Have you ever wanted a magical editing wand?
Just imagine: A flick of the wrist would be all that stood between you and the end of editing your writing. No frustration. Minimal time investment. An amazing manuscript or blog post.
Alas, no such magic wand exists.
But we do have automatic editing tools, which are the next-best things.
Just remember that automatic editing tools are designed to make editing easier, not to eliminate the work completely.
Putting automatic editing tools to the test
During self-edits on my latest manuscript, I experimented with six editing tools, both free and paid, to determine which could be most beneficial to The Write Life’s audience. Besides being an author, I’m an editor, so I also weighed each tool against what I’d look for when editing.
Since editing, which is anything that improves your writing, has a broad definition, it’s not surprising that the tools I tried had different functions, from checking grammar and style, to eliminating unnecessary words, to identifying areas for improvement.
What you want your editing tool to do will influence which one(s) you choose. No one tool can do it all — nor can one of these tools wave away the work and critical thinking necessary for a well-edited book.
An automatic editing tool doesn’t replace a human editor. Because language rules and elements of a good story can be so flexible, human eyes will always be superior to the rigidity of automatic tools.
Here are those six tools, broken into three categories based on function.
[Editor’s note: Some companies offered free access to the paid versions of their tools for the purposes of this test, but all opinions are the writer’s.]
Check your grammar and style
Sometimes, you just want to make sure you’re not making any silly spelling or grammar mistakes.
What It Does: Grammarly is a grammar checker and proofreader.
Price: $29.95 per month, $59.95 per quarter or $139.95 per year for premium service. A limited version is available for free, and Grammarly also offers a number of other free services such as a plagiarism checker and various plug-ins.
Who It’s For: Anyone, though most useful for corporate business people and academics.
How It Works: Copy and paste the text into the online dashboard and let Grammarly work its magic. It flags potential errors, gives suggestions and provides an explanation if you need it. There is also a free available for Microsoft Word, along with a plug-in for web browsers.
The Best Part: Grammarly is easy to use and pointed out a vocabulary issue or two that none of the other tools did. It’s superior to Microsoft Word’s grammar checker.
What Would Make It Better: As an editor, I’ve found that many people don’t understand or care to learn the technical explanation for why something’s wrong. Plain language (or as plain as you can get) explanations for mistakes would make it accessible to more writers.
Our Recommendation: Grammarly is best for the final proofreading stage, or for people who want to learn more about the technical aspects grammar. If you’re an editor or strong writer, you might find yourself ignoring more flagged items than you fix.
What It Does: ProWritingAid analyzes your writing and produces reports on areas such as overused words, writing style, sentence length, grammar and repeated words and phrases.
Price: Free, with a premium membership option for $40 per year that gives you access to more options such as: using ProWritingAid within Microsoft Word and Google Docs; interactive editing; access to more reports; and the ability to review an unlimited number of words. A lifetime option is also available for $140.
Who It’s For: Anyone
How It Works: Click on “Editing Tool,” create a free account, then paste in your text.
The Best Part: ProWritingAid delivers similar results to AutoCrit, and though ProWritingAid has a premium option, most of the areas you’ll want checked are available for free.
What Would Make It Better: Though ProWritingAid checks grammar, I slipped in a your/you’re mistake without getting flagged. I wasn’t overly fond of the website design, especially with its big ads, but its functional and ads are the price you pay for a free tool.
Our Recommendation: Use ProWritingAid in the self-editing stage to guide your edits. It may not be as comprehensive as AutoCrit, but for a free tool, it’s a decent contender.
What It Does: Like Grammarly, After the Deadline is a grammar checker.
Price: Free for personal use
Who It’s For: Anyone
How It Works: Click “Demonstration,” paste the text you want to check, and click “Check Writing.” After the Deadline underlines any potential issues and explains its reasoning.
The Best Part: It’s free! You can also use it on your self-hosted WordPress site, as an extension or add-on for Chrome or Firefox, or with OpenOffice.org.
What Would Make It Better: A definition of passive voice that explains how you construct it grammatically. After the Deadline rightly explains what passive voice does, but it seems to focus only on the “be” verb, which occasionally leads to falsely labeling non-passive constructions as passive.
Our Recommendation: You get what you pay for with After the Deadline. Use it for a final proofread, but exercise good judgment and don’t make every change it suggests — it’s not as sophisticated as Grammarly.
Improve your writing
If you’re looking for a critique that goes a bit deeper, try one of these options.
What It Does: AutoCrit analyzes your manuscript to identify areas for improvement, including pacing and momentum, dialogue, strong writing, word choice and repetition.
Price: $29.97 per month or $359.64 for an annual membership. This includes an unlimited number of words.
Who It’s For: Fiction writers
How It Works: Paste your text into the online dashboard or upload a document and click on AutoCrit’s tabs to see their analysis.
The Best Part: I spent the most time in “Compare to Fiction” tab, which is a comprehensive look at common issues. It highlighted my tendency to start sentences with “and” and “but,” and identified my most repeated words. I felt like I learned something about my writing, and that’s something I don’t think I could say about the other tools.
What Would Make It Better: A more accurate definition of passive voice. It highlights any use of the “be” and “had” verbs, neither of which fully capture (you need a past participle in addition to a “be” verb), and many active voice constructions were falsely labeled as passive.
Our Recommendation: AutoCrit is great to guide your edits in the self-editing stage. It’s best used for developmental edits, rewrites and avoiding common writing no-nos.
What It Does: Hemingway App provides a readability score — the lowest grade level someone would need to understand the text — and analyzes your writing to identify areas for improvement.
Price: Free online, $9.99 for desktop version
Who It’s For: Anyone
How It Works: Paste your text into the dashboard and scan for highlighted sections of text. The highlighted text is color coded depending on your area of improvement, whether it’s hard-to-read sentences, the presence of adverbs, or passive voice.
The Best Part: In addition to providing examples on how to fix passive voice or complex phrases, Hemingway App also identifies how many “-ly” adverbs and passive voice constructions you have and suggests a maximum number to use based on your word count.
In my prologue, for example, I had one use of passive voice, and Hemingway App suggested aiming for six uses or fewer — which I nailed. These recommendations reinforce the idea that not all adverbs or passive voice constructions are bad, and that’s something other tools miss.
What Would Make It Better: Hemingway App was the cleanest and easiest to use of the free editing tools, but it’s not a grammar checker or proofreader. Even though it’s not meant to catch grammar and spelling mistakes, any editing application that catches those mistakes is instantly more attractive.
Our Recommendation: Use Hemingway App to increase the readability of your writing and identify problem sentences during the copyediting stage, but supplement your efforts with a grammar and spell checker.
Eliminate word fluff
Those unnecessary words and phrases are getting in your story’s way.
What It Does: WordRake cuts out the unnecessary words or phrases that creep into your writing. It works with Microsoft Word and Outlook, depending on which license you purchase. I tested the Microsoft Word version.
Price: For Microsoft Word or Microsoft Outlook versions, pay $129 for one year, $229 for two or $259 for three years (Microsoft Word-only version). To use for both Word and Outlook, pay $199 for one year, $349 for two years or $399 for three years.
Who It’s For: Bloggers, authors and editors using Microsoft Word or Outlook
How It Works: WordRake is an add-in for Microsoft products and requires you to install the program before using it, though it’s as easy as following the instructions. Select the text you want to edit, then use the WordRake add-in. It uses track changes to suggest edits, which you can accept or reject.
The Best Part: WordRake is as close as you can get to an automatic editor. It appealed to me more as an editor than writer, but it’s great at eliminating unnecessary phrases and words — and it’s those words that bog down your writing.
What Would Make It Better: I threw a your/you’re mistake in to see if WordRake would catch it. It didn’t, even though Microsoft Word flagged it. If WordRake could catch common writing mistakes like your/you’re, their/they’re/there in addition to unnecessary words, it’d be a hard tool to beat.
Our Recommendation: WordRake is a great tool for the copyediting stage. Verbose writers, authors wanting to cut down on editing costs or editors looking to speed up their editing process will most benefit from WordRake. Watch out if you’re running Word on a slow computer: WordRake increases your load time.
Do you use one of these editing tools or something else? What’s been your experience with automatic editing tools?
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This post originally ran in 2014. We’ve updated it to provide the most accurate information possible.