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Using ProWritingAid: Overview and Workflow

Are you struggling with the perfect words for your manuscript? Is your command of grammar merely adequate? Have you heard of an app called ProWritingAid?

For those who wrestle with writing perfection (alliteration!) but don’t know how to tame their bad habits, and for whatever reason don’t like Grammarly, ProWritingAid is a great (er . . . an outstanding) solution to the problem.

ProWritingAid Companion 1
ProWritingAid in action, with Realtime checker activated.

Overview:

Now, you could always click over to the website, explore it, and forget to come back to this article. And that’s fine. At least you’re taking action to improve your writing skills through the use of computer technology. And I’ll undoubtedly miss you.

But, if you’re also a reading perfectionist, then let me offer you a little more relevant information:

  1. I have a 34-minute YouTube video dropping today that covers much of what the Desktop version of ProWritingAid offers. You should check it out after you finish reading this article. I’ll remind you about it when you reach the end.
  1. ProWritingAid, like any writing assistance program, requires context to work effectively. In other words, you should still know essential writing and grammar skills before investing your time or money into it. The best programs are the ones that don’t do all the thinking for you.
  1. Most of its suggestions can be ignored. ProWritingAid’s value comes from the suggestions you shouldn’t ignore.
  1. Like any good program, it has a free version that’s as powerful as the paid version, and almost as effective. The demarcation comes in its word limits. The free version can evaluate only 500 words at a time. So, if you want to save money, learn how to copy/paste a bunch. Be warned, though, that your summary report will reflect your free choice.
  1. The web app and the desktop app are basically the same. The difference is that the desktop app can sit on your computer while the web app can be used anywhere. The web version also has a few extra bells and whistles for anyone who needs to follow a style guide. The desktop app will preserve your formatting when you export, even though you won’t see any of it in the app itself.
  1. The program still has incomplete features. This is most noticeable when you explore its “Consistency” reports. Irony!
  1. If you buy it, you should buy the lifetime option. That way you won’t have to keep paying for it. If you can wait for a sale, even better (Pro Tip: There’s a sale now, until midnight PST.)

Now, the video tie-in covers most of the features, but I’ve been using it a lot more since recording the footage and learned more about workflow. So take a pause, watch the video, and then COME BACK for some workflow advice. Or, if you’re linking to this article from the video, feel free to keep reading.

Watch the Video Here

ProWritingAid Companion 2
ProWritingAid’s summary report, or part of it.

Workflow:

Three things I’ve learned about ProWritingAid is that the “Realtime” tracker is distracting (and slow), the “Summary” is great for project overview but pointless for granular fixes, and “Combo” is cluttered with suggestions that might melt your brain.

When using ProWritingAid, it’s best to dive right into the category selections. This assumes that you’ve already completed your developmental edits, as fixing grammar, style, etc. is pointless if the content is fundamentally poor. I wouldn’t recommend it until you’re ready to publish or submit your work.

Once the document is ready for fine-tuning, I’ll start with “Style.” This looks for passive verbs, adverbs, “emotion tells” (important for identifying sections where characters should “show, not tell”), and other readability enhancements. I’ll typically take careful consideration of this report’s suggestions.

Next, I’ll use “Grammar.” This highlights possible grammar and spelling mistakes. Pretty straightforward and obvious. Again, I’ll study the suggestions before accepting them. Sometimes it misses the point of the sentence.

Depending on the work, I may use the “Thesaurus,” but only for targeted words, and only a few paragraphs at a time. ProWritingAid has an extensive dictionary of alternatives, though I sometimes question its hierarchy of suggestions. It’s best to use this feature with a dictionary nearby, as its built-in dictionary is weak at the moment.

ProWritingAid Companion 3a
ProWritingAid’s Thesaurus and Word Search feature.

Overused” will highlight most of my “believes” and “thinks” and “justs” and so on. Again, I’ll give this report a cursory glance, but I won’t spend much time on it.

The “All Repeats” selection is useful for tracking repetitious phrases, though I typically ignore anything mentioned only twice, as I’ve likely intended the repetition. I also ignore most three-words-or-fewer phrases, as those usually link to common phrases like “this means that.”

I think “Echoes” is one of ProWritingAid’s most useful features, as it searches for two or more words used within a certain proximity of each other. While I’d ignore common repeats like pronouns or “this means that,” I probably don’t want to use the word indubitably twice in the same paragraph, or even within twenty lines of each other, so this is one of my favorite features when it catches what my eyes don’t.

ProWritingAid Companion 4
ProWritingAid’s “Echoes” category in action.

Structure” is practically useless from an improvement standpoint and good only for checking your “sentence starts.” For example, if you’re worried about lacking any type of sentence variety, in that every sentence begins with a subject and not a subordination, this checker will report on your fears. I rarely use it.

Length” is the better feature for reporting sentence variety, as it gives you a bar graph that diagrams your entire selection. If you see a wall of flat bars, then you’ve got hardly any sentence variety, and your text will sound robotic. But if you see wave patterns, you’ll be doing as Gary Provost says, “making music.”

ProWritingAid Companion 5
ProWritingAid’s “Length” report showing this blog “making music.”

Transitions” and “Readability” are worth skimming, but I don’t spend much time with either of them. My transitions typically reach 100% (the recommended average is 25%), so I don’t worry about them. “Readability” checks for grade level writing, which I don’t typically care about if I know a 12-year-old can still read it.

I find the “Sticky” section one of the most frustrating because it gets particular about “glue words,” or words that slow the reading down, which consist of such gems like like, which, of, about, that, etc. It’s irritating.

I’m not terribly worried about “Clichés” in my writing because I think they can sometimes get the point across better than some second-rate hack attempt I’d make to say the same thing in a worse way: “…if you could do good things for other people, you had a moral obligation to do those things! That’s what’s at stake here. Not choice. Responsibility.” Versus: “With great power comes great responsibility.” (The Amazing Spider-Man (2012) vs. Spider-Man (2002)). But I like the cliché checker because it also searches for redundancies, which I do sometimes overlook and miss. Er . . . miss.

Diction” is another category I hate using, not because it’s bad—on the contrary, it’s quite important—but it flags words like quite for being vague, and it’s annoying to filter through all of its “vague” and “abstract” tags, and its occasional warnings about prepositions at the end of sentences, to find those words that actually need addressing because they are too complicated for the reading scale or simply overused.

Pronouns” and “Alliteration” I usually skip. The pronoun checker gives a percentage report on how many sentences start with or use a pronoun and offers a suggested target range to ensure that your nouns haven’t been entirely ignored. The alliteration checker just gives a report of every phrase that has alliteration, in case that kind of thing bothers you, or if you’re trying to make more music in your message. I’m not that concerned with either, so I don’t spend more than a minute studying either.

Homonyms” I check, but I skim for context. It’s a daunting report because, like the thesaurus, it will light your page up with so many colors, but I still think its important because—I mean, it’s important because, well, because.

Consistency” is an important checker for the same reason that homonyms are important to check—it’s easy to mistype a repeated word. However, to make best use of the consistency checker, don’t include your title in the scan (you can highlight blocks of text if your title exists on the page) because it will assume that all of your capitalizations are inconsistent when they see the lowercase common versions of the same word. It also monitors any shifts from U.S. English to British English and back again.

Finally, I’ll check “Dialogue” to make sure that all my conversations have proper attribution, that the tags are simple enough (he said, she said), and that my quotes have the right punctuations in the right places. I don’t typically use dialect in my speech, but this checker will provide a warning if it sees something that looks like dialect, and I can decide whether it’s appropriate to keep.

The tools I don’t use include “Acronyms,” because I don’t write research papers, “Pacing,” because it searches for every use of “have,” which indicates backstory and “slow reading,” and I don’t have the patience to rewrite entire paragraphs when “have” is fine, “House,” because I don’t work for a magazine or publisher, and “Plagiarism” because it costs extra money to use.

So that wraps up my overview of ProWritingAid and how to use it. Once again, you can watch the video here if you haven’t clicked on it yet.

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And wash your hands!