Does copy editing software work?

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Last week I printed up a draft of my book to help me with the editing process. The plan was to read a chapter; do some self-editing; edit online; and then edit using an online editing program. After doing some research, I tried two: Pro Writing Aid and the Hemingway editor.

This is what a software editor thought of Hemingway's work
This is what a software editor thought of Hemingway’s work

Does copy editing software work?

A friend in our writing group recommended Pro Writing Aid a few weeks previously. I grew suspicious of it when she emailed an edited chapter to us. She had taken its advice literally and her formerly lively chapter was so bland, I had to force myself to read it. Pro Writing Aid looks for “sticky sentences” — sentences that contain to many dull words and expressions. I’m sorry, Pro Writing Aid, but you need to write “the” sometimes. If it’s missing, the sentence no longer makes sense. If it’s missing, sentence no longer makes sense.

ernest hemingwayI tried the Hemingway editor on my own volition because it focuses on long-winded sentences and overuse of adverbs and adjectives. It highlighted a lot of my sentences, but I disagreed with it more often than not. Was I just being defensive?

It’s called the Hemingway editor because it’s meant to make your writing as lean as Ernest Hemingway’s. “Okay,” I thought. “Let’s see what it thinks of Hemingway’s writing.” I downloaded a copy of The Old Man and the Sea and copy/pasted about 1000 words into the app. Guess what? According to the app, I was just as good a writer as Hemingway. Some of my chapters were even “better” than his. According to the app, Hemingway wrote more hard-to-read sentences than I.

To be fair, I still use the Hemingway app because it highlights lengthy sentences and adverbs/adjectives. As I went through my chapters, I noticed a trend emerging. Any sentence that had “and” or “but” in it was highlighted as too long. While it’s true that eliminating a conjunction and making two sentences sometimes improves the work, sometimes it doesn’t. Eliminating a conjunction sometimes improves the work. Making two sentences sometimes improves the work, sometimes it doesn’t. And if I want to say she was “devastatingly beautiful,” I will. I don’t care if I’ve reached my adverb/adjective quota for that chapter. She was devastatingly beautiful, dammit!

So what’s the verdict? I think copy editing software has its place, but it doesn’t really read your copy like a human editor would. It can’t pick out the times when a sentence is long for a reason or an adverb/adjective fits. If you’re self-editing, you be the final judge of your work. If you’re not confident, hire an editor or share your work with a friend whose opinion you trust. Software has no soul. Follow its dictates and your writing won’t have soul, either.