Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Review of Grammar Check Anywhere and Whitesmoke

As an indie author, I struggle to put out error-free work. I hate typos, misspellings, and format errors. While most misspellings are corrected by the word processor, many typos and grammatical errors are not, and neither are words used out of context.  As I noted in a recent blog (as recent as today, as a matter of fact. I’m catching up) indie authors should use an editor, at least until the get a feeling for grammar and punctuation, and are able to construct a story without a lot of help. But that still leaves proofreading. I mentioned in that blog the typos that I missed, even after having read the thing a couple of times. Even my wife missed them.

It occurred to me that there may be some decent software that will help me. So, I searched for software that would check grammar. Many word processors have something that purports to do it, but mine (Atlantis) does not. There is not even a plug-in. 

I discovered a number of programs that might work, so I downloaded a few to see what they would do. My verdict is that although they may be useful for students, people learning the language, or people who fancy themselves writers, but who are not properly schooled in English, they are of little use to a professional writer. Although they certainly make some suggestions that improved any writing, they are so imperfect that one still needs a human proofreader to go through it word by word.

Some of the most popular programs, such as Ginger, worked only with Microsoft products that I don’t have. I downloaded StyleWriter4, but found the interface to be so horrible that it was unusable. I ended up trying Whitesmoke and Grammar Check Anywhere. Neither is perfect, but of the two, Whitesmoke (WS) is better. Both run in the background, and are activated by a hot key, which you can assign. They both have reasonably decent interfaces, and are easy to use. But there are major differences between them, and major problems with both.

For example, neither one (nor any others I tested online) found any problems with the sentence: “We are going to place in the country.” It should be “We are going to a place in the country.” A clear limitation of all grammar checking programs, illustrating that no matter what you do, you still need a set of human eyes to read the thing. And better that the eyes are not yours.

But why should they miss this? The word “place” is one of those words that can be a noun or a verb. “I have a place in the country,” or “Please place the jar on the table.” As noun, it needs an article – “the” or “a.” As a verb it does not. So, why not flag it? They flag other stuff. They flag common words that are confused, as I discuss below. I know that in the context I used it that there should be an “a” in front of it. But I type fast and miss letters, sometimes. When I read it, my brain skips right over it. Just mark it and say “you might be missing an article.” 

Both of these programs have a trial version to download for free. (Note to those selling software: I will never download a program for which I have to pay first, with the right to cancel. I don’t trust you that far. I insist on a free trial download, no strings attached.)

Warning: Both programs affected formatting. Never use them on a final version of a document on which you have struggled on the formatting. 

Grammar Check Anywhere.

I found this program to be nearly useless for my purposes. Most of the suggestions for corrections it made were meaningless or wrong, and it does not look at punctuation.

Unlike many programs, including WS, this program does not require an internet connection to work.

In contrast to WS, which allows only 10,000 characters at a time, Grammar Check will check your entire document at one time, one issue at a time. I used it on a 56,000 word novel. The document comes up in an editing window with the first issue (potential problem) highlighted. 

The first issue it had was with the sentence “If this stick breaks, you are gonna die.” It highlighted “this stick breaks,” and suggested “this stick break,” “these stick breaks,” and “the stick breaks.” The only one of the suggestions that is grammatically correct in this context is the last one. The sentence as it is is correct, so why bother? If you are going to bother, then make a suggestion that has the result of producing proper grammar in the context of the sentence. I suppose you could say “Did this stick break?” I cannot, however, think of a context where “these stick breaks” would be correct. In my limited understanding of English, the noun “stick” would have to agree in number with the article in front of it. “These” is plural, so “stick” would have to be plural, and the verb would have to not have the “s.” That may be a rough way to put it, but if you can think of any context where the suggestion “these stick breaks” would be correct, feel free to comment.

Then it wanted to make sure that I did not mean “foreword” when I used the word “forward.” Fine, but from the context of the sentence, I used the right word. The program, then, mechanically looks for certain words and gives a warning, without regard to context. You can adjust the sensitivity to these things, and you can tell it not to look for them, but that feature does not seem to work. It did the same thing with “weather,” to be sure I didn’t mean “whether.” I am beyond this issue in my understanding of English, and found it quite annoying. (It also has an “Ignore All” button, which does not work).

For  the phrase “he no longer,” it suggested “he know longer.” Uh, no. This is clearly geared toward a person who does not know the difference between know and no. But under what context would the word “know” be correct here? None that I can think of, so it clearly simply looks for “no” and substitutes “know.” Not much use, and certainly a time waster.

It did make some good suggestions. For example, “without,” instead of “in the absence of,” and “despite,” in place of “in spite of.” Good ideas, and the type of advice that everyone could use.

Then it started selecting letters in the middle of words at random and suggesting that they be capitalized, because it had determined that they were the first word of a sentence. I don’t know where this came from, but it got to be quite annoying.

As you go through the program’s suggestions, you can edit your actual document (a feature missing in WS), or you can edit the document in the program’s window. You should know, though, that if you click “Finish,” you will have no option but to have the program make the changes to your document that you made in the editing window. There should be a way to exit without doing anything. If you don’t want to make the changes in your document that you have made on the editing window, you must hit the “Cancel” button. This is a major drawback or, more accurately, a flaw, in the program.

It destroyed my formatting. The first time I tried it, I had it look at the entire document, including all the front matter. I had agonized for hours over the headers and footers, because I’m using different headers for odd and even pages, and the page numbering starts at chapter 1, not at the beginning of the document, which is the title page. When I told it to finish, it applied my changes, and killed my header and footer formatting. Fortunately, I had saved it when the format was right, and not saved it since. I experimented with this issue by taking only a portion of the text starting in the middle of the document (which is done by selecting it, then pressing F7), made some changes, then applied it. This time, it did not affect the headers and footers. 

I liked that you could choose between editing the actual document, or editing in the program and having it applied to the document. The editor works at normal speed, which can be useful. 

I found the program as a whole to be too basic. That is, it seems to believe that you don’t know the difference between “weather” and “whether,” which is a level or two below where any writer would be. So, it’s good for middle school students, but not professional writers.

On the upside, It costs only about $60, so you won’t go without food and shelter if you spring for it, but for me it was too much of a time waster, with only minimal usefulness. 

Whitesmoke (WS)

Great interface, clean-looking editing window and meaningful suggestions.

The editor, though, is painfully, agonizingly, horribly slow. I’m talking two or three seconds per keystroke slow. You want to shoot yourself. And you can’t edit your document while this is running. 

It’s limited to looking at only 10,000 characters at a time. Maybe a chapter. 

Requires internet connection. I read another review that determined the connection was not secure. So watch what you edit, it’s being sent over a non-secure connection.

Affected the format slightly, but did not touch my beloved headers and footers. For example, it eliminated italics. 

If you do a search for grammar checking programs, you will find that WS has marketed the garbage our of their product. Some of it is a little deceptive. You go to a site that looks like a different product, and it turns out to be a landing page for WS. I hate that. I also found “reviews” online that were clearly written by WS. I hate that, too. I have enough trouble figuring out what’s real in this world. 

WS is superior to Grammar Check Anywhere in several ways. It’s interface is much more professional looking.  It comes up with a nice clean editor, and a side bar graphic that rates your writing overall, and with respect to certain categories, such as sentence structure.

It highlights problems it finds by underlining the offending word or phrase, and then putting suggested changes above them. You make the change by clicking on the one you like, or you ignore them by doing nothing. The suggested changes are marked in different colors, depending whether it is a spelling error, an incomplete sentence, a word suggestion, and so forth.

But it ain’t perfect. Here are some of its suggestions:

“I’m not” in place of “I ain’t.” No prob.
It said that “That’s too bad” is not a complete sentence. I don’t know whether it is or it isn’t, but it’s typical conversational speech. But I’m not horrified by the fact that it made the recommendation.

“I ain’t no coward” should be “I’m not any coward.” Don’t sound right to me.

“Could” instead of “were able to.” Good suggestion.

A comma after “us” in the sentence “If they find us they are going to hurt us.” Probably right.

But there are some serious bugs in it. It suggested “Iprovided,” or “Itprovided,” instead of “provided” (as in “Provided we survive . . .”) The suggested corrections are missing spaces. i.e., the suggestions for correcting grammar and punctuation themselves have typos. Imagine if you were a foreigner trying to correct a document in English. You want to put your brains on the ceiling? Try to look up the meaning of “Iprovided.” Not good for a program that has been around for a while, and that is intended to do what this thing does, and for which you will lay out actual dough. And remember, you are supposed to click on the one you want, and it automatically makes that correction. I don’t need a grammar program that introduces more errors.

There came a point in the document where it got one word off from the word with which it had a problem. For example, “. . . he did not hear come in.” It underlined “come” and suggested it be “here.” If you made the change, you end up with “hear here.” It meant to suggest that “hear” should be “here.” (Like in Grammar Checker, I’m at the point in my understanding of English that I know the difference. Would I type the wrong one? Not likely. More likely that I would leave off a letter, such as typing “hea” or “her.” You want to help me, flag a sentence where I used “her” instead of “here.” I’d pay for that.

So, many of the suggestions it had were just plain wrong, whether considering the context or not. There are typos in some suggested corrections.

On the other hand, there are some good things about it. The editing window is very easy to read, and they do not clutter it up with oodles of useless suggestions (only a few). So, I find myself reading every word very carefully, not only the words indicated for changes. This is important. When I proof read my own stuff, I tend to gloss over things because I know what it says (or what it should say). 

They purport to have, and others have written that they do have, excellent customer service. I haven’t tested it, and I don’t know what happens after you buy the thing.

If you do install the trial version, to remove it you have to go to Windows Task Manager, and delete it from the Processes window. It does not show up in the Applications window. (if the thing in running. You can prevent this by not having it start automatically when you start your computer)

So, will I buy it? No. It’s about $150 (105 Euros), although I know they will offer you a 30% discount if you uninstall their software. Is it worth a hundred bucks for what it does? Probably. But here’s my issue with it, and with Grammar Checker:


Certainly, both programs will help you with your writing, particularly if English is not your native tongue, or you’re a student, even in college, or you are an indie writer who can’t afford a real live editor. If you are writing something that does not have to be immaculate, but you want help with some punctuation (WS only) and word usage, then these will help you.

If you are a professional writer, however, they are virtually useless. Although they will make a few good suggestions, so would any editor. Since they are not a substitute for an editor, then you are wasting your time and money. You will spend the time going through with one of these programs, and still have to go through word-by-word to get the glitches that these won’t catch. Would you rely on your spell checker to make sure everything was okay? No. 

I looked at these to address the problem that I miss typos when reading through a document. They are of little use for that. What helped me the most was listening to it being read out loud on my computer. Adobe pdf will do it, but I had a tremendous problem. In older versions, it worked very well. They have now rendered it nearly useless. The best program I’ve found so far is Natural Reader. You can get a free version with just Microsoft Annie’s voice, or you can pay (quite a bit, actually) for other voices. The other voices are cool, but I doubt they are worth the money. With Natural Reader, you can listen and edit your document at the same time. It has numerous bugs and flaws, but it works good enough for the free version.  

Monday, February 6, 2012

What I Have Learned as an Indie Author – Part 2: The Cover

All books need a cover, as that is how they are judged. Even e-books. But this is a very difficult business, and as contentious with critics of indie authors as is the often piss-poor nature of the writing and editing.

I fancy myself the artistic type. I even sell paintings online. But I am not a graphic designer, and I am certainly not a book cover designer. I struggled for hours and days working on a cover. Looking for fonts, images, looking at professional covers, trying to figure the whole thing out. What color? What font? What color font? What image? How do I put it together? After two days of doing that, instead of writing, I realized how hard it is. I concluded that just as in the editing, you need a professional. I threw my hands up. But I could not bring myself to hire anyone, at least yet.

In looking at professionally done covers, I looked for patterns. What kind of font did they use? Was there a secret color for the font. How about the cover? I found no consistency or pattern, with two exceptions. I noticed that about a third of all books use a white type face on a dark background. About 20% of the rest had white or very light backgrounds with dark letters. So, the answer is contrast. 

A large fraction of the fonts were sans serif, but there were also a huge percentage of serif fonts. Depends on what you’re doing. What I did notice, though, is that very few used any gimmicky fonts. No bleeding letters, or fancy script. 

There are certain other consistencies, such as the nature of the cover of romance novels (big strapping guy, usually without a shirt and rippled with muscles, with a beautiful woman, hair blowing in the wind). Books selling to women tend to have softer colors, more pastel. But otherwise, there was little in common, except that they were simple, and had only one image relating to the content of the book. They seemed to try to convey the nature of the book, but not give a representation of the story. At most, they would provide a scene.

One problem I found was trying to study books in this genre, which is horror, or maybe YA horror. Most of the famous writers of horror, such as Stephen King or Dean Koonz, have their names in huge letters at the top, with the title at the bottom. That doesn’t work for indie authors, as the important information on those books is the name of the author. Not all that important for me, yet.

First Version
So, I tried my hand at it. I think I did pretty well (but don’t we indies always think we did pretty well?) I came up with a strong image with red letters that conveyed, to some extent, the fact that this was a horror novel. You could probably describe it as being very masculine. 

Then I thought about it. I realized that many of my readers, if not most of them, would be female. So, I thought a more feminine cover would be in order. So, I chose a picture of a house on a river (actually, a castle on the Danube I took this past November), soft and misty, with a nice reflection. Part of the story takes place at a river. Then I added, faintly, an image of a skull, superimposed over the river scene. This also conveys an idea of the nature of the book. Evil in contrast to good, and not always able to tell which is which.

Another Variation.
See the difference the font makes?
I like this one better than the other two.

The Current Version
Note that it's more square than the others. This cover
works well on Kindle, but it won't fly on
CreateSpace. But it give you a little more room
on Kindle than the size they recommend.

That is where I am now. The more feminine cover is the one in use as of the writing of this blog. 

Lessons Learned 

Keep it simple. You don’t need a bunch of images. I also noticed that few books have a photograph of a person on the cover. If there is a person, it is a painting. They have either purely graphic designs, or scenery of some kind.

Use a strong font, but not a gimmicky one. A good sans serif, such as League Gothic, or a good serif, such as Trajan. It has to do with the type of book. You would not use the same font on a book about football as you would on one about a girl coming of age.

The font has to look good (i.e., be readable) in a small image online. When you have the font in place, shrink the image to see what it looks like.

Make sure there is a lot of contrast, such as white letters on a dark background. But make sure the colors don’t vibrate when next to each other.

What I Have Learned as an Indie Author – Part 1: Editing

A writer trying to do his own editing, or make his own book cover, is like a person trying represent themselves (pro se) in court. I practiced law for ten years, and there are very few things lawyers and judges hate more than a pro se litigant. They don’t know the rules of court, they don’t know procedure, and they sure as hell don’t know the law. Their filings are garbage, and they often don’t understand the real issues in their own cases. They think they do, but they don’t. 

The same is true of an indie writer trying to do it all himself. Indie authors are on the horns of a dilemma. On the one hand, if you are not schooled in writing, then your work is (believe me) of poor quality, unless you hire an editor. 

You also need a good book cover. It’s cliché, but people judge a book by its cover. You need one that will grab the attention of your target audience, and get those people to look at your book. It’s got to be easy to see online in a small image. These things all cost money. A lot of money.

If you want to be successful as an indie author, the content of your book needs to be perfect. Not the best darn work you can do (that might have been good enough for your mother) but no typos, proper grammar, spelling and punctuation, and proper usage. This can only be accomplished with professional help. 

There are two levels of this: one is a very detailed analysis of your story. Whether it makes sense, where the holes are, and whether it has the elements of a story. The other is a line edit/proofread where, if you have command of the story, typos, grammar, and improper usage will be corrected.

Being able to put together a story, particularly of novel length, is very difficult. That even comes in two parts. You need to be able to construct the story with a beginning, middle and end, and you need to be able to write it so it is interesting and makes sense. For the structure, I recommend a book called The Writers Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers, 3rd Edition, by Christopher Volger. There is also a nice set of videos on YouTube that give it to you in a nutshell. But nothing beats reading the book.

As to the writing part, I suggest Techniques of the Selling Writer, by Dwight Swain. 

Even if you consider yourself to be well-versed in the use of the language, you need to have an editor in order to achieve the quality you need. I have a master’s degree in business and a law degree, and think that I have a decent command of grammar, punctuation, style, and usage (I can’t spell, and I know it). But what I produce is riddled with errors. Even what I published had errors. That’s how I know what I’m talking about.

Even if you have a perfect understanding of the elements of writing, you will never, ever, in a million years, catch all the typos and other errors in your own work. You at least need a proofreader.

For example, I had a sentence that was supposed to be “Then Roland got out of the car.” I typed “the” instead of “then.” I can’t tell you how many times I read that and missed it. My wife caught it. (I later realized that I didn’t need the “then,” so I deleted it, anyway). As an experiment, I tried some of the big fancy grammar checkers on the market, to see whether they would catch that. None of them did. None.

When I uploaded the file for CreateSpace, I had read through it, and my wife had read through it. I thought it was in pretty darn good shape. Then I got the proof of the book. We read it again. There were a myriad of errors. Little errors, generally, but still errors. Then I did something different. I listened to the whole book as the computer read it through, following along, making edits as it went. Again, numerous little errors. A missing letter, here–a period where there should have been a comma there. 

The astute reader will say “but you didn’t use an editor.” No, I didn’t. And I probably won’t, and here’s why: I used an editor for another novel, and learned a lot from that. My problem is not grammar and punctuation, so much, as it is being able to spot small typos. So, it must be proofread by more than one person, and it is very helpful to listen to it and follow along.

I paid three grand to have an editor review my first novel (and continue to work with me, and it ain’t done, yet) for not only grammar and punctuation, but for story arc, believability, and such. Tons and tons of work. And that editor took me to school. No kid gloves, no gratuitous praise, just plain hard “I don’t buy it,” or “this isn’t funny,” or big red Xs through page after page, or saying that my main character was a sociopath and an alcoholic, and she didn’t like him (which gave me pause, because I patterned him after myself. All right, good to know.) 

I learned a lot from her, to the extent that I feel I can put together the story, and write it cleanly. But proofreading is still a problem. An it is very difficult to get anyone to do it for the mere joy of reading my masterpiece.

So, I think it’s important to lay out the cash at least once for a good, thorough crash course on English and writing. There are millions of people online who do that. My editor is here. And if you intend to write more than one book, the payback (i.e., the length of time it takes you to get the money back on your investment) is then spread over several books.

So, do yourself and your readers a favor. Learn the craft, and get a professional to help you edit and proofread your book. Then all you'll need to do is put your ass in a chair and type words on paper. All there is to it.