Did Shakespeare Need an App?

Self-portrait inspired by Ophelia from Shakespeare’s Hamlet — photo by Cynthia Smith on Unsplash

The headline alone was sufficient; the Medium article didn’t need the subtitle. The articles’ author was upset. Seems her subject had been even more upset, and the entire thing imploded.

When Illumination Said My Work had 83 Errors Pissed off doesn’t quite cover it — I was insulted. The piece was perfect. by S Kearley

So to clarify, it wasn’t ILLUMINATION, the Medium publication, that dissed the work, it was an editor for the same publication who evidently employed the ProWritingAide software app to critique the author’s submission — one would hope as an initial check and not the editor’s final judgment on the piece, editors being coaches, not umpires.

And the author’s response stirred enough of a kerfuffle the editor was asked to step down, as later reported.

I use ProWritingAide for a first pass at most of what I write. It’s said to be better than Grammarly, though I wouldn’t know, having never used that app. My take is that ProWritingAide has useful tools and annoying ticks in equal numbers. I’ve learned to skip several of the reports and read others with a skeptical eye.

The ProWritingAide app aims to reach beyond grammar and spelling to counsel writers about repetitive word usage, comma splices, run-on sentences, poor word choices, and the other nefarious sins of publishing. That last one, poor word choices, gets the app into deep kimchee frequently. It wants to change every instance of “whole” to “entire.” Which is my clue to see if I’ve sprinkled both adjectives through the story — believing in variety. And the app has an antipathy for “in spite of” always urging “despite” instead, in spite of whether the paragraph needs three syllables rather than one; I decline the suggestion.

The creators of ProWritingAide believe every single, solitary simple two word phrase deserves a comma, whether one wants the sentence to flow or screech to a halt. And always advises that colloquial language grates on the ears — to them, anyway, since they’re all from New Jersey.

And don’t get it started on adverbs. Admittedly, one can be overly verbose (as opposed to under-ly verbose) but those critters come in handy — occasionally.

But what to do when the title is capitalized and the subtitle isn’t? Kearley might have wanted to pick one headline style or the other. To get picky about that last paragraph, she moves from third person singular to third person plural, leaving one confused about who she’s shaking a finger at. And yes, ProWritingAide will always flag a dangling preposition. The app’s creators surely read their Strunk and White. I’ve read of it.

Though she could have used a better example, I’ll take her side on that one. All the writing gurus say ‘no passive voice, which is beyond annoying. However, in the example Kearley gives, the edit suggestion is actually crisper, getting faster to the point — and I’d have probably accepted it for that reason, brevity being what it is and all. But as Steven Pinker suggests, if the language offers the option of a passive voice, why not use it occasionally? Rote writing, active or passive, is deadly boring. Spice is the variety of life — see?

Initialing can be hazardous, ‘tis true: Flying by in my Maserati, the peons cheered. And that sort of thing. But, dears, it’s all in how you say it: Flying by in my Maserati, I was captured by the red light camera and lost my license again.

Saying all initialing is bad—the AI subroutine could use fine tuning.

So here’s my main qualifier: If you can afford a professional copy editor, who is paid (passive voice) for her work, god bless — you’ve either made it as a successful writer, or you have disposable income to throw at it. If you can’t afford an actual editor, using ProWritingAide will catch things your eyes sail straight past, no matter how many readings you may give it.

And perhaps as useful, this particular app forces one to focus attention on individual sentences and phrases. Given sufficient patience — and caffeine — it offers a writer a method of fine turning the language, with new ideas to serendipitously (split infinitive) drop in (dangling preposition).

When one gets a notice that all your sentences run ‘subject, verb, object,’ ‘subject, verb, object,’ ad nauseum (Latin ‘to a sickening extent’), you might need to casually throw in (love them split infinitives) a prepositional phrase at the start, or begin with a verb for variety. Mind, when ProWritingAide reports I’ve begun 50% of my sentences with a subject compared to 75% in ‘published writing,’ I read it, nod and continue; this stat doesn’t strike me as a provable metric. Why couldn’t the difference just as easily distinguish a superior writing style? Just saying.

On the other hand, when it tells me I’ve started three sentences in succession with “He,” I’ll often make the correction. And I do look for echoes, those unintentionally (adverb) repeated words and phrases one isn’t always aware of. I like deliberate echoes, as in “I gave you your success as a writer, you know.” “Oh, really? You gave me that?”

Said another way… I found Steven Pinker’s A Sense of Style a lighter hearted (look, Ma, no hyphen) take on the English language. His section on misplaced phrases is worth the price of the book — and his shtick about technical writing is spot on.

The story in this case is sadder, in that the antagonism between author and editor is palpable — at least it is from the author’s viewpoint. We never get the editor’s opinion (I nearly wrote ‘viewpoint’ a second time). I’ve edited other writers’ work occasionally, and it’s not the same as a school marm (gender specific) grading papers, handing down the last word. It’s more the job of a coach, with the desire to see how a piece might be improved, how to encourage the writer to find their best voice.

And an em dash doesn’t have spaces before or after it — I’ve had my wrist slapped for that more than once. Just saying, ma’am. But when you write for Medium, it corrects the mistake — it gives you no option. Grrr.

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Bill Evans

A practicing writer and architect, he is now squandering hours making a mess from writing.