Sunday, April 21, 2013

Tools for Writing 2: Autocrit for cleaner copy

Junk words, weak verbs, and flabby constructions stand out when you use Autocrit. The end result – if used judiciously -- is enhanced prose. It also is helping me to break some bad habits.
What it does. Autocrit is an editing tool. It scans your copy for passive voice, forms of the verb “to be” (is/was), and the present participle (-ing). Is scours your prose for bland verbs (look, feel, see, know, hear, smell, taste, notice, and more) and junk words like that, adverbs, and maybe.  And Autocrit also highlights initial conjunctions (which I overdo) and “it” (which is often ambiguous).
Autocrit does not check your spelling or grammar (though it can make problems more visible). Use other programs to handle these.
This program, which works online as a service doesn’t promise perfect copy, and it doesn’t always get it right. I recently analyzed a complete novel, and I found, taken literally, it would have made it more impersonal and done serious damage to dialogue.
On the other hand, it virtually wiped out clichés, duplicated phrases and curious repetitions of words. It forced me to re-imagine and rewrite scenes. The process removed hundreds of words even though I found myself adding paragraphs.
Rewriting is my least favorite part of the process of creating a novel. Part of the problem for me is seeing my mistakes and weaknesses – especially after having gone through the work so many times I nearly have it memorized.
Raising questions. If red marks give you the heebie jeebies, this program might not be for you. Your pages will come back drenched in blood.  A 1730-word “finished” chapter showed up with 134 highlighted words and the recommendation that I remove 63 instances of these “overused” words. If pinpointed eight clichés. The program underlined every homonym (the bugbears of spelling programs) and called out dozens of cases of repeated phrases. I also got readability reports, with difficult words and complex sentences marked for my review. (This is an essential part of the report for me since this work is intended for middle grade readers.)
These reports do not change your copy. Each edit mark is something you need to respond to. It doesn’t give answers; it raises questions. I took every mark seriously, but I ignored most of them.
What’s missing. I have a version that allows me to download reports, but I found, instead, I switched back and forth between my manuscript and the online reports (which are tabbed). In theory, I’d like to go from instance to instance, with suggestions for change. That works well for spelling/grammar checks. In practice, with so many words questioned, it is probably more efficient for me to be popping back and forth.
Also, a lot of junk words that make my work more tentative (almost, a bit, nearly, somewhat) are not caught by Autocrit. And it fails to highlight similes (he was like a lion), which often are cowardly versions of metaphors (he was a lion).
Autocrit offers limited free use, so you can try it out yourself. I have a “Professional” membership, which requires an annual subscription. (I bought a lesser subscription and upgraded.)
Autocrit adds speed and efficiency. It has also made me more sensitive to chronic weaknesses. (This could be a problem for people who have a hard time turning off the internal editor. On the other hand, some may find that they compose more easily knowing so many problems will be caught. This program has become a permanent part of my rewriting process.

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