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Monday, 27 February 2012

Writing-aide applications, are they any good?

I was reading thorough some blogs and forums lately and noticed a few people talking about some of the programs they use to help with their writing. From what I made out there are two main types of programs, the ones that are intended to help with the technicalities of your writing and the ones that let you store and organise both your writing and your ideas.
Now, the only application I’ve ever used to help with my writing is MS word, and the benefits of that ‘helping’ are dubious at best. Ok, so the built-in thesaurus is sometimes worth its weight in gold, and I do use the spell-checker... but I’ve learned that I should definitely not rely on it. I’m not too sure about it’s concepts of grammar and punctuation ether. And that leads me into the programs purporting to help with your technical writing. Now, suffering from a touch of dyslexia, as I do I was quite interested in context sensitive spell checking software, although I was also a bit dubious. Would it detect ‘theme’ instead of ‘them,’ possibly. But how about ‘bed’ instead of ‘bead’ ... probably no so much. Anyway I decided to have a look and begun some on-line trawling for example/demo applications.

Ok, so first off I’m not going to mention any names heer, this isn’t an advet, but I will say that a quick Google brings up quite a lot of programs that purport to be ‘groundbreaking’ in the field of computer assisted grammar and spelling support. I did try a few demo versions of these and to be honest, I don’t think they offer much above what is available with word. The ‘grammar’ part wanted to change my story text to something I didn’t want it to say, although to be fair some do have a decent grasp of basic sentence structure and you can set some to look for and correct (well attempt to correct) common grammatical ‘errors’ like passive sentences etc. Is it worth paying for something like this if you already use a word processor with built in checking? It’s hard to say, and definitely is a judgement call. Some of these programs do look at your writing fairly closely, and do suggest much more changes than something like work. I can see where these could be a help for the beginner writer to understand good writing techniques. In quite a lot of cases it’s offering the same type of thing that critiques often say to beginners about voice, tense, and sentence structure etc. How much benefit there is to this entirely depends on you. I would say have a look at a few of these and see if you think it’s for you.

The second type of ‘helper’ programs promised to get rid of all those scribbled notes and held together with bent paperclips. They said you could give me a clear and concise way to outline and organise my work as well as providing a versioning system... not concepts I’m overly familiar with as far as my writing is concerned I have to admit. So again I decided to trawl the internet for some demo software...
I think this type of program is even more subjective. There are quite a few decent things out there if you like organising things, but to be honest I don’t think much of these commercial packages offer much more than is available of free to join critique sites like
I use free versioning software for my day-job (programming web sites) and this type of thing could equally well be used properly time-stamp and store different revisions of your writing. Yes some are quite good at allowing you to outline your story or novel, and have things like chapters built in. But most people could probably do a similar thing in pre-existing software like word or even (god forbid) an excel spreadsheet. Please don’t think I’m flatly dismissing these types of program here. On the contrary, I think they can be useful, and there are people who would be much more at home using an all-in-one system like many on offer instead of fabricating a roll-your-own system from pre-existing applications. If you think you may find a use for this type of app, another quick Google will find many examples to be getting on with.

So what have I deduced for all this Goggling and playing? Well, nothing startling really. And I do have to admit that I was sceptical coming into this little experiment. Although I would have to say yes they can be a help, if you are willing to put in the time to use them properly. But, for what it’s worth, my advice would still be not to rely solely on any software for vetting your writing. Don’t use them as a substitute for real-peoples opinions. A good critique group, ether on-line or face-to-face, is still the best option IMO. But don’t let that put you off having a look. You may find something that works for you and both types of ‘helper’ program can indeed help-out, just remember it’s ‘help’ and not a magic fix to replace hard-work, planning, and diligence. 
I’d be very interested to here what you think, especially if you do, or have used, one of these programs.

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