Human versus Machine: Can you make Apps for everything?

My most favourite aspect of editorial work is critique of fiction. Here I get to tease apart not only narrative, identify stylistic interpretations, hunt for use of good device, but also to analyse the intricacies of plot and how characters behave; their motivation for action at important plot points etc., etc. This needs experience and training. I have both.

That’s not to say I don’t like the other parts, but I like structural editing the best. Copy editing, line by line looks at how sentences are structured and how they flow I do also like, I love to see what could be with some work. The proofing, in terms of close examination of every detail, including sometimes in non-fiction tables, figures. headings, spacing, style, references I like less. Because I am somewhat obsessed with detail then having a fastidious personality all helps of course.

I am a bit old-fashioned in that I like to trust my own instincts but with that comes the old adage: to err is human so when I see claims of 100 % we won’t miss anything proofing then I wonder if such claims are really possible so do they use software?  While the world seeks apps for everything I tend to trust myself, but I am human and therefore perhaps this is a strength and a weakness? I am not sure any piece of software could confidently do what I do. Could it determine weaknesses in plot? I’m not sure it could examine the layering and look at motivation for action, for example, without being human. Could a piece of programming, for example, pick up emotion and work out if that captures the reader enough? Could it sense the changes in pace or the rhythm of language (mathematical so maybe?) and adjust itself for variations in style and artistic impression? How does it know what’s literary genius when rules are broken well and what’s error?

Or maybe we are getting closer to the machines taking over? At the London Short Story Festival we heard about apps sites are using that can tell when a reader stops reading, switches off, and so use that to see what readers like but also what parts of the story work. Frightening Big Brother stuff? Or useful tool?

Subjectivity is something that as an editor has to be factored into interpretation (it’s art, right?) but when you have seen as many manuscripts as I have then it becomes so much easier to identify common weakness and be objective. But then I wonder — aren’t computer programs based on seeking patterns? Isn’t that what we see in writing? Are we all replaceable? Scary thought.

My work seeks validation and I measure it in success by my lovely clients, repeat business and working with agencies who examine and approve my work. If I think something is bordering on or absolutely a personal opinion then I say so. Most plot analysis, however, is objective when you understand story, the weak areas can be identified and handed back to the writer who has the power to choose how to make changes.

What I think apps might be able to do better than the naked human mind is look for patterns, inconsistencies: whether it’s possible to make everything mathematical in life I don’t know. So can story arcs be teased from badly structured plots for example? If it can all go down to numbers then perhaps so — but I would be interested in people’s thoughts on this. Perhaps story can be pared down to numbers, perhaps mathematics explains everything but then what of art? Feeling? Love of the aesthetic?

I am not a fan of programs for writing but I think some novel writing software (not that I have used it) does help with the things like formatting , and I think some does help with plot, but I am not a fan of formula, perhaps prescriptively when a plot isn’t working when I draw the reader’s attention to the story arc, but as a device to help write, well then I prefer good old-fashioned creativity. The art 🙂

I have trialed pieces of copy editing software out of curiosity in the past — to see if any one program can pick up on the nitty-gritty stuff, spacing after en dashes, ellipses, differently spelled phrases, hyphenation, capitalisation, that kind of thing and most software has never picked up on as much as I have so I use with caution. Proofing tools on Word to show extra spaces between sentences etc. is limited but useful as an aid. I also played with Grammarly for a while and still have that on my computer, it has plagiarism tools, picks up on clunky phrasing and things like that but I tend to find I don’t really use it and rely on what I can see. It tends to get in the way of my work, if that makes sense.

A friend of my brothers told me he was designing a piece of copy editing software and asked what I think it should do, I told him everything mechanical: formatting, inconsistencies etc. so I could focus on the other stuff, the story, the style etc.  The all singing, all dancing tool that picks up on everything but not the part I like!!! Hey, I like my job!

A  proof reader friend pointed me in the direction of Perfectit which it’s claimed does pick up on the stuff I enjoy less, that nitty-gritty consistency part. So I am trialing it. Now I am still looking for the errors and inconsistencies as I edit and running the program after for the moment. It seems to be working well and where in the past I found a lot of software didn’t pick up on as much as me, this time it seems to have done a good job, showing me things I’d missed! Didn’t I say to err is human. Actually I missed very little, one or two alternatively hyphenated foreign place names which I guess I wasn’t so in-tune with than the usual things. It also picks up on numerals used in text when numbers should be written. Whoop! And writes the word at the click of a button! Another whoop! I have not played with all the functions yet but apparently it also checks all figure and table numbers, capitalisation of headings and consistency in style in things like bullet pointed lists, capitals, full stop usage. All the nitty-gritty I encounter! So while the free trial is on I will use it to double-check as a second line of defence rather than just doing lots of searches in Word for alternatives, as I do and making a top sheet of what style this author uses. You can use PerfectIt to customise for the  individual project apparently. If it works out I might well purchase this little tool.

I did notice it can’t do everything and often I dismissed things it flagged, but so far so good.

So do I think machines can do everything an editor can? No.

Do I think machines can assist in some of the less emotive and more number-based pattern aspects like how many times a word appears with and without a hyphen? Yes, why not.

The computer should come into its own to compensate for weaknesses in human memory, when we fail to spot a word that only appears twice in a 400-page manuscript is hyphenated in one version of it. To err is human, yes, but computers also get it wrong, are only as good as the person who wrote the app, so using sensibly is key. Is it cheating? I think not since we all use tools in our lives and our jobs, don’t we?

I still think you need a human’s mind but as an alongside these apps could be an asset. I wouldn’t trust an app to change everything it flags, you still have to examine what it flags and choose to reject or accept, but anything that makes life easier, why not.

But what do you think?

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