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?