Review of ProWritingAid editing app: Calling in reinforcements

Royal Canadian Mounted Police 18_0828b

The Royal Canadian Mounted Police

I’ve tested ProWritingAid, an online editing app, on nonfiction and fiction projects, and I’ve had positive results both times. I started out using the free version, which limited me to examining 500 words at a time. This meant one of my projects, at over 5,000 words, needed to be broken into 10-plus pieces.

Of the report options and filter criteria available, the following led to the most useful revision work for me:

Style—Flagged passive and hidden verbs, long subordinate clauses, and repeated sentence starts.

Overused—Noted my tendency to start sentences with –ing verbs, as in: cleaning, frowning, sitting, turning, panting, and so on. Also, reported that my writing was high on to-be verbs (was/were).

Readability—Designated paragraphs as “easy,” “slightly difficult,” or “very difficult.” I looked closely at sections underlined in red, meaning “very difficult.” As a result, I saw ways to break sentences and weed out extraneous material.

Diction—Highlighted vague and abstract words. For example, I used “would” and “about” in places calling for more precise wording.

Repeats—Underlined phrases that recur. For instance, how had I missed the repetition of the eight-word phrase “I got down on my hands and knees”? The report also identified repeats in shorter word groupings.

ProWritingAid isn’t a substitute for a human writer/editor. However, in the often solitary work of writing, revising, and editing, using the app felt like calling in reinforcements.

The app helped me focus on slow or awkward sections of my writing. The result: I trimmed several hundred words from my nonfiction project while making the language and sentences more precise. I had a similar experience when using the editing tool on a fiction project.

Note: Soon after trying the free version, I received a 50 percent discount offer from the Writer’s Digest free weekly enewsletter. I liked the app, especially with the discount, so I paid for premium access.

P.S. Just for grins, I ran a poem through ProWritingAid. The summary report gave me my first 100 percent score. Among the high points were that my vocabulary was more “dynamic” than 96 percent of the software’s users. At same time, my sentence variety was assessed as being “very low” because I used too many short sentences.

Flipping: How to apply analytical techniques to your own writing

Chicago World's Fair Looking through Morocco with the Belgian village in the background

Chicago World’s Fair: Looking through Morocco with the Belgian village in the background

Problem: You have a longish essay or shortish memoir (say, 13 single-spaced pages) that you want to revise, but you don’t know where to start.

Solution: Try flipping the techniques you probably learned in college English.

Rhetorical analysis is a mouthful and uses criteria that date back to Aristotle. The underlying concepts, however, are familiar and accessible: ethical appeals (ethos), logical appeals (logos), emotional appeals (pathos), and right time/right place (kairos).

For my English 101 and 102 students I compare rhetorical analysis to dissecting a piece of writing. While biology students dissect creatures (worms, frogs, and so on) to find and identify their parts and systems, composition classes do something similar with published texts. They look at the choices an author made and how those choices influence readers. How did or didn’t the author’s writing strategies contribute to his or her purpose?

So, let’s flip the process to figure out what you’re doing (or missing). Instead of assessing someone else’s writing, look at your own nonfiction project. How do you handle the following?

Ethical appeals (ethos)—A writer’s character, knowledge, and authority

  • Do you establish yourself as a trustworthy source? Establish your credibility or authority (such as relevant education, work, or life experience)?
  • Reveal your biases and/or unbiased (journalistic) approach?
  • Cite sources knowledgeably and reasonably? (The sources you cite may contribute to how readers perceive your credibility.)
  • Acknowledge and address opposing viewpoints fairly?

Logical appeals (logos)—A text’s sound reasoning, sense of logic, and evidence

  • Do you use sufficient, representative, and relative evidence to support your writing? (Look at the quality of your source material.)
  • Avoid assumptions and fallacies, such as comparing apples and oranges, using a “straw man” that’s easily refuted, making false analogies, and so on?
  • Employ reasonable arguments?
  • Follow a logical structure?

Emotional appeals (pathos)—A text’s connection to beliefs and values

  • Do you use emotional content legitimately and fairly?
  • Realize the emotions your words might evoke in readers? (This includes how covertly or overtly you communicate your own beliefs.)
  • Avoid oversimplifying or overdramatizing?
  • Include emotional content ethically, instead of as a tactic to shift attention?

Right time/right place (kairos)—A text’s timeliness or opportunity

  • Do you strike the right tone to address your intended audience? (For example, imagine writing to a potential employer versus your best friend.)
  • Use timely and relevant examples?
  • Adjust your text to meet the needs of your audience?
  • Consider: Why this text? Why now?

For my work-in-progress, kairos or right time/right place has been a crucial consideration. I’m writing about events that occurred alongside my first attempts at a reporting and editing career after college. Once I connected the events to my current work teaching students in a similar (if earlier) stage of life, I found what made the text timely. It stopped being simply a Woman vs. Nature story.

This, in turn, led me to consider pathos or the emotional content of the piece. My distance from the events, as well as my proximity to current college students dealing with similar issues, helped me answer what author Ron Carlson used to ask in workshops: What’s swimming under the boat? (I apologize if I’ve misquoted him, but he makes a similar point about things “under the boat” in a Newwest interview. He’s referring to fiction, but I believe his idea works for narrative nonfiction also.)

In considering other rhetorical elements I winnowed unwieldy drafts so that every detail had a purpose. I forecast how my writing choices could influence readers, and I found a conclusion with greater resonance.

This analytical process gave me a sense of intention in my revisions. I hope it does the same for you.

References: The main sources used in compiling this blog were:

 

The road to revision is paved with MP3 files

microphone (249x400)There’s nothing like reading a short story aloud, especially while recording it, to uncover repetitions, poor word choices, flat dialogue, and the inevitable paragraph- and sentence-level glitches.

However, the need to read aloud to create an MP3 file for an online literary magazine or podcast raises the stakes on this process. What had been a useful tool for revision—one I use and recommend to students—can become something people might actually hear.

My technical skills, my reading, and my story needed to develop. Fast.

Tech

  • Software—I had been directed to a download site for Audacity, the free open source audio recording/editing program from SourceForge. After some research, I found a link to a more up to date version of the Audacity program that was supposed to have addressed earlier concerns about malware.
  • Microphone—After a trial run, I discovered that the microphone in my laptop was not up to the task. What had worked for Skype calls and a YouTube video, now created audio files filled with fan noise and pops from the processor. Solutions included:
    • Switching to Airplane Mode to pause as many of my computer’s background functions as possible.
    • Investing in a USB microphone that was good enough but wasn’t professional level, which could easily top $200. (I found an Amazon bestseller for about $25.)
    • Realizing that, in addition to enabling the plug-and-play USB microphone, I needed to manually disable the internal microphone, which was still picking up processor noise.
  • MP3 conversion—While exporting my audacity project to a MP3 file, I found that I needed an extension called LAME, which involved more research to find a safe-ish download.

Reading

  • Use a tablet—To avoid recording the rustling of turning pages, I sent my story in a pdf file to my tablet to scroll quietly through as I read. (I also tried dual monitors, but the computer and tablet combo seemed to work more smoothly.)
  • Pause strategically—My story took about 25 minutes to read. I’d seen recommendations and tutorials about how to edit an audio file, but the terminology and controls were so new to me that the learning curve was steep and frustrating. Pausing the recording after a glitch, listening to and deleting the glitch, and then re-recording seemed to work best for me. Full sentences or paragraphs worked best for stopping and starting points.
  • Ditch the mouse—Mouse clicks can sound inordinately loud in an audio file. Using the laptop touch pad was quieter and easier, especially when moving back and forth between the manuscript scrolling on the tablet and the Audacity controls on the laptop.

Through this trial-and-error process, I read my short story aloud so many times, that I stopped seeing revisions to make…for now. The acting part of story narration still eludes me—painfully so. Nonetheless, now I have an audio file and a freshly revised story. On to the next chapter.