Do ‘autocritters’ help?

Picture of glasses on open bookI’m on the final hurdle of the editing marathon for my latest novel, “Starheart”, the copy edit. I’m not a great adherent of the “Rules of Writing” as I’m sure some of you know. But on a whim I decided to test my MS against an ‘autocritter’. They come under various names and are easy enough to find. Software which sucks in your manuscript, breaks out every word, and comes back with a list of how many times you used what.

The software I used is available at Savvy Authors, an energetic and helpful web-based writers’ site.  Basic membership is free for those interested. Anyway, this package prepares a report after it has done its thing. The user is told that “All percentages are based upon industry averages for mass market fiction.”

These are my initial results for Starheart

The software also listed the number of times every word occurred, but I haven’t shown those results. This table is worth considering because it purports to give a comparison against ‘industry standards’. So what does it tell me?

I don’t use exclamation marks (yay me!) and I’m okay on a few others, according to whoever came up with the recommended maxima. But overall, I guess you’d have to call it a fail. 🙁 Let’s see, now.

All

I overused ‘all’. I checked by using ‘find’ to read each one in context. And yes, I agree I had many instances of ‘nothing’ expressions such as ‘after all’ and ‘at all’.

As

I was astounded at how many times I’d used the ‘as…as’ construction, such as ‘as fast as’, ‘as soon as’ and so on. I managed to replace quite a few of those with words like ‘immediately’. But here we hit a problem. If I use ‘immediately’, I introduce an adverb, something this software does not detect and which (according to the Rules of Writing) should be used sparingly (sic). I found that quite often, ‘as’ occured in a construction such as ‘“where are we going?” she asked as they walked down the corridor.’ Now, I could replace that fragment with ‘Walking down the corridor, she asked, “where are we going?”’ Having been guilty of overusing ‘…ing’ words in the past, I’m careful with them. Besides, to me the meaning isn’t quite the same.

Could

I suspect the main reason for the objection to ‘could’ is that it is often used in constructions like ‘could see’ when one is in a character’s POV, for instance, ‘in the distance she could see a train’. It’s not needed. Just tell the reader what the character saw. ‘A train meandered through the valley far below.’ But ‘could’ is a perfectly legitimate word in many other cases. For instance ‘Even her security couldn’t beat one of those.’

Just/then

These can often be ‘nothing’ words. Eg ‘Let’s go, then’. ‘I don’t want to air the whole ship up just for a quick visit.’ I did go through and eliminate many instances of these two words.

Key/major/meaningful/important/significant

I can never use those words? Never? Oh, bummer. I have keys to locks, keypads. Jess only wants calls directed if they’re important. ‘He didn’t think it important, but Longford clearly did.’ I think I’ll ignore that one.

So/very/really

I was fascinated to read that the count for ‘so/very/really’ was zero. Certainly I checked for ‘very’ and often I could eliminate the word. But I did not remove it from dialogue, because that’s how people talk. And ‘so’? The word is not always used in the context of ‘so fast’, or ‘so slow’, it can be in context such as ‘So that’s what you meant?’ Why would you eliminate the word there?

The word ‘really’ isn’t always used as a nothing adverb, as in ‘really quickly’. Take this example; “So you believe what she’s saying? Really?”

Knew/know/think/thought

The implication here is that these words are unnecessary if you’re in a character’s POV. For example, ‘What the hell am I doing here, she thought.’ This is true and I take care not to use such constructions. However, I do use lines like this. “By the way, I thought the strip search was foolishness. But it’s not my command.” It’s in dialogue. Another example – ‘it would be interesting to find out what everybody else thought.’

See/saw/look

Here again, I suspect this is mainly aimed at cases where the narrator intrudes, as in ‘she could see the train in the distance’. But what about “See what you can find out.” Or ‘Nothing to see.’ And dare I say, ‘saw’ might just be a crosscut saw (though not in this story).

Taste/smell

I passed this one with flying colours. Here again, I think it’s about POV, the ‘could smell’ or ‘could taste’ construction. ‘She could smell something rotten.’ So much better to write ‘the stench of decay invaded her nostrils’.

That

It’s always wise to check for ‘that’. It can be used as a ‘nothing’ word as in ‘so that‘. The word isn’t needed in this context. You might also be able to appease the software by replacing that with which.

There/it

My favourites in this category are ‘there was/were’. You can almost always find a better way of expressing this. For example ‘There were thirty levels on this thing.’ ‘This thing had thirty levels.’ Well worth a check.

Was/were/am/is/are/be/had/has

I seem to have overused these rather a lot. I’ll read through the MS and see what I think as I go. Again, I suspect this is a warning about POV and of using passive language. Why say ‘was walking’ when you can say ‘walked’? But while I’m checking, I’ll bear in mind that passive voice is perfectly legitimate in some circumstances, it’s preferable since it slows the action. And then there’s dialogue. It’s how people talk.

So there you have it. Is this type of software worthwhile? Yes it is. Anything that makes a writer think about his/her MS in a different way is useful. However, it is just one snapshot, a two-dimensional view of a complex object. I feel if you take these ‘rules’ too far, you’ll lose your own, distinctive voice. So take what is of value to you, and ignore the rest. I’m re-reading Terry Pratchett’s ‘Going Postal’ at the moment. It occurred to me, as I read, this award-winning, hugely popular author would fail the Autocritter, every time.

What about you? Do you use these tools? Do you find them helpful? I’d love to know.

17 thoughts on “Do ‘autocritters’ help?

  1. Pingback: Do autocritters help? (via @GretavdR) | Literarium – The Blog

  2. Kathryn Scannell

    As a programmer who has at least once attempted to write code which parses English, I can tell you that it’s a *nightmare*. It was a huge effort just to devise rules to parse a very limited subset – commands to a database program. I shudder to think of trying to intelligently parse the kinds of things you’d find in a novel. These software tools are just counting words without making any pretense of understanding. I bet we’ve all shot ourselves in the foot at least once by doing a global search and replace in Word. These things aren’t much smarter than that search and replace.

    A more useful tool, although I haven’t found a good one yet, would be a word counting tool that tells you how many times you’ve used all the words in your manuscript, not just a list of popular trouble words. You can overuse anything. The various word-cloud tools are sort of useful, but most of them can’t handle anything near the length of a novel.

    But at the end of the day, the most useful tool you have is your own brain, and your judgement. These autocritter tools can be useful to a point. Use a couple, look at the problems they flag, and decide for yourself if you’re overdoing that particular thing. If you are, put it on your *personal* checklist of problems to look for. Keep that checklist running and add to it as you notice things you tend to overuse/misuse/forget/etc. then apply it when you’re making your final line edits. It’s not automated, but if what we do was something you could automate, some bright programmer would be doing it and we’d all be out of work.

    1. Greta van der Rol

      Thanks for taking the time to comment. This tool gives word counts for all words, as well. I was interested in the ‘value’ of the ones compared to ‘industry standards’. You’ve certainly added some useful advice. As I tried to suggest, these tools have limited value – it’s just something else for when you can be bothered.

  3. Greta van der Rol

    There’s nothing wrong with using ‘there was’ – or any other word combination. But there is something wrong with using constructions that hit the reader in the eye to such an extent that they intrude. And I still say that you can often find a better way of expressing ‘there was’. In fact often, you can just remove the words altogether. Actually, a reader (not a writer) of my early efforts remarked in passing that I ‘seemed to use ‘there was’ a lot’. That is something that has stayed with me. To each his/her own, of course. But I’ll consider any tool if it might give me another perspective on my work.

  4. pattyjansen

    While some of the recommendations are valid, the main thing is that overuse, of anything, is death (including the over-use of words themselves, aka waffling). No one is going to reject your manuscript if it has these, and quite often many of these, things. I’ve recently read an award-winning novel, which would have failed this test abysmally (much worse than you).

    Also, if I find the sentence ‘The stench of rot invaded his nostrils’ in a submitted story, it’s almost a guaranteed instant-reject. The stench of rot is NOT a character. A stench can ‘do’ anything. The cleanest way to say it is ‘He could smell rot’, or ‘the air smelled of rot’. But just rememeber: KISS. You want to write the least over-wrought prose possible. You can tell when a writer is trying too hard. It’s all-pervasive in a manuscript. Fancy words instead of simply ‘was’, head-scratching constructions simply to avoid using an adverb. OMG I’ve seen some clunkers.

    I think you’re much better off writing from the heart, and then checking for over-use of certain words/phrases. Don’t sweat these kinds of crit group minutiae. They ruin many-a good tale. I think the table of how often words are used is a good thing. These suggestions, imho (OK, not-so-humble) are mostly bullshit.

  5. Rebecca

    I think it might be worthwhile for some. I did do that laboriously when I first started writing. Now I know the words I tend to overuse (whisper) and I’m on alert for them. I don’t think I overuse words particularly, but I’ve noticed that sometimes I’ll use the same word too close together, (it’s still subliminally in my brain but I’ve consciously forgotten) and that bugs me. I’d like software to check for that.

  6. Greta van der Rol

    The opther thing is not all the ‘no-no’s are on this list. Words like ‘suddenly’, for instance. How many of these are allowed? You know the other thing I found? How tempting it is to repalce one ‘fault’ with another (eg. ‘as soon as’, ‘just in time’)

    1. pattyjansen

      I did a mentorship with Terry Dowling, who is a literary horror writer. He told me ‘There is nothing wrong with using “There was”‘, which I was going to lengths to avoid. Those words have stayed with me. Also, the oft-heard comment that seasoned professionals can tell when a piece of fiction has been workshopped many times. Even fairly recently, I was still wondering how they could tell.

      The secret: these stupid ‘do not use’ lists.

      When fiction has been pushed through a filter that prohibits the use of many words or word constructions, it dies a little.

  7. Louise Behiel

    I use an auto critter in the way you’ve mentioned. it’s another tool to show me the idiosyncrasies of my writing but have to be used with intelligence and caution.

    1. Greta van der Rol

      Hard to say how long, Robin. I mixed it through the rest of the copy-editing (to relieve the tedium a little). It can be time-consuming to look through an MS for every instance of every word. It would be a few hours, I’d suggest. (Peanuts in the life of an MS, really.)

  8. Steven J Pemberton

    I haven’t used one of these, though I might give it a whirl, just to see what it says. I get something similar from my critique group – one of the members highlights every occurrence of about half the words you’ve listed. Using them isn’t wrong as such, but if you have a lot them, that can indicate that your work is flabby.

    One of the last things I do with a book before I declare it “finished” is to search for all the words that the critter flagged as overused and ask myself whether there’s a better or shorter way to say the same thing. Often I can’t think of one, and when I do, I don’t always delete the word that caused the sentence to be flagged in the first place. But it’s a useful tool, as long as you apply it intelligently.

    I wonder whether the program can distinguish parts of speech, where the same word can be an adjective or a noun, like “key” in your example. It’s quite easy to write a program that says “count how many times each of these words occur in the input”. It’s rather harder to say “count how many times this word occurs as an adjective,” because that requires understanding the grammatical structure. It’s difficult for a computer to get this right all the time, although it can probably get it right often enough to be useful. (Then, too, mass-market fiction isn’t supposed to be intellectually challenging. If you have more than one or two sentences that the computer can’t parse correctly, it’s a safe bet that a good percentage of your target audience will struggle with your writing as well.)

    1. Greta van der Rol

      You’re absolutely right. This is one of the main failings of software. It’s inherently dumb. That list of words was derived according to a certain usage (I would suggest). It isn’t clear what those ‘Rules’ are. Call them Guidelines, if you prefer. (I do). Parsing a sentence? Maybe, but sentence fragments occur quite often. Word tells me about those things and usually I ignore it.

      I guess for me the interesting thing was to find out about habits I didn’t know I had – such as the use of ‘as’.

  9. Bill Kirton

    Fascinating, Greta, and it raises so many discussion points. I wonder, though, whether there isn’t a danger, if you follow even some of the suggestions, of compromising your individual voice. Even though I don’t want to, I always notice stylistic things, including repetition, and grammatical flaws. I don’t remember being aware of any such things in the 3 books of yours which I’ve read. Fair enough if you think the autocritter has a point but I’m sure you’re confident enough in your abilities not to let it emasculate (if that’s not an inappropriate word to apply to a lady) your style. As I say, though, very, very (sic) interesting and, when I’ve finished playing with my new iPad, I’ll probably give it a try.

    1. Greta van der Rol

      Thanks for that, Bill. No, nobody has ever told me I overuse anything (not any more, anyway – believe me, I made all the mistakes when I was starting). There is, indeed, a danger in losing individual voice. I think tools like these are more dangerous for beginners who think you have to do it all.

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