or incorrect, relevant or irrelevant. Where writers can get into trouble is when they blindly accept all the suggestions the software makes, without reviewing them for accuracy and appropriateness. You always need to check and think about every suggestion, and make a decision as to whether or not you want to accept it. Because the software will often, in my experience, offer corrections that are, in fact, incorrect!
For example, in a novel I’m editing at the moment, there’s a sentence that reads: “This meant he and I were alone in the building…” For some reason, Grammarly thinks ‘were’ in this sentence needs to be changed to ‘was’, because it’s only registering ‘I’ as the subject of the verb, thus thinking it needs to be singular rather than plural. This is incorrect.
Grammarly will also try to formalise language where the writer might want it to be informal; for example, in dialogue. Or it will misinterpret the specific usage of a particular phrase. For example, it always wants me to put a hyphen in ‘long-term’, which is correct when saying ‘long-term thinking’ but incorrect when saying ‘in the long term’. It does the same thing with ‘real time’, wanting me to add a hyphen, even when it’s not appropriate – eg ‘you can make changes to the file in real time’, as opposed to ‘it was a real-time action game’.
I also disagree with Grammarly fairly often on comma placement, which I know can be a personal choice in some cases. I always want to put more commas in than Grammarly does, but it also sometimes suggests putting them where I don’t think they need to go. In a lot of instances, this has less to do with technical correctness, and more to do with preferences of style.
Sometimes, though, its assessment of comma placement is just plain wrong. For instance, I was editing a blog post for a client recently and used Grammarly as a final check, as I always do after reading through it carefully myself first. The sentence in question began: ‘After all the corrections have been made…’ and Grammarly suggested it needed a comma after ‘all’, presumably thinking the writer was using the common phrase ‘after all’ as a way to start the sentence.
Related Post: 6 Types of Book Editors: Which One Do You Need Right Now? A Professional Book Editor's Guide
So, even though these programs can be very useful, and are getting better all the time, they’re still not infallible, and can’t be relied upon to ‘improve’ your writing in every instance. Context is everything, and the software will often not be able to identify when a phrase or word is being used in a way that’s outside of the most common examples.
Machines base their analysis of text on hard and fast rules, after all, and language contains many aspects that are exceptions to basic rules. And editing software is not always going to recognise that. This is particularly the case when you’re breaking the rules deliberately for effect; for example, using fragmented sentences to increase pace and tension or using punctuation in unconventional ways for specific reasons.
Over and above that, even if you feel you would be able to spot which suggestions are valid and which aren’t, a human editor is always going to be of more use than a machine – because they will be able to feel the emotions conveyed by the writing, and understand more completely its overall intention and effect. A machine is never going to be able to spot that a scene is meant to evoke sadness or meant to put the reader on the edge of their seat. It may be able to highlight oft-repeated words or the use of weak verbs, but it won’t be able to analyse whether or not those are the best words to bring your reader to tears or make them afraid to go to bed alone.
No matter how confident you are in your ability to check and refine your own writing, or to challenge and make decisions about the suggestions checking software may offer you, it’s still always a good idea to get at least one other, if not more, sets of eyes on your writing, before you declare it ready to submit or publish.
Other people are always going to find errors you don’t spot, and will most likely respond to your writing in different ways, which you may not expect. And having those eyes belong to someone who edits writing as a profession is going to give you access to a whole lot of useful experience and expertise.
Much like using a software tool like Grammarly or ProWritingAid, you are, of course, free to agree or disagree with the suggestions your editor might make. And you should always review the feedback carefully before accepting all the changes. It’s your writing, after all, and you have the final say on every word. But a professional editor can open you up to possibilities you never would have thought of on your own, and offer suggestions you’re never going to get from a machine.