What does ProWritingAid think of Douglas Adams?

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Hitchhiker’s Guide – a very sticky book

So I wrote last week about editing, and how I used ProWritingAid, an essential but flawed program, to help me. I was going to write a straightforward review, but the reason it annoyed me wasn’t so much the bugginess of the programming, but the way it ‘scored’ my writing. I was offended. This was unreasonable, but I figure I can’t be the only one. So to all of you feeling picked on by editing programs, this is for you.

Stickiness and Other Issues

ProWritingAid gives percentage marks for spelling, grammar and style. My marks for style tended to come in at the 50-60% range, with the main criticism being I had too many ‘sticky sentences’.

Sticky sentences are ones with excess ‘meaningless’ words. So in my first chapter the sentence,

These routines reassured her that all was as it should be, no matter how awful that was.

is a sticky sentence and the words – these, that, all, was, as, should, be, no, how – are the sticky ones. I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, I do tend to use too many words, and this program helped me cut them down. On the other, while wordy sentences need to be used sparingly, they can work stylistically (see below for a perfect example.)

My book tended to be pretty good with pacing ( a useful feature that shows if there are any slow areas of your writing) but thought I had too many long sentences and tended to overuse the word ‘believe’ (although in a book about a cult, it was difficult to avoid).

So Whaddya Think of This?

Anyway, the upshot was that even when I adjusted my writing, it still had my style down as 60% or so. Which is when I thought I’d investigate how it saw the writing of others. I decided to use Catch 22 (one of my favourite books), Catcher in the Rye, my first book Riddled with Senses, Sense and Sensibility, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (another one of my favourites) and the Da Vinci Code.

(note: I would upload a chapter to the program, but not necessarily the first chapter. Of course a book varies in pace and wording from chapter to chapter, but much longer than that and the program gets confused. This is not a scientific study.)

These are the Results…

 

Overall score Grammar Spelling Style No of difficult to read paragraphs % slow pacing
Da Vinci Code 55 31 72 62 4 slightly 7very. 22.5
Catcher in the Rye 59 46 87 44 0 57.2
Catch 22 75 72 91 61 0 78.8
Riddled with Senses 60 53 80 56 5 slightly 9.5
Sense and Sensibility 65 69 93 32 3 slightly

1 very

0
Hitchhiker’s Guide 55 67 57 47 0 9.2

 

I found these results befuddling and reassuring.

How Odd!

So The Da Vinci Code had the most ‘difficult to read’ paragraphs, which doesn’t fit with my view of the book at all.

Jane Austen was the fastest paced! (Although, I checked other chapters and they got a higher score). Even Riddled with Senses (which is totally not an action-packed thriller) was twice as fast as the Da Vinci Code.

Every book but Catch 22 had bad grammar, which was a relief, because I often disagreed with what the program said about commas and tenses.

Most reassuring of all, The Da Vinci Code was deemed to have a better style than Catch 22, Hitchhiker’s Guide and Sense and Sensibility. That being the case, I’d rather have bad style than good.

All had at least some long sentences (over 30 words), although Riddled was the worst for that. And every book had an excess of words like was/were or feel/felt.

Another strange statistic was that no book achieved a low enough ‘sticky’ rating (although Riddled with Senses and Da Vinci Code came close). Hitchhiker’s Guide had the worst, at 55%. This isn’t surprising since, Adams was the master at long, meandering sentences that were funnier because of the strange route they took. For example, the program picked out

This planet has – or rather had – a problem, which was this: most of  the  people on it were unhappy for pretty much all of the time.

as sticky. An alternative the program accepted was

This planet had a problem: most people were often unhappy.

It’s true, this is a more straightforward sentence, but with nothing of the humour or interest of the original.

My Conclusions

I feel less affronted now. These programs are a tool, and it’s important to use them as such; they are no substitute for human feedback or my own opinion. It’s good to think seriously about the criticisms they come up with, but I shouldn’t make changes I feel harm my writing just to keep a program happy.

So what about you? Have you tried these programs? Did you find yourself shouting at them?

 

 

 

 

26 thoughts on “What does ProWritingAid think of Douglas Adams?

  1. I had never heard of that program, but I take all that with a grain of salt. It’s like relying on Word’s grammar check to write a story. It’s funny that it reported Austen as a “fast pace” because, as much as I love that particular book, it is slow and drags on forever in places. I think the question is, so we write for a computer or people? Everyone is different with different preferences. It would be interesting to see what it says about books with heavy dialect. Interesting post!

    Liked by 4 people

  2. No, I haven’t tried them and I’m not going to, Petra. Writing style is important and I’m sticking to mine. The whole process is difficult enough as it is without being judged by a program. It was a good excercise to do though, comparing well known and successful books. I’m guessing Stephen King would have nothing to do with this, so i’ll go with him!

    Liked by 2 people

  3. I use grammarly because I’m lazy and learning how to correctly use commas then memorising the correct situations and consistently applying them is just not something that sounds fun. My biggest issue with the program is the free version misses unforgivable spelling errors and pretty much never flags me up on miss capital letters or other simple stuff.
    Machines aren’t quite ready to replace human editors yet.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. I think the best part of this is that unintentionally I missed the “ed” on “miss capital letters” and the program did nothing about it… only half a sentence after I called it out on not picking up unforgivable spelling errors

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I tried running the blog through the program and got annoyed with the results, so didn’t pay attention. This blog is probably riddled with mistakes. Oh the irony of criticising a grammar program while getting grammar wrong!

        Like

    2. Yes, I used Grammarly too, the full version. I didn’t like it at all, very bug-ridden and it needed me to break my book into tiny files that it could analyse. It did help me find a few missing words though. I found ProWritingAid better for noticing mistakes (but it also costs money). Good luck with the writing! 🙂

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    3. After years as a student, I have grown to hate Grammarly. After the first time I used it and it said my writing was too complex, I stopped using it. I just ran one of my reader’s favorite stories (of mine) through it and it popped up with more than 30 “word choice” errors…and was at a 6th grade reading level. That insults all parties involved, so I guess it is actually pretty equitable…lol. Glad you find it helpful. A lot of my classmates did too.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. you have to keep in mind that mist if these automated writing evaluation tools are geared to evaluate academic writing (i.e. prepare for SATs). That is their primary market. They are not aimed at assessing literary writing. Though it would be nice if they pointed out this limitation.

    Liked by 3 people

  5. I’ve become increasingly concerned and dismayed by the trend toward relying on programs like this. AutoCrit, Grammarly, and the Hemmingway App aren’t much different and run into similar issues. I’m sure there are more out there.

    How many painters out there rely on computers to paint for them? Sure they use art programs, but they’re still the ones doing the creating.

    As writers we need to remember that at the heart of it all, we are wordsmiths. We paint with words. No machine can replace that.

    I’m glad you discovered this affirmation in your experiment. We all need it from time to time.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I think the word ‘reliance’ is an exaggeration. I doubt anyone would completely change the way they write because of a program. But it’s ok to examine what you do when a program (or person) criticises it. I don’t think a good writer is one who refuses to pay attention to outside comment.

      In exactly the same way an artist uses an art program to help them create (more so, computer art programs are far more sophisticated than editing ones), a writer does the same. It is a tool, not the source of inspiration.

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      1. My observation is based solely upon feedback and sentiment I hear within certain workshop and critique groups. I acknowledge this creates a type of echo chamber – which is why as a general rule I don’t like to stay with any one group for long. I suppose this is the source of my concern.

        When I first started joining online writing communities nearly 17 years ago, these programs were viewed for the most part with deep suspicion. Now there is a growing population that appear to have learned their writing techniques and style primarily from these programs and preach what they’ve learned as writing rules.

        Are either of them wrong? No, because like you said I believe these programs are tools.

        But I have seen an increase in people that want an easy checklist for fiction writing when it doesn’t work that way.

        I’m not even sure one exists for non-fiction. Sure you can check off all those boxes, but more often than not all things the same between two articles what will make or break you in non-fiction is the voice of the authors.

        While that is true for fiction as well, the complexity of storytelling fuzzes up the lines more. The process is not as black and white as a how-to article for example.

        And ultimately, I think that’s the crux of it. Most of the advice I see these programs give apply best to non-fiction (usually business) writing and have very little to do with fiction at all.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Very true, and I do understand why it would worry you. I started writing many, many years ago now, so a program is never going to do more than tweak the edges of my writing. But for writers starting out now, I don’t know.

        I guess all new writers are guided by something (a teacher, a writer you like, I was copying John Wyndham when I started) but there is a point when they stop simply copying and form their own style, and are able to break a few rules. If they don’t do that, then maybe they weren’t ever going to.

        Either way, there seems to be no shortage of good writers in the world, so I think we’re ok! 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  6. This is exactly why it’s so hard to quantified writing in this way, because so much of it is stylistic. I feel like these programs are based on prescriptive grammar so of course they’re going to give low marks to writing that doesn’t follow that, but that writing is often the most interesting to read. I’m sure I’d get terrible marks for paragraph difficulty lol. I think such programs are useful to a point in indicating possible problems, but in the end, it’s always up to the writer’s discretion. You know your work the best, and no algorithm is going to replace that 🙂

    Liked by 3 people

  7. After reading this, I just had to go and check it out for myself. I’ve never used anything like this before, mainly relying on friends and family to read through my work for me. I found the experience interesting, I just used the free sample as it were and used the first part of my most recent story, then a random chapter in the middle of the novel I wrote…

    Apparently, I’m quite a good writer with very easy to read paragraphs.

    I’m not sure that’s a good thing…

    Liked by 2 people

  8. I think these programs help with simple writing errors, not writing style. They sometimes miss the true voice of the character we create. Changing that voice to make the program happy would lose the human feel we want in our work.

    Liked by 2 people

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