“It looks like you’re writing a letter ...” If you are of a certain age, there is a good chance that you remember Clippy. Before there was Siri or Alexa or even Cortana, there was a small cartoon paperclip that waggled its eyebrows at you and offered help, while actually doing very little.
Unless you count being an utter annoyance as “help”.
It was almost universally agreed that Clippy, as it was known, was a bit rubbish. When Microsoft retired it as an assistant in 2001, we all heaved a sigh of relief. No longer would it pop up and offer useless tips for tasks we had done a hundred times before. No more would it interrupt our conversations by tapping on the screen if you had been "idle" for too long. It was like some sort of digital supervisor, checking you weren't slacking off.
But the idea of an assistant has persisted. Now we have digital assistants that we can instruct to make appointments on our behalf, remind us to leave on time and offer some helpful, relevant suggestions before we even realise we need them.
Technology is smarter. So why can’t we put it to good use to make us look smarter?
In the future, you may be reading news articles written almost exclusively by artificial intelligence. The experiment has already begun, with the Associated Press publishing its first AI-generated story in 2015.
The organisation teamed up with Automated Insights, using its Wordsmith software to transform earnings data into a story in a matter of seconds.
You can see the appeal. For AP, it means it can produce many more earnings stories. Technology doesn’t play fast and loose with the style guide, or make spelling errors. Technology knows when to file on time, and doesn’t get distracted by people or trivial things like lunchbreaks.
For journalists, it frees them up to write more analytical pieces, rather than producing short reports of quarterly earnings.
We are some way from artificial intelligence taking over all these tasks. But in the meantime, we can make technology work for us. Regardless of whether you are writing for business or pleasure, a bit of guidance is welcome. We don’t all have personal writing coaches on hand to help us refine our skills, but there are apps and software that can fill in – at least partially.
Tools to help point out glaring mistakes in our spelling and grammar have been around for a while. Microsoft made it part of Word, alongside autocorrect for the most common mistakes. Others have followed suit, with basic spelling and grammar checks. But these days, the software is becoming even smarter and more useful.
So what are the options? And more importantly, how much will they cost you?
A free tool that will help you pick up the most common spelling and grammar errors, Grammarly has a simple goal: to make your writing as clear as possible.
On the free tier, you’ll get the basic spelling, grammar and punctuation check.
If you want to pay for it, a subscription will give you access to extras such as tone detection, inclusive language and additional word choices. That could mean the difference between an excellently written social media post or one that inadvertently offends half your audience.
You can install Grammarly as an extension to your Chrome browser, or download the desktop app for your computer. It also integrates with Office, and has a beta running with Google Docs. It has all its bases covered.
The Hemingway software, named for the famous writer, will help you ape his style, if not his creativity. Created by brothers Adam and Ben Long in 2013, the software pledges to make your writing bolder and clearer.
You can write either into the app or paste your text in and let it do its job. It gives you a readability score, analysing your writing as you go, and gives you pointers to improve it. Perhaps you are a fan of the passive voice, or like complex sentences; Hemingway Editor will flag that.
Everything is colour-coded, so you can see at a glance if your sentences are too long, or if they are difficult to read. Adverbs are highlighted in blue, passive voice in green, and phrases with simpler alternatives in purple.
If a sentence is difficult to read, the software highlights it in yellow; red is the danger zone for readability.
It could be the best $20 you’ll spend, or the worst, depending on your perspective.
If you like Hemingway’s no-nonsense style, it’s perfect. But if you prefer your prose a little more flowing, the constant reminders to cut your sentences will irritate. Perhaps there is a middle ground on this one, where you take some suggestions into account, but use your own judgment on the others.
How did it do on this article? These few paragraphs pinged a few warnings in the app; mostly yellow, with the odd blue highlight. The red sentences were swiftly rewritten. Well, most of them; I overruled the app on a few occasions. We can’t blindly trust technology on everything.
ProWritingAid examines numerous factors to determine if your writing passes muster.
It’s probably the most thorough of all the tools that we looked at here, and is available across a wide range of platforms, from a browser extension to integrating with Open Office, Microsoft Office and Google Docs.
You have two choices here: a summary report or improve your document. The summary report will give you the overview of your writing, with scores for grammar, passive voice, readability and starting sentences with conjunctions.
Like all good motivational critics, it leads with the good news. Here’s what your document did well, followed by the areas that need work. That was an eye-opener. There were things you may never consider factored in to the overall score, from the use of “sticky sentences” that slow down readers, to acronym consistency throughout your writing.
Like many things in life, the initial few suggestions are free. After that you have to put your hand in your pocket to get the insights. That doesn’t come cheap, at €20 a month. But that depends on your perspective, and how important it is to write clearly and concisely; some may consider it a wise investment.
Quillbot will take your words and rewrite them with a specific style in mind, whether that it is formal or creative, standard or shortened. It all depends on how you want to sound.
You can run it on 400 characters on its web interface for free before you have to pay up, costing $15 a month. That paywall opens up new writing modes and the ability to compare documents.
One point in its favour: it described Clippy as “a jerk” when rewriting the opening paragraphs of this article. We think it gets us.
Cliches are generally something to avoid in writing. However, it’s inevitable that one or two will slip through the net. There is a free tool that can help catch these errant, tired phrases though: ClicheFinder.net. The web-based tool will look at your text, scan it for the more common cliches and make suggestions to help weed out the worst offences.
There are a few false positives but on the whole, the tool can help you avoid the most overused phrases and improve your writing.
Graph Words Visual Thesaurus
There are times when the perfect word or phrase just won’t come. That is where Graph Words comes in. It offers a free visual dictionary and thesaurus, showing the connections between the different meanings of words and offering alternatives.
Based on WordNet, a large lexical database of English words, it uses HTML 5 to group words into sets of cognitive synonyms. They are colour-coded by type – noun, adverb, verb, adverb. Not only is GraphWords useful, but it’s strangely beautiful to watch the words fan out over the page.
There is one thing to bear in mind if you plan to use one or more of these tools though. Overreliance on technology could remove all personality and personal flair from your writing.
They won’t pick up everything either. But like many things in life, moderation is key here. Use the tools, but don’t rely on them 100 per cent.