Human versus Machine: More than just Spell Check

Yesterday, during my day job, I nearly had a public melt down. Someone from IT suggested that we download a bit of software that ‘cleans and edits your writing for the web’. My manager and co-worker stated that they thought this was a great idea.

The software is called ‘Clarity Grader’, and my near melt down went something like this: ‘I did not spend nearly a decade studying for four degrees — three of which are post-graduate and all of which are language and writing related — fifteen years as a writing instructor, and over ten years professionally writing and editing copy to be replaced by a bit of kit. My writing does not need to be checked by an algorithm!’ (Please note that I do not use exclamation points lightly. They are for sentences which indicate shouting, and this tirade would have been a bit shouty.)

However, I did not have my meltdown. As I sat in a room with three individuals who have spent their entire lives working in IT, ‘Clarity Grader’ was great idea. In fact, these individuals, much like me, are language experts: JAVA, C++, PHP, HTML, etc. (Etc is not, obviously, a coding language, but it should be.) In their case, software to help catch inconsistencies in language (code) would be a useful tool.

So, I forgave their bobbing heads, and looked into ‘Clarity Grader’.

There are not many reviews (that I could find) for the software that aren’t generated by the company. However, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t work.

Their website makes a list of claims:

  • ‘Scan 1000s of pages of your web content in minutes and review any clarity and consistency issues.’
  • ‘Identify complex and inconsistent copy. Help your clients, improve decision making & grow ROI.’
  • ‘Is your web content adhering to your brand strategy? How consistent is your content?’
  • ‘Maximise your investment in web content. Make sure your web copy is engaging users.’

It is this last claim that bothers me. Can software decide if copy is engaging users? Yes, there are syntactical tricks that can appear more appealing to readers, such as active voice, the use of ‘you’, and short sentences. But, can it actually replace the nuances of human linguistics?

There are bigger experiments at the moment surrounding artificial intelligence and computer/human interaction, but ‘Clarity Grader’ does not assert to write copy from scratch as would these other algorithms. Instead it checks and analyses it for imperfections.

According to their website, ‘Our original motivation was 20 years of pain reviewing large documents. You know the thing, 150 page MS Word or PDF docs. So we created a way to scan document content for “clarity”. This cut out a lot of manual legwork.’

Okay, now we’re getting onto something. Anyone who’s written a long piece of work — a novel, a thesis, a collection of pages for a website — knows that the words put on a page on the 3rd of March 2011 may be significantly different from those written on 31 October 2013. And, when editing your own work, you will be your worst enemy. So, perhaps, this ‘Clarity Grader’ would be handy for the self-published author or the PhD student.

Or would it?

Maybe it would be sufficient for a first draft, but I still feel that hiring a copyeditor or line-editor would be more prudent. Other bits of software have been in our collective possession for a generation, yet we consistently ignore the data they give us. The Spell Checker – which doesn’t know the difference between some homophones or forgive our intentional insertion of a fragmented sentence – has given us squiggly red and green lines to ignore for twenty years. And, I’m constantly having to switch my spell check back to UK spelling from the US standard. Heck, my old electric typewriter used to beep at me about misspelled words with ferocity, so I turned that function off.

So, is ‘Clarity Grader’ (or other similar tools) just an expensive spell checker?

To be honest, I don’t know. I haven’t used it yet. And, anyway, our department would not be using it for 1000 pages of copy. We might have 2000 words in a single document — remember the contemporary copywriting motto ‘less words and more pictures’. So, as a professional copyeditor (such as myself) could check 2000 words in a fairly short period of time with a satisfactory level of accuracy, we’re back to discussing if software care help the average blogger be a better writer? Is ‘Clarity Grader’ for those who are still learning the art of written communication?

Once again, I haven’t used the software. Maybe it does, maybe it doesn’t. Although I sincerely doubt it.

But, using this tool may make some significant assumptions. That anyone who pokes their fingers onto a keyboard can write with the help of a computer. All we have to do is vomit some letters onto a white screen, and the computer will sort the rest. Passion, knowledge, talent and training are no match for ‘Clarity Grader’ or its counter parts.

I am regularly incensed by the growing notion that the internet gives everyone a voice. Anyone can put words out into the world, but if that person doesn’t know how to structure their argument, their words, their letters, then their voice may be perceived as something outside of its true meaning. We, as a society, should not replace strong writing with machines.

Then again, am I playing the role of a modern John Henry, stubbornly not conceding to the fact that technology can out work man?

It is here that I must make a confession. I type my blogs on Notepad, then cut and paste them into Word, where I correct mistakes highlighted by red and green squiggly lines. I then put it into WordPress and hit send. I’ll often read the blog back a day or so later, catching a missing word, misspelling, or decide that a sentence should be restructured. I’ll correct my copy then re-publish. I write using technology every day.

I might just be a hypocrite. A woman whose usefulness is tied up in a lifetime of writing, who seeks to prove her worth through language, yet whose validity is reliant upon the very tools she wishes to refute.

Maybe ‘Clarity Grader’ is a useful bit of software. Perhaps it helps the solo writer catch mistakes that plague uncopyedited work.

Or maybe it’s the devil itself.

I don’t know. I haven’t used it yet.

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3 Responses to Human versus Machine: More than just Spell Check

  1. Diane says:

    As a copywriter I can see that the approach would be different from that of someone like myself who is a developing fiction write. All the time I was reading this very interesting post I was thinking – passion, passion, passion. I find myself on ShortbreadStories and another writing site I use forgiving all manner of “errors” because the work has passion. I think you hit the nail on the head when you said that we have had twenty years of ignoring stuff – as a tool for advertising copy which calls for clever little marketing tricks I suppose something like this could be valuable but what of voice, of originality and what of passion?

    Like

    • Rachel says:

      Diane. I’m still on the fence about it, as I’m not sure if my knee-jerk reaction is just a bit of hubris. What writer doesn’t need that extra edge (creative or copy writer)? As for passion, that’s a whole different subject. Can copywriters have passion for all their material? Perhaps yes, we can have passion for the art of writing and the work that we do, but not necessarily the topic. (Passion about writing copy for dish washing detergent, for example.) Then again, that’s a whole other blog post.

      Like

  2. Hi Rachel,

    I like your thought process. I’m the founder of VisibleThread http://www.visiblethread,com, the company behind Clarity Grader. You’re right to be dubious if we were claiming to somehow circumvent the creative process. But believe me, we’re not that crazy!

    In short, we’re not at all suggesting we replace the art of writing, rather we automate certain elements of the reviewer role. If you have a chance I’d be happy to show you a little more. We do a lot of work aside from clarity including extract key concepts from documents (& websites) for very serious issues like brand consistency or compliance concerns.

    If you have a half hour mail me on fergal.mcgovern(at)visiblethread.com

    best,
    Fergal.

    Like

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