29. Machina ex Deus


Are machines stupid? Yes, of course. And here’s proof.

I love my editing software. I use Pro Writing Aid to ferret out all those repetitive words, sneaky adverbs, and missing commas. It speeds up my editing and never tires. BUT …….

It’s a machine – the programme has no clue what the words mean. The first line of the chapter from A Golden Illusion that I’m working on at the moment is

“The night was long and adventurous, the morning easy and languorous.”

I was rather pleased with this, and the way it got me out of having to write another sex scene.

Pro Writing Aid wasn’t so impressed, and picked this out as a “sticky sentence”, containing 63.6% of “glue” words. The target figure for such words is below 40%. The software explains glue words as follows:

“Glue words are the 200 or so most common words in English (excluding the personal pronouns). Glue words are generally used to link nouns, verbs, adverbs and adjectives. You can think of the glue words as the empty space in your writing. The more of them there are the more empty space you readers have to pass through to get to the actual meaning.”

Unthinkingly I obeyed since I was in the midst of correcting lots of mistakes. The revised sentence was

“The hours before dawn were prolonged and adventurous, the morning easy and languorous”,

which successfully banished the stickiness by paraphrasing the glue words “night” and “long”. Success! Except that it’s a terrible sentence and doesn’t convey the meaning I wanted. On re-reading, I reverted to my original.

Another thing the software searches for is sentence length. The target for the average number of words per sentence is between 11 and 18, and the maximum length for any sentence is set at below 30 words. Again, this is a reasonable rule, but when followed mechanically, it led to unreadable sentences.

For example, the programme drove me to amalgamate the following sentences into one.

“‘No, not exactly, but it’s a trivial private matter. As I understand it, something to do with a stain on the Parris family reputation.’”

The resulting 24 word sentence was grammatical and within the maximum word limit, but it was harder to read.

Another set of algorithms confirmed the reading difficulty of the sentence. Hemingway App (http://www.hemingwayapp.com/) checks the readability of text, though it will only analyse around 5000 words at a time. The long sentence required a reading age of 14-15 years, while the original corresponded to a reading age of 11.

So, the moral of the tale is don’t allow the god of creativity to become a slave to the machine. I’m a big fan of the machine editor, but make sure your human eye reads everything over afterwards. Correct the text to what you intended to say, even if that breaks a rule or two.

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