I spent much of this past week refining a story I’d written for an open submissions call. Over the years, I’ve developed into a ruthless editor of my own prose, thanks in part to my experience editing other writers’ work. Editing is not the time for sentimentality. I tightened the plotline, got rid of passages that didn’t move the story forward, removed weasel words, and erased anything that started to bore me on the second, third, or seventh go-round.
Finally, the manuscript was ship-shape. It was a piece I was proud of.
And I was 600 words over the submission call’s maximum word count.
What’s a writer to do when they’ve revised a story so many times they can no longer see its flaws? While humans make the best editors, they’re not always available thirteen hours before a deadline.
That’s where online copyediting software comes in.
Copyediting software is different from the run-of-the-mill spellchecker that came with your word processor, and it’s more robust than services like Grammarly, which focus only on grammar and punctuation. Those services are useful—I’ve never regretted passing a blog through Grammarly before publishing it—but they won’t help you trim fat from your stories.
- run-on sentences
- words that tend not to add meaning, such as very, several, sort of, kind of, or really
- unnecessary adverbs
- repetitive use of words (these vary from writer to writer; according to Editsaurus, I’m inordinately fond of “but”)
- overly complicated words, like “utilize” where “use” would do
- passive voice, which tends to slow readers down
Here’s a little tour of the apps I used to help me identify chaff in my “ship-shape” manuscript. Two of them are free, one has a free version and a paid version, and the final one is for paid subscribers only, although it does offer a free trial period.
Hemingway is one of the more well-known of the copy editing web applications, probably because of its minimalist interface and memorable name, a nod to the Nobel Prize-winning author Ernest Hemingway. Hemingway was famous for his unadorned prose. He eschewed adverbs and tended toward simple sentence structures. While his stories were complex, the language he used to tell them was not.
The Hemingway app evaluates your prose for simplicity and ease of understanding. When you paste your text into its editor, it highlights:
- adverbs, encouraging you to keep adverbs at less than 1.4 percent of your total word count.
- passive voice. It allows about two instances of passive voice for every hundred words. (As a side note, it’s always good to brush up on what “passive voice” means. Many online writing sites claim any use of the phrase “to be” is passive voice. It is not.)
- overly complicated words.
- complex sentences.
Here’s a screenshot of Hemingway in action:
The Hemingway app acts as a word processor, allowing you to write and edit right in the app. It makes suggestions as you type, right in the same space where you’re working. If it highlights an area yellow, which means it’s “hard to read,” you can go right into that highlighted area and edit the text directly. This makes it different from other free apps, as we’ll see below.
Hemingway has free and paid versions. The paid version allows you to work offline and has some other perks as well.
editMinion is a totally free editing app, and it emphasizes different aspects of writing than Hemingway. It doesn’t check for complex sentences, but it does check for lots of things Hemingway doesn’t, including:
- weak words that don’t add much meaning to a sentence, like “almost,” “sort of,” “very,” and “nice”
- distracting dialogue tags, like “he expounded” when you could just write “he said”
- frequently occurring words; don’t worry if you use “the” a lot in your story, but if you use “tumescent” over and over again, you might want to revise
It also has a homonym and homophone checker, meaning it will highlight words that are commonly misspelled because they sound like another word, e.g. “they’re,” “their,” and “there.” Look over these highlighted words to make sure you picked the correct form.
The one drawback is that editMinion isn’t designed for writing and editing directly in the app. You paste your text in a box at the top of the page, hit the “edit” button, and it spits out suggestions at the bottom of the page. You need to go back and forth between the suggestions and the document you are editing if you want to make editMinion’s changes. That might not be a problem if you’re working on a desktop, but it can present a challenge on small screens.
Overall, I prefer editMinion to Hemingway because it provides more usable information. Plus, I like that I can switch features on and off. If the only dialog tag you ever use is “said,” then you can turn off the “said” feature without worrying.
But it’s not my favorite. That title goes to …
Editsaurus is another completely free app. It provides feedback on many of the same categories editMinion covers, but there are differences:
- Instead of looking for “weak words,” Editsaurus looks for “filler words” they can often be deleted without changing the meaning of the sentence, such as “that” and “but.”
- What editMinion calls “homonyms,” Editsaurus calls “commonly misused words.”
- Editsaurus also looks for “lexical illusions,” which it defines as “a duplicate word our brains filter out when going from one line to the next.” Neither Hemingway nor editMinion does this, and I find it to be a really useful feature.
- You can set Editsaurus to highlight all your pronouns. There’s nothing wrong with pronouns, but it’s good to look over them to make sure you used the right ones and it’s clear who or what each pronoun refers to.
Like editMinion, Editsaurus is not designed as a word-processing application. You paste the text you’ve already written into a box on the right, and on the left side, it spits out suggestions. You then choose which suggestions to incorporate into your document.
Editsaurus is my favorite of these apps because it’s the best of the free apps at catching the types of errors I make. But if you use a lot of overly complicated words I could never figure out where to put your prepositions, then one of the other apps might suit your needs better.
Pro Writing Aid combines almost all of the features of the apps I spoke about above and has other features as well, including:
- checking grammar
- checking consistency of punctuation
- giving advice on the flow of your words and how they sound when spoken
- Like Hemingway, Pro Writing Aid can be used as a word processor, which saves jumping between documents as you’re editing.
How does Pro Writing manage to do so much? Because it’s truly pro—you have to pay for it. I seem to remember subscriptions being well over $100 a year when I first looked at it. But they now have plans starting at $40/year or $140/lifetime. You can also sign up for a free trial, but don’t expect it to be a great perma-free alternative. It only allows you to edit 500 words at a time.
Below is a screenshot of the pro-writing aid interface. The toolbar at the top allows you to toggle among different tools, evaluating different aspects of your writing so you don’t get overwhelmed by too much information at once.
You can learn more at ProWritingAid.com.
Editsaurus is my favorite of the free apps, but I encourage you to try all of them out because a different one might better suit your writing quirks. ProWritingAid is really impressive, but it’s not free. However, its subscription fee is reasonable. For many writers, it pays for itself fairly quickly in time saved.
So you don’t have to scroll back up, here are all the links one more time:
While I find these tools invaluable, they are no replacement for a human editor. They won’t point out plot holes, and they can miss entire passages that make no sense. Case in point: I wrote much of this article with Dragon Dictate, which sometimes mishears my speech and therefore produces some very odd sentences. Prior to publication, this article contained the sentence “You can set Editsaurus to highlight all your pronouns that you can check you use the correct ones in that it is clear who or what each pronoun refers to.” None of the apps featured in this article caught it. Grammarly, which catches most errors that word processors miss, didn’t catch it. But a human did.
Do you have a favorite online editing app? Or a favorite human editor? Tell me in the comments!
And if you liked this article, check out the rest of my Business of Writing posts.