Editing and the Rise of the Machines

One of my favourite films is The Matrix. Because it’s excellent, and because I’ve had a thing for Keanu Reeves ever since Speed came out. A line from the film popped into my head today, as a result of a few conversations I’ve read about editing and writing software.

Morpheus: I’ve seen an agent punch through a concrete wall. Men have emptied entire clips at them and hit nothing but air, yet their strength and their speed are still based in a world that is built on rules. Because of that, they will never be as strong or as fast as you can be.

This is how I feel about editing and writing software. I use PerfectIt myself, and I’ve seen it pick out the rogue instance of “makeup” in a manuscript full of “make-up”. It can find the one missing closing quotation mark in 100,000 words. Grammarly, ProWritingAid, Hemingway, even, bless it, Word’s spelling and grammar checker are powerful tools. Yet their effectiveness is based in a world that is built on rules. Because of that, it will never be as good as a human editor can be.

Computer programs look for patterns. The parameters are set in advance, and all they can do is mechanically trawl through the material and look for the patterns it has been told to look for. This can be amazingly useful and catch all manner of mistakes. But what software cannot do is figure out when something just isn’t quite right. Look at this exquisitely crafted paragraph written by an extraordinarily talented writer (me):

The sun was high in the sky that cold December evening. The giraffe had disappeared. Sophie could see there were giraffes in the yard. He looked around. It was warm for November. Sophia wonders where the giraffes could have gone. 

Every single one of those sentences is correct. And every single one of those sentences is wrong. Word finds no problems with them. PerfectIt finds no problems with them. Grammarly finds no problems with them. But I’m sure that you, as a human being, can easily see that this paragraph is a hot mess. We have time travel, unfeasible sun, a missing word, a tense switch, name and gender changes, and a varying number of giraffes that may or may not be missing. Now, I’ll admit that I’ve never used any other writing or editing software, so I don’t know whether other programs would have caught more issues. And there are macros that can help identify some of these problems, some of which I use frequently (for example, Paul Beverly’s superb ProperNounAlyse would have helped me spot the Sophia/Sophie issue). But I suspect we’re a long way away from commercially available software that could even hope to ferret out all the myriad ways in which errors can creep into writing, particularly fiction writing, which not only has real-world rules to keep track of, but all the rules of the author’s world too.

And this is before we even get into the application of the actual language rules and style choices that the software can flag. If I added “The giraffes had all been slaughtered!” to the paragraph above, something like Grammarly would flag that as passive voice. Because it is. But, as I’ve said before, sometimes that’s OK – you might not want to bury your strong verb, “slaughtered” in the middle of “Somebody had slaughtered all the giraffes!”. I’ve seen writers tie themselves in knots trying to rework sentences that Grammarly has flagged for them, when all they really needed was to be told “What you have is fine.” (This post by Jonathon Owen highlights a few of the ways Grammarly’s suggestions can actually make writing worse.) And in the Facebook group I help run, where writers can ask questions of editors, a search for “Grammarly” will bring up several posts asking about suggestions that are just flat-out grammatically incorrect.

Language does have rules, but they are far fewer and far more flexible than most people think. Language is held in the hands – and heads and hearts – of people, and for that reason, people are always going to be the thing best equipped to work with it. Editors, I don’t think the machines are coming for us just yet.

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