Sunday, 9 April 2017

How software you use daily can diagnose your hidden writing habits

USING software to produce some objective writing analysis makes us lazy — but we go there anyway. Few of us have access to the sophisticated algorithms used to discover that Robert Galbraith, debut author of The Cuckoo's Calling, had a secret alter ego in JK Rowling. But we know how to spellcheck our work — sometimes with clumsy results we accept with little thought.

A simple Google search will throw up good and bad reviews of any writing analysis software. It's wise to approach machine-driven verdicts with scepticism and use software purely as an analytic tool, rather than as quality control of your work.

Software can't tell you if your work is capable of nabbing a Nobel Prize for literature, and it will certainly find fault with work that does meet Nobel standards. You will never win an A+ verdict from software, so don't even try. You'll just get that back-at-school feeling, the one that comes with angry red scrawls.

Language analysis software will sometimes suggest changes that will kill your writing, and it will want to add mistakes to work that's pretty damned powerful. Only a fool takes software comments as... foolproof.

So why bother? Because you'll use it in a moment of insecurity, when you desperately want validation that you're doing okay. When you're alone in the office and need a second opinion.

And software isn't all bad. It will highlight some habits you don't even realise you have.

Blunt is the word to remember...

Let's see what three different software tools tell us about the text of Apple's 'Think Different' campaign. An earlier blog (here) will remind you that it was instrumental in making Apple the giant tech brand we know it to be.
Here's to the crazy ones. The misfits.The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. the ones who see things differently. They're not fond of rules. and they have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them. About the only thing you can't do is ignore them. Because they change things. They push the human race forward. And while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.

WORD, WORD, WORD

Microsoft Word will check more than spelling if you ask it to do so, and will generate suggestions on what you might want to change, along with readability statistics to tell you how you're doing.

These are the key points of Word's verdict about Apple, and what the result means.
  • Apple used roughly seven words a sentence, making it short and easy to read. 
A common average would be between 13 and 20 words. An average of 30+ words should set off alarm bells, as some sentences will be whoppers readers will struggle to get through. If you write short sentences, your work will have more impact. Apple has pulled this off, partly because some of these are fragments, incomplete sentences. It's an approach normally frowned upon but in Apple's campaign text shown, it works.
  • Apple uses short words — an average of four characters a word.
Short words are usually familiar to us and easy to read. Apple's text isn't bogged down in jargon and pompous language.
  • Apple uses no passive sentences. A good result.
A high number of passive sentences in any piece of writing should throw up a red flag. An earlier blog (here) will tell you why active sentences are often a better choice. It should be no surprise that passive sentences will give the impression of you being... passive.

The zero result for passive sentences in the Apple text reflects the company's nature. Visionary, revolutionary, pioneering — definitely not passive.
  • Apple's reading ease is 84.7
Word offers a verdict on whether text is easy to read. The higher the score, the easier the text is to read. Apple's result is a great verdict.
  • Apple has a gr3.2 — the education level needed to be able to read and understand the text.
The 3.2 level means that the barely literate can read the company's message.

The information Word offers is useful as a blunt diagnostic on your work. Long words or short? Long sentences or short? Mostly passive sentences or active ones? Easy to read? Or slow and confusing?

None of this tells anyone if the content is worth reading, but it gives clues on what might be getting in the way of a reader absorbing what we hope will be brilliant insights.

This is how you switch on and use this feature in Word.
  • Open Word and go to PREFERENCES.
  • Click on SPELLING AND GRAMMAR.
  • Tick the following boxes:
  • CHECK GRAMMAR AS YOU TYPE.
  • CHECK GRAMMAR WITH SPELLING.
  • SHOW READABILITY STATISTICS.
  • Beneath the readability statistics box, you will see a choice of writing style — standard, casual, formal, technical, and custom. Make your choice and click OK.
  • Open a document, go to the TOOLS menu, and then to SPELLING AND GRAMMAR on the drop-down menu.
  • The software will check your writing. When it hits what it sees as a flaw — grammar, spelling or punctuation — you will be prodded to change your writing, or ignore the suggestion.
  • When Word finishes the check, a window appears showing your statistics.
These are the key areas:

Average words per sentence

If your average is fewer than 20, you're working within reasonable limits. Even so, never pass up the chance to improve and cut sentences if needed.

Characters per word

If your result is in double digits, you have some long, complicated words and may want to simplify them.

Passive sentences

These can be a significant writing speed bump. But beware: the software is sometimes wrong.

Reading ease

These are the levels:
90-100     very easy
80-89       easy
70-79       fairly easy
60-69       standard
50-59       fairly difficult
30-49       difficult
0-29         very confusing

Change some of your language choices — shorter words, shorter sentences, and fewer passive ones — and this number goes up. It's simple, but it's best to treat it mostly as a guide. 

Ultimately, you should trust your instincts. After all, it's your writing, your readers and your vision.

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