Anyone who has spent time around a word processor will know that computers are good at picking up on a few, obvious spelling errors. But can a computer replace a human editor?
Whether it’s a novel, screenplay, memoir or self-help book, words are crafted to be read by humans. (For this, we’ll ignore the SEO-orientated text you might find on some websites. I’m not sure who is meant to read that!)
Authors don’t throw any old words onto the screen. Every chapter, paragraph, sentence and word is agonised over, carefully planned and plotted to maximise its impact. Whether your writing is there to persuade, entertain, inform or educate, it is designed to create a human response
When it comes to editing, can we trust computer tools?
Well, yes and no.
Whether you are a writer or an editor, there are plenty of tools out there that can help you with your job. Basic tools are good for picking up spelling errors and a few grammar gremlins but beyond that, you’ll need special tools.
There are tools, such as Grammarly, that can provide some, limited assistance to writers and editors. They go beyond the normal spelling, punctuation and grammar checking and can suggest some rewording. I use the free version of Grammarly when I self-edit this blog. It does a pretty good job of picking up on spelling errors, particularly of homophones in context, as well as looking for repeated or missing words.
The other tool I use is PerfectIt. This is brilliant for consistency checking, especially across a complex and long manuscript. It’ll pick apart all sorts of style details and the ability to customise the style sheets is great for working with different clients. (Hire me, and I’ll create a PerfectIt style sheet so that I know I’m following your brief.)
Then there are macros. I have to admit, I’m still learning about their power! But the ability to trawl through manuscripts quickly and identify issues certainly saves the editor’s brain (and saves the client money!).
However, computers can’t do everything
There’s always a but!
When it comes to any computer tool, be it Grammarly, PerfectIt or a macro, a human has to be involved. Not just to run the application, but to read through the suggestions and to implement them correctly.
Rules is rules. Except when we know they should be broken. Yes, rules are rules is the correct way to phrasing that, but sometimes we don’t want to follow all the rules. Sometimes, be it for characterisation, dramatic effect or any other creative reason, grammar rules need to be broken.
Punctuation, especially that pesky comma, can be moved around and can completely change the meaning of a sentence. When it comes to making judgements about how a sentence sounds, computers just cannot manage it.
And then there is the emotion.
I’m no expert, but no macro has ever been written that can feel a storyline. No spell checker can identify when I’m meant to cry, or be angry, or be relieved. No grammar checker, no matter how advanced, can suggest ways to turn a website’s visitor into a paying client.
But an editor can
An editor is a human being. One that has been trained to understand language and knows the rules but understands how to apply them to your text. An editor or proofreader can understand context. Not just the context of the sentence but of the whole narrative or manuscript. They are sensitive to authors’ needs, their reasons for using the language in the way that they do.
It’s a fine line sometimes. But rule-breaking is allowed!
Computers are great for identifying problems and fixing the most basic of errors (it was a computer tool that found a missing ‘a’ in this very blog!). But they cannot replace real readers. If you’re writing, you’re writing for a human audience. You need a human editor to make sure that your words have a human impact.
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Nick (he/him) is an editor and proofreader, specialising in LGBTQ+ writing. He is an Intermediate Member of the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading and a member of PEN, the Professional Editors Network.
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