A few months ago, I learned that I had made a serious mistake, that I had published my novels before the writing was clean enough for an audience. It was entirely my fault; I simply did not know how much work it took to produce a clean manuscript which read well. I learned that through a few reviews which came back saying, more or less, “I loved the story, despite a handful of typos and simple errors.”
So, for the last few months, I’ve been editing. As a new writer writing new stories, I have sold next to nothing and cannot therefore afford a real editor (deserving an essay unto itself).
So I have been using editing software. Now, there’s good news and bad news. The good news is, there are good editing software packages which handle spelling and basic grammar questions quite well. That’s important for two reasons. First, regardless of genre, no reader reacts well to a typo. So vanquish them! Vanquish them all!! Second, a person cannot catch every mistake simply by reading the text. Familiarity or boredom or exhaustion creeps in, and the reader overlooks the obvious error.
In other words, we’re not robots, and that is the problem, easily fixed. The software, whatever its limitations, does not overlook anything. Ever.
But beyond this point, we encounter difficulty. Some software packages go beyond spelling and grammar, claiming to edit for readability, style, and all sorts of other good things. “Stick with me, kid, and you’ll be Shakespeare by Thursday.” That sort of thing. The software often touts artificial intelligence as the new driver of these capabilities.
Guys and girls, I hate to say this – I wish the claims were all true. It would certainly make my writing easier, for then I could simply write the story as I feel it should be told and rely on the computer to clean up the writing. But the software tests for “good writing” strike me as the sad invention of software people and technies, not writers. Certainly not writers of fiction.
For example, I am told that “Mary was murdered” is bad writing because it is passive, not active. For my tastes – and perhaps this identifies all bad writers – the alternatives to “Mary was murdered” are clunky. You could say, “Peter murdered Mary.” That’s active. But say it three of four times, and the reader will think, “Yes, I know. You told me, remember?” The reader has lost the story; that’s bad.
So I usually and stubbornly characterize “Mary was murdered” by writing “Mary was murdered,” especially when no one cares who the murderer was (that can happen).
And if that’s not active, then why is Mary dead, eh?
Emotion means something in our stories. For example, someone hears a knock on the door, what do they say? “Who’s there?” The answer is, “It’s me.” That’s bad grammar. Good grammar would be, “It is I.” But the reader who reads that will infer that the person at the door is either the King of Denmark, someone pompous, or a graduate of Oxford, and they’d better be right about that. So which is good writing?
As another example, some software tells you to minimize your use of the most commonly used English words – and, but, it, if, then, when, more, less, and so on. Apply this test, and your writing will become unusual and special, or so it is said. I have had a bit more luck with this test. Sometimes, it is possible to rewrite a sentence with fewer words without losing one iota of content. That is always a pleasure, and the sentence is often easier and more fun to read. Therefore, good writing. But it occurs to me, the words used most often are perhaps used most often for a reason. What could it be? Logic and clarity come to mind, and there may be other reasons as well.
So I think I am finding that editing software can be beneficial, but the benefits fall short of the claims. Perhaps that is also true of human editors. In the end, the writer has to use his or her own judgment in telling the story. That process involves applying their vast human experience to the characters, situations, and progress of the story.
Technological progress, like rust, never sleeps. I expect that one of these days, someone will train AI software to write fiction. I wonder how the software will emulate and describe human experience, or those aspects of emotion that are so important to fiction. I imagine an engineer might guide the software through millions or billions of conversations on a social network as a surrogate for human experience.
In that event, I eagerly await those tense and engrossing stories about “my puppy” and “what I had for breakfast this morning.”