Can Using Editing Tools Improve Your Writing?

Can Using Editing Tools Improve Your Writing?

By C.K. MacLeod and Carla Douglas

This post first appeared on June 17, 2015 at The Book Designer and on July 15, 2015 at Beyond Paper Editing.

How do you edit your writing? Perhaps you use one of these self-editing approaches...

Approaches to Self-Editing

There are many ways to improve your writing. You can

  • set your writing aside for a month or two and tackle it again from a renewed perspective
  • get structured feedback from beta readers
  • hire an editor to assess your first draft and suggest improvements
  • run editing tools on your writing

Let’s look at each of these self-editing approaches.

DIY Feedback

You may be exhausted from your first-draft efforts. Setting your writing aside for a spell may give you the time you need to recharge and become excited about your book project again. It may also afford you the perspective you need to see where your writing needs fixing. This approach to self-editing is most effective if there aren’t time constraints, and if you’re able to see what needs improving.

External Feedback

The remaining items on the list above are different from the first item in one important way: they offer feedback on your writing from an external source — from someone, or something, other than you. Because it’s difficult to be objective about your own writing, external feedback can alert you to your writing blind spots.

Not everyone responds well to feedback from beta readers and editors. Writers need to be able to develop resilience for receiving feedback, but this takes time and practice. If you’re still working on developing your resilience, we have another “external” self-editing option for you: editing tools.

Editing Tools

Many editors use automated editing tools to efficiently find problems in a piece of writing. If writers want to learn how these tools work, they can use them to diagnose their own writing!

Below is a list of some our favourite editing tools, linked to articles that describe how to use them. We’ve organized them into the four levels of editing that every manuscript should go through.

Not all tools are diagnostic and automated.* Some of them, such as the paragraph-level and big-picture tools, will help you when it’s time to fix your writing. We’ve selected tools that we think will be most helpful to writers, but there are many more tools that you can explore and try.

Self-Editing Tools for Writers

Tool Word-level Sentence-level Paragraph-level Big-picture level
Consistency Checker* x x
Hemingway app* x x
PerfectIt Pro* x
Self-Editing macros* x
Scrivener’s Binder+ x x
Word’s Navigation Pane+ x x
Split-screen feature in Scrivener+ x x
Split-screen feature in Word+ x x

 

*Diagnostic tools: these tools will check for one or more potential writing problems with the click of a button.

+Fixing tools: these tools will help you fix writing problems, once they are identified.

As far as we know, there aren’t automated diagnostic tools that will point out paragraph-level and big-picture problems. At least not yet. For now, you’ll need to educate yourself about common paragraph-level and big-picture problems, or get some direction from beta readers and editors. You can use the paragraph-level and big-picture tools in the table above to efficiently fix problems, once you know what they are.

Advantages of Editing Tools

Editing tools have a few distinct advantages over the other self-editing methods mentioned at the beginning of this article:

  • They aren’t people, which means that writers probably won’t respond to feedback emotionally, or take feedback personally. A tool also won’t roll its eyes because you’ve forgotten to close quotations and parentheses 54 times in a 300-page book. It’ll point out these errors, without judgment. And we could all use a little less judgement.
  • If you consider what these tools are telling you about your writing, you will sharpen your self-editing skills.
  • You can use diagnostic editing tools five minutes after you’ve typed the period on the last sentence of your first draft. This makes editing tools brilliant for on-demand writing.
  • These tools are widely available, and some of them are cheap or free. (Editors are widely available, but they’re not cheap or free.)
  • If you plan to use tools for self-editing, and later decide to hire an editor, your editor may have less to do, and that can save on editing costs.

Can these tools help you to become a better writer? We’re still gathering data on that. From what we’ve seen — with authors who’ve been willing to act on the information suggested by diagnostic editing tools — it does seem possible.

For example, if a tool suggests that you’ve included needless words in your writing, after deleting 103 needless words in the first 50 pages of your manuscript, there’s a good chance that you’ll include fewer of them in your writing in future!

Limitations of Editing Tools

Editing tools will not do it all. They have limitations that are important to understand. They will not write your book, cook your breakfast, or collect your kids from school. And they also won’t do these three things:

Won’t Think for You

An editing tool can alert you to potential problems with your writing. You need to decide when to address a highlighted instance and when to ignore it.

For example, the Hemingway app will highlight adverbs in blue, so you can delete them. Why? Adverbs can clutter your writing and indicate instances of telling instead of showing. (Show, don’t tell!)

But does that mean you need to excise every adverb in sight? No. Depending on what you’re writing, you may choose to sprinkle adverbs as you would expensive fleur de sel.

Won’t Fix It for You

Editing tools are not designed to fix your writing for you. They identify problems, or help you fix problems efficiently. You have to do the heavy lifting.

For example, if your tool has highlighted a sentence that’s too long, you will need to divide that unwieldy beast into two shorter sentences. Your tool won’t do that for you.

Won’t Do the Footwork for You

If a solution to a writing problem isn’t obvious to you, you may need to dig around in writing craft books or style guides for help with interpreting what a tool is telling you.

Consider the example below. PerfectIt Pro 3 is asking the author to check the use of a hyphen in this instance. Has the author used the hyphen correctly?

Looking things up isn’t a waste of your time. The more you know why something might need fixing, the more you'll know about writing. If you let them, editing tools will show you where you quirks are, teach you what to pay attention to, and inspire (or provoke) you to make adjustments.

How to Use Editing Tools

As with any kind of learning, you need to go slowly or you could become overwhelmed. Here are some tips for keeping things manageable:

  1. Remember to begin with big-picture editing fixes and work your way down to word-level fixes. Editing order matters.
  2. Run diagnostic tools, one chapter at a time, until you become familiar with how these tools work. Exceptions: Run Consistency Checker and PerfectIt Pro on your entire book. Why? They’re designed to check for consistency across an entire manuscript.
  3. Run one tool at a time. Don’t run several tools at once. You’ll have too many things to pay attention to. The key is to remain focused and to improve your writing by degrees.
  4. Be strategic. You don’t need to run every tool on your writing, every time. Once you’re familiar with the tools we recommend, you’ll know which ones best address your most persistent writing quirks.
  5. Consult editing books for solutions to the writing problems your tools uncover.

Editing tools can help you to become aware of your writing blind spots and sharpen your self-editing skills. They may even help you become better at writing.

If, however, you’ve decided that learning how to use these tools is not for you, and you prefer to have writing problems fixed for you, hire an editor! (You had to know we were going to say that.)

Note: We used the Hemingway app and PerfectIt Pro 3 to edit this article.

Image by Steve Snodgrass

Omit Needless Words with a Macro

by C.K. MacLeod 353183634_ef631ed00a_m

One of the easiest ways to improve your writing is to "omit needless words"—words that once removed, make your writing clear (Strunk & White).

The fastest way to find these words in your writing is to run the Needless Words macro* in Microsoft Word. This macro will highlight every needless word, so you can decide if each word is necessary. Not sure what a macro is? See Improve Your Writing with Macros for details.

NeedlessWords macro in action
NeedlessWords macro in action

Below is the script for the macro. You'll need to add this script to Word's Visual Basic Application (VBA). See the videos How to Add a Macro to Word, then How to Run a Macro in Word for next steps.

Inspired by Jami Gold's macros for writers post, I've added Janice Hardy's Words to Avoid list (minus the word "that") to my version of the macro. The macro is customizable and you can add any list of words you like.

Copy the macro from Sub to End Sub and paste it into Word's VBA.


Sub NeedlessWords()
' Highlights unnecessary words
'
'
' Written by Roger Mortis, revised by subcortical, adapted by Jami Gold and tweaked by C.K. MacLeod; word list by Janice Hardy
'
Dim range As range
Dim i As Long
Dim TargetList
TargetList = Array("then", "almost", "about", "begin", "start", "decided", "planned", "very", "sat", "truly", "rather", "fairly", "really", "somewhat", "up", "down", "over", "together", "behind", "out", "in order", "around", "only", "just", "even")

For i = 0 To UBound(TargetList)

Set range = ActiveDocument.range
With range.Find
.Text = TargetList(i)
.Format = True
.MatchCase = False
.MatchWholeWord = True
.MatchWildcards = False
.MatchSoundsLike = False
.MatchAllWordForms = False
Do While .Execute(Forward:=True) = True
range.HighlightColorIndex = wdTurquoise
Loop
End With
Next
End Sub


What other word lists could you add to this macro? Insert word lists between the parentheses in the macro script.

So, what do you do with the highlighted words this macro finds? See Carla Douglas' post How to Improve Your Writing with Macros—Tips for Beginners at the Beyond Paper Editing blog for suggestions.

*Karen Woodward calls this macro the AddWords macro because you can add any list of words that you want the macro to find. The first version of this macro was written by Roger Mortis, revised by Subcortical, modified for writing by Karen Woodward, tweaked by Jami Gold, and further tweaked by me, making it a true community effort.

Image by Matt Scott

How to Add a Macro to Word

Button with the word macro on it, by Matt Scott.By C. K. MacLeod

Macros can help you to identify areas in your writing that need improving. You can also use macros for formatting and editing tasks. Some word processing programs, like Microsoft Word, can handle macros. You'll find a list of writing macros you can try in the post Improve Your Writing With Macros, and the video below will show you how to add a macro to Word 2010:

Steps for Adding a Macro to Word

  1. Go to the View tab, and click on Macros in the Window area.
  2. Name your macro in the Macro name: box. Be sure your name has no spaces between words. For example, NeedlessWords.
  3. Click Create. You will now be taken to Word's VBA editor. This is where Word stores macros.
  4. Copy the macro script and paste it into Word's VBA. It will show you where to paste your macro (look for the section that has the same name as the macro you just named). Delete all the text that's there (everything from Sub to End Sub) and paste your macro script into the VBA editor.
  5. Close Word's VBA editor by going to File, Close and Return to Microsoft Word. Your macro will be saved and you can now use it with any Word document.

Next step: How to Run a Macro in Word.

For further instructions on how to use macros, see Macros for Editors, in which Paul Beverley offers detailed instructions for understanding and running macros in various versions of Word.

Image by Matt Scott

Improve Your Writing with Macros

353183610_2bc8acc9be_mBy C.K. MacLeod

There is a lot you can do to improve your writing. Some improvement tasks will take you hours to accomplish, but some of them can be quick and easy with the help of macros.

What are macros?

Macros are tiny programs that can handle repetitive and finicky fix-up tasks that would otherwise take loads of time. Word processing programs like Microsoft Word have the ability to run macros.

Where do you find macros?

You can write your own macros, but it's often easiest to find and tweak existing ones. Paul Beverley's free book, Macros for Editors contains hundreds of macros for writing and editing tasks.

At the beginning of his book, Beverley offers detailed instructions for understanding and using macros in various versions of Word. He also explains what each macro does. You can copy the macro scripts from the file that accompanies the book of instructions and add them to Microsoft Word.

Free macros for writers

I combed through Paul Beverley's free macro book and selected a few macros that writers can use to improve common writing bugbears:

LongSentenceHighlighter—highlights sentences that are too long
CountPhrase—select a phrase in the text and Countphrase will count the number of occurrences—this can tell you if a phrase has been overused
HighlightSame—selected a word or phrase, and HighlightSame will highlight all instances of it—also great for identifying those overused words and phrases

Because two of the macros above highlight text, once you've addressed those highlights, you'll want to remove them from your file in one fell swoop. HighlightAllOff does the trick. You can use his UnHighlight to remove highlights selectively.

Karen Woodward also shares two macros that may be useful to writers:

highlight_ly—highlights adverbs ending in "ly"; writing with strong nouns and verbs is always preferable
highlight_targets—highlights words that can clutter your writing, like the weak words "very" and "that"; you can customize the macro by adding other lists of words, too.

These two macros are my current favourites:

NeedlessWords—removes words that clutter your writing (my version of Karen Woodward's highlight_targets)

TellingWords—highlights potential instances of telling, so you can change them to showing

The macros above allow you to consider why you've used certain words in your writing. Addressing needless words and telling words can help you tighten your prose and keep your reader engaged in your story.

And finally, author and editor Ryan Macklin has designed a macro to detect the passive voice in your writing. While a bit of passive voice is alright, too much can make your text more challenging to read.

Macros can help you to see and catch potential problems that you'd otherwise miss in your writing.

Do you have a favourite writing macro?

Image by Matt Scott

Enable Word to Run Macros

Helpby C.K. MacLeod

If you have a fresh install of Word, you may have trouble adding or running macros*. Here's how to sort that.


*Macros are tiny programs that can make writing and editing tasks more efficient and accurate. Some macros can help you to see things in your writing that you wouldn’t otherwise see. If you're a Mac user, see this tutorial for enabling macros in Word 2011.


Adjust Word's Settings

Word doesn’t automatically allow macros to work their magic with a fresh install. You need to adjust some settings in Word before that can happen.

To begin with, you need to give Word permission to enable macros. To do so, go to File, Options, Trust Center, Trust Center Settings button (bottom right), Macro setting (left) and uncheck all options except for Enable all macros and Trust access to the VBA object project model.

Set up Word for macros

The last two options need to be checked. Click OK.

Show Developer Tab

By default, Word’s Developer tab doesn’t show with a fresh install, either. I like to have this tab visible because it’s another place where you can create and run macros.

Word's developer tab

To reveal the Developer tab, go to File, Options, Customize Ribbon, and check the box next to Developer in the Main tab area. Click OK.

Show Word's Developer tab

You’re now set to create and run macros. You’ll find many helpful writing macros on this blog. Go ahead and give them a try! This free 20-minute Macro Course will get you started.

Image by Marc Falardeau

How to Run a Macro in Word

 

by C.K. Macleod

Macros can help you to identify areas in your writing that need improving. You can also use macros for formatting and editing tasks. In the post Improve Your Writing with Macros I listed some free writing macros you can try, followed by the next step, How to Add a Macro to Word. This post will explain how to run a macro:

  1. Open a document in Word.
  2. Go to the View tab, and click on Macros in the Window area. Select a macro from the list and click on Run. The macro will work its magic on your document.

Where to learn more

For further instructions on how to use macros, see Macros for Editors, in which Paul Beverley offers detailed instructions for understanding and running macros in various versions of Word.

Image by Matt Scott

Most Popular Writing Tech Posts of 2015

Top 10by C.K. MacLeod

Here are the top 10 Posts on Tech Tools for Writers in 2015.

  1. Hemingway Editor: A Proofreading Tool for Writers
  2. Self-Editing Tools
  3. Retrieving a Back-Up File in Scrivener
  4. How to Create a Keyboard Shortcut for the Snipping Tool
  5. 20-Minute Macro Course
  6. Improve Your Writing with Macros
  7. A 5-Minute Guide to Evernote
  8. 5 Ways to Create an Em Dash
  9. Proofreading Tool: PerfectIt Pro
  10. Consistency Checker: A Free Proofreading Tool

Which tool will you try in 2016? Which tool would you like me to write about?

Stay posted for more exciting writing and editing tools in 2016.

Image by Sam Churchill.

Print to Digital: Cleaning Up Your Word File

This week's post is by Carla Douglas from Beyond Paper Editing.

Adapted. Originally posted at Beyond Paper Editing in August 2014.

If you have a print document that you’d like to self-publish, you can turn it into a digital file and convert it to an ebook.

The first step is to get it into MS Word using OCR software. Note that MS Word is your best friend right now. Editors use Word for a few reasons, and efficient cleanup and editing are high on that list.

Here’s what the file I’m working with looks like as a pdf (produced on a Macintosh Classic and dot matrix printer):

The manuscript has been marked up with pencil, and these marks are picked up by the OCR software, sometimes in unexpected ways. Here’s what the Word file looks like:

Two Kinds of Cleanup

There’s junk in the file—the stuff you can see, and the stuff you can’t. Sometimes, what’s hidden behind the scene in Word is the cause of the junk you can see—things like garbled text and wonky formatting. Also, the pencil marks that haven’t been converted to text remain in the document as pictures, and will have to be deleted. Some random characters appear, too, and the text is all boldface. These are just a few of the things you can see.

To clean up this file, will a spritz of vinegar and water do, or will you need industrial-strength degreaser? The answer depends on what you plan to do with the file next. If you’re going to revise or edit the text, clean it up enough to continue working on it, and save the heavy-duty cleanup for later.

For Initial Cleanup

The story I’m working with here is just over 4,000 words, and it won’t be converted to an ebook any time soon. I’m going to do an initial cleanup using FileCleaner from Jack Lyon’s Editorium. (Wiley Publishing  has a free Word add-in with many similar features.)

FileCleaner is about US$30, but there’s a generous 45-day free trial available. It runs as a Word plug-in. Follow the directions on the site to download and install it. It will appear on the Add-ins pane in your Word ribbon. Here’s what it will do (you can select/unselect features):

Running FileCleaner cleaned up most of the junk in my story file—it’s now in a format I can continue to edit without too many distractions. Here’s what it looks like post-FileCleaner:

As you can see, FileCleaner didn’t catch the text that had been marked up with pencil. After trying a few ways to clean this up—including selecting the text and applying Normal style to it—I ended up having to repair it manually by deleting the picture and re-keying the sentence that’s squished together. Because my document is short, this wasn’t a problem, but in a longer document it could present a significant inconvenience. Here’s a last look at the cleaned-up text:

Other Cleanup Tips

At times, Word can be frustrating to work in—with extra page breaks and hidden formatting, it will do things you don’t want it to. For now, I’ve cleaned my file up well enough to do further editing.

If your Word document is really acting up, there are a few of things to try. I’ve found that the best place to start is by using the show/hide feature on the Word ribbon.  How to Find the Hidden Formatting That Will Mess Up Your Ebook, shows you how.

Image by atomicjeep

How to Use FRedit: A Find and Replace Macro

by C.K. MacLeod

Work horse

Do you use Find and Replace in Word for editing tasks? Want to supercharge your mad Find and Replace skills? Here’s how.

Recently, editor Paul Beverley contacted me to show me how FRedit, a macro that he wrote, can be customized to perform a bunch of useful writing and editing tasks. It’s a find and replace macro, which means that it can take a slew of find and replace tasks that you’d normally do one at a time, and execute them all at once.

If you’ve been nervous about trying a macro, this is your way in. This find and replace macro will allow you to list, in a Word document, all the find and replace tasks you want to do. Run the macro and it will do them for you all at once.

An added bonus: You can keep the list for future writing or editing projects, or you can create customized lists for each project you work on.

Now how does that sound?

Trying FRedit

I gave FRedit a try. I wanted to see if it could identify and highlight words whose meanings writers tend to mix up. It can. In fact, FRedit performed better than the Confusables macro that I posted here. It was able to find words in all their forms. For example, the macro will pick up compliment, complimented, compliments, complimentary, complimenting, etc.

And as it turns out, FRedit can do a host of other things, too. Such as Wildcard searches. You are only limited by your imagination, and your understanding of Word’s Find and Replace and Wildcard codes!

How to Use FRedit

  1. Download the FRedit macro from Archive Publishing.

  2. Add the macro script, or code, to Word’s VBA. If you’re not sure how to do this, this 20-Minute Macro course will get you started.

  3. To use FRedit, you need two documents open:

a. The Word file containing your writing
b. A “script” file that tells FRedit what to do

In my case, my script file contained a list of of commonly confused words.

Confusables script

You can get the Confusables script here. Copy and paste it into a Word document.

4. Run the FRedit macro.

Tip: Have only two Word documents open when you run FRedit: your script file and the document containing your writing.

A Flexible Tool

FRedit is a flexible tool. You can use any script, correctly written, to get FRedit to do something different each time. The instruction file that accompanies the macro offers examples and guidelines for how to make the most of this handy macro.

FRedit is a workhorse, and a boon for Mac users who often don’t have access to automated commercial editing tools. I’m already thinking about other ways to bend FRedit to my will.

Do you use FRedit? I’d love to hear how you use it!

Image by Martin Pettitt

Revise Your Writing With Self-Editing Macros

Hide your eyes

by C.K. MacLeod

Macros—tiny programs that run in Microsoft Word— have changed the way I revise my writing. They highlight potential problems, so I can fix them:

NeedlessWords macro in action
NeedlessWords macro in action

Below is a list of my favourite self-editing macros, designed to work with Microsoft Word:

  • Confusables — words that are often used inncorrectly
  • lyWords — adverbs, which will likely need to be deleted
  • NeedlessWords — words that clutter your writing
  • PassiveWords — words that can obscure meaning; change passive words to active words
  • PlainLanguage — high falutin’ words that can just as easily be replaced with simpler words
  • TellingWords — words that suggest instances of telling, where showing might work better

Editor Paul Beverley has created a 600-page book of free macros. You'll need to download his book to get these helpful macro scripts:

  • CountThisWord—tells you how many times you've used a word to determine if you've overused it
  • HighlightSame—highlights all instances of a word you've selected; use it with CountThisWord
  • LongSentenceHighlighter—highlights long sentences so you can shorten them

If you're not sure how macros can help, or how to use them, this free 20-minute macro course will have you up and running in no time!

You can't always see where your writing needs fixing. Revision macros can help you to see what you're missing.

Image by Linda Åslund