Editing apps today are more sophisticated than older prototypes. Word’s spell check, for example, has never been too reliable. Microsoft apps don’t read for context, so you can’t count on them for problematic words like it’s and its or peak and peek. The built-in dictionary has trouble with Canadian usage, which combines American and British spelling, with some homegrown terminology added into the mix. Think toque, toboggan, toonie, and two-four. What gets me into a fit of pique (not peak) is the autocorrect feature on my smartphone when it changes words and names that I’ve spelled correctly. How many times has your autocorrect made you look bad? When I have the option, I turn off these features.
Newer apps like Grammarly are more useful and easy to work with. For day-to-day writing like emails and social media posts, these apps provide a rapid check for spelling, grammar, and punctuation. That can be handy when you want to post something quickly and you need a little reassurance that your words and punctuation come across as professional. For more advanced issues like word choice, misuse of passive verbs, and punctuation in complex sentences, you need to pay a fee. Grammarly lets you tap into its roster of human proofreaders for a fee too, so effectively it acts as an agent for real-life proofreaders. Grammarly knows that humans can do what its app does, and more.
What do editing apps lack?
Let’s look at the most advanced type of editing first: the structural edit. A real-life editor is the only one who can look at your work in its entirety and provide analytical insights about the logical progression of your ideas, the clarity of your message, or the arc of your story.
It takes a human being to have a conversation about your goals and then assess your work to see if it matches up to your purpose. Real-life editors are adept at travelling over the bridge to readers and can help writers reach the right market. This takes a complex knowledge and skill set, which editors develop by reading widely in different genres and building a deeper understanding of how language and stories work in a given culture.
Good editors are greater than the sum of their parts. Apps only give you the parts.
The next stage of editing—the stylistic edit—is also something that humans do better. Style is about the tone, voice, flow, variety, and transitions between paragraphs and sentences. Stylistic editors have an ear for language, and our languages evolve just like clothing styles. New ways of communicating come into fashion, and sometimes fall out of fashion before you can say 'buzzword.'
Good editors know what style suits your subject matter and your audience. They can help you craft sentences that are formal for professional audiences, informal for general audiences, or playful for young readers, and so on. The apps are only programmed for an average audience of general readers. Unlike human editors, apps do not ask the right kind of questions that help creative writers find their voice.
Apps come into their own during the copyedit and proofreading stages. Grammar, spelling, and punctuation, inconsistencies and redundancies, typos. But here still, human editors have advantages. We are trained to use tools specific to each publisher. For example, some publishing houses follow the rules of The Chicago Manual of Style, while others follow the APA guidelines, and still others have their own in-house rules.
Working as an editor, especially with indie authors, I find that I might be hired to perform a copyedit, but I'm able to flag up issues of style and structure too. There is a multi-tasking that can be done by humans who go in with a whole-brain approach and a lifetime of experience. That will never be covered within the parameters of free editing apps.
I’m not above using apps to quickly double check my own work. But with any important piece of writing, it’s well worth hiring a real-life editor. Good editors are greater than the sum of their parts, and apps will only give you the parts.
Incidentally, when Kasparov lost his sixth game of chess to the computer in a famous re-match, he suspected that IBM cheated and used a human to operate the machine in its bid to win a bigger market share.