Software to check for Plain English

February 14, 2008

I discovered some cool software that checks your writing for Plain English and rates it according to style, sentence length, and use of passive voice.

You can set the type of document to assess (such as a letter or a manual), and you can make changes as you go based on the software’s suggestions, if you are using Word.

There are versions for US, British, and Australian English.

The software is StyleWriter and it costs US$160. If you do a lot of writing, you’ll find it pays for itself very quickly in saved editing costs.

You can learn more about StyleWriter, download a free trial, and purchase it through the CyberText website (click on the StyleWriters image in the left sidebar): http://www.cybertext.com.au/

[This article was first published in the March 2004 CyberText newsletter.]

More details (added October 2008):

StyleWriter can check for these:

  • passive verbs
  • hidden verbs
  • complex words
  • jargon/abstract words
  • overused words
  • legal words
  • clichés
  • business clichés
  • redundancies
  • tautologies
  • overwriting
  • foreign words
  • misused words
  • confused words
  • confused hyphens (+ hyphen help)
  • sexist writing
  • grammar
  • misspellings, etc., etc., etc.

(this is from the list of selectable options you can get it to check under Analysis > Category Summary)

You can also specify the type of document you’re checking and it will apply different defaults for acceptable sentence length, word length, use of jargon, etc. accordingly. The document type options under the Task menu are:

  • General writing
  • Academic paper
  • Advertisement
  • Instructions
  • Legal document
  • Letter
  • Manual
  • Memo
  • Newsletter
  • Regulation
  • Report
  • Student essay
  • Technical report

You can also set up pattern matching, though I’ve never used that part of the program.

You have control of everything—StyleWriter just makes suggestions, which you can apply or not. If you’re running it within Word, you can click the EDIT button to make the suggested change directly in the document. You can tell it to IGNORE ALL instances of something that’s OK to you (e.g. if it doesn’t like “Click OK.” as a sentence, you can tell it to IGNORE ALL and it won’t report it again in that session. I think that sort of situation is where you’d use Patterns.)

Finally (but this is not an exhaustive list of things it can do), you get a ‘grade’ for the writing! In the status bar there’s a Word count, a Style Index value (e.g. 16 = Good), and Average Sentence length value (e.g. 10 = Excellent) and a Passive value (e.g. 10 = Excellent). Occasionally I’ve run StyleWriter over a document that I’ve been asked to ‘clean up’ and make into one voice—StyleWriter has no hesitation in giving it a grade of “Awful”! The grades depend on the type of document, so it will look at advertising writing quite differently to a report, for example.

StyleWriter has a free evaluation period, so you can download it, try it out on a few documents and see what it does for yourself. I heard of it, tried it on one large document and was sold within 15 minutes!

It kills Word’s grammar checking by far, IMHO.

BTW, it has a phenomenal Help file—not just Help for the application (which sits in your Word toolbar), but also a complete writing and grammar reference with lots of examples on improving your writing.

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