OMG - What the hell is all that?
That was my reaction when I first opened the Standard version of StyleWriter 4.
StyleWriter 4 is an add-in for Microsoft Word that analyses your document to help improve your writing style. I have just finished the 14-day trial and have found it useful enough to purchase the standard edition. Note, however, that the prices on the website are EXCLUDING VAT, but this is not made clear on the purchase web page, so the prices quoted are misleading - it is $180 for the standard edition.
Out of the box, it can be an eyeful for the author who is more interested in their sentences, and less interested in a huge pile of statistics. So, here is a short guide and some thoughts aimed at novelists rather than journalists!
What it does - more or less
I am not going into an in-depth review of StyleWriter, but am going to concentrate on looking at it from my own point of view as an author.
StyleWriter analyses your document looking at the text for everything from long sentences to use of jargon, spelling issues, overuse of common words and so on. It does not attempt to be a grammar checker, suggesting comma placement, for instance, but to be honest, those programmes I have tried that attempted that feat produced very inconsistent results anyway.
Like many tools of its kind, it appears to be initially aimed at corporate writers rather than those writing novels, but it is so ridiculously customizable that this doesn't have to be an issue.
Unlike systems like the Grammarly add-in, StyleWriter works as an independent application in conjunction with Word, rather than trying to just extend Word's capabilities. It does not rely on an internet connection to operate and there is no online version. So, I can use it on a laptop in my garden!
I will go into more detail in a minute, but basically it works by displaying your text in a new window that you will probably keep on top of your Word window. This window displays the results of the analysis of your document.
There are two levels of operation. Where it is suggesting a simple word replacement, you can make that replacement directly in the StyleWriter window and it will update your Word doc automatically.
If what is required is a more complicated edit, then you hit the edit button on StyleWriter, which shrinks the window upwards, allowing you to edit the Word doc directly. The now shrunk StyleWriter window remains visible at the top of Word, and clicking on "resume" on the smaller StyleWriter window will expand the window again.
This is a little cumbersome, but the advantage is that all of your normal word functions still operate as normal. With Grammarly, undo stops working, search in the navigation stops working, and on long docs, it introduces some terrible typing lag.
Once installed, there are two ways to start it up. You can either start it from your programs menu, or you can start it from within Word - you will find it under the Add-ins menu.
I tend to open my document first, then just start StyleWriter from the link on my Start menu on Windows. When you do, it will see what Word docs you have open and ask which one you want to work with.
When it opens, it then immediately studies your document - leave it to it, because it can take some time for long docs.
All of these spellcheck and grammar programs have an issue with large, novel-length documents, which is annoying. I like editing in one lump because it means that when I do things like change a name or forget what happened in chapter two, it is all there in front of me; I am not leaping from one document to another, potentially forgetting important changes.
StyleWriter seems to handle docs of up to 40-50,000 words, but it can run into problems past that, especially with finding its place (see later).
Because of these limitations, another writer (Michelle Dumbar) has suggested highlighting a section before starting StyleWriter. You will then be given the option of only scanning the section or the whole document. This is working well for me at the moment. I use Word with the Navigation pain open on the left, so I right-click on a chapter, click on Select Heading and Content, and then scan that with StyleWriter.
Changing the selected area is a little awkward (or I might have missed something). Click the close icon in the top-left of the StyleWriter window, return to your word doc, high-light a new section, return to StyleWriter and click the open button. Proceed as normal. It works.
The Bewildering Interface
StyleWriter boasts a very fine-grained analysis of your work, but this also leads to an interface that will leave you running for the hills.
I understand why one would want so much information when you are working on your latest press release, but when editing a work of fiction, it is a creativity killer.
Thankfully, the two panels pn the left are easy to switch off using the toggle button on the menu bar.
Some Quick Customising
The level of detail that StyleWriter can offer is frightening. By default, just about everything is switched on and your StyleWriter page will be a mess of colours and underlines. It is even worse if you have the stats windows open as well!
Once you work out what is going on, it is mostly good stuff, but some is possibly too over the top for fiction, even when you have selected fiction from the top bar. How many abbreviations do you use in your fairy tale?
First of all, let's deal with a possible size issue. On my setup, the first thing I noticed was that the font is way too small! You can change this by going to Tools > Options.
Under the Display tab you can choose from three sizes. Because I am an old bloke who works on big monitors, I have gone for Extra Large.
This increases the font size for all of the interface, as if you had zoomed in, which is a little surprising. I had assumed it would be the text only. However, it does the job. You can also mess with the colours and style for each of the categories here, but I haven't bothered.
Finding your Place
While we are playing with options, if you are working with a long doc that you may want to come back to later, StyleWriter cannot by default work out where it was. So, when you open your doc and restart StyleWriter, it will be back at the head of your doc, even if you had edited up to page 100. To find you place, you would have to manually scroll through StyleWriter. However, there is a setting to sort out this issue which is switched off by default.
Under the Save tab, check the box labelled "Save place mark in document." This will add bookmarks when you make corrections via StyleWriter so it knows what it did and where.
Be warned that if you are later formatting the document for other uses, for instance using on Smashwords, that you must get rid of these superfluous bookmarks. I am not sure exactly how they work (perhaps the Devs can let me know), but on one document I had a lot of them!
I work in British English, but you can change your version of English by loading pattern files. If you click on US on the top bar (just next to the resume button) you can click on "Open a different pattern file". It comes with three - US, UK, and Aussie.
The highlighting reflects which categories you have selected or have even created (you can create your own).
Clicking on the Style Categories button opens up a window where you can turn these off and on. You can do this while you are editing to reflect what you are doing, but since I tend to be working on my fantasy books most days, I have changed the default by clicking the Set Defaults button.
In my case, I have turned OFF:
- Sexist Writing (otherwise it complains at me using Ferryman and suggests Ferry Operator)
- High Glue - Glue words are the 200 or so most common words. It can highlight where you overdo it. However, in a novel, that can be most places, especially in dialogue.
- High Bog - I flip this one on an off (there is a toggle on the top bar of the main window), but I like to start with it off. Bog is where you are using a lot of heavy, complex, unusual words in a sentence, making it possibly unreadable. But in a novel, I like using unusual words and complex ones, so this can be a nuisance.
- I have increased Long sentences to greater than 50, but the suggested 35 will be fine for most people.
- Pep - you may want to switch this on which will help you if you have a chatty style, but I don't always bother. It adds to much green highlighting to my work!
I leave you to turn off anything else that you think you do not need. I strongly suggest you think about what is really necessary because it will change your experience dramatically and make your life more pleasant.
Note: You can toggle four key categories on and off from the tool bar, for quickness!
Well, hopefully, it is all making a little more sense now. You have the font a decent size, you have customised your categories to suit your editing, the interface has no clutter, and StyleWriter is chatting amiably with Word.
Now, onto actually using it.
The idea here is that you read from the StyleWriter window, correct from the window where you can, and return to Word for anything more major. You cannot just edit everything in StyleWriter.
Your big tool is the Space Bar. This basically tells StyleWriter to ignore the current problem and move onto the next. You will find you use this a lot, depending on how you have set up your categories.
When you need to edit in Word, you click the Edit Text button.
The window will shrink upwards (but remain on top) and whatever correction was highlighted in StyleWriter will be highlighted in Word in grey. Once you have done your editing, click on "resume" on the StyleWriter window and it will go back to the bigger size. It feels a little awkward, but I got used to it very quickly.
There are two sections of the window which tell you everything you need to know about your word:
- The bar below the toolbar will display the word and say why it is being highlighted
- The information window below that bar will give you additional details with explanations and clickable alternatives, where appropriate.
The program deals with different issues in different ways - here are a couple of the most frequent.
When you click on the highlighted word, it will offer you two or more alternatives, including your original. It will give a very brief but clear usage guide for each in the window above the text. Click on which one you want and it will update both the StyleWriter window and your Word document directly.
This is one of my favourite tools. A potentially misspelt word will be highlighted and you can change it should you wish.
However, if you want to keep it, ignore the Add link in the info window and right click on the word instead. You will now have various options for adding the word. I am writing a fantasy with tons of invented names. Stylewriter allows me to add a word as a name with always a capital - I wish Word would do that! It has some other alternatives too - very useful.
Once you add the word, it may take a few seconds before the highlight vanishes as it checks through the doc (I assume that is what it is doing). Sometimes, the highlight remains - ignore it. It is added to the dictionary and the next time you scan the document, it will catch up with itself.
Also, slightly annoyingly, on spelling errors, the space bar no longer functions as an ignore - you have to use your mouse to click on the next error to move on if you haven't done anything with the spelling error.
When it comes to things like long sentences, bog and so on, you have to edit the word document directly. Because this is not a grammar checker as such, it will not flag up if you have your sentence back to front, or you need to pay better attention to phrases. So be mindful of that, especially when it complains your sentence is long.
StyleWriter has no save ability on its own, so it is important that you remember to save your document from time to time. Used in this fairly simple way that I am showing here, the only major things that StyleWriter adds to your document are any changes you make and it's own bookmarks.
However, you can also set it to add the highlighted words as comments in the Word document. I don't use that facility, but I can see it would have its uses. I might play with it at some point and see if it is a better way of working. Let me know your thoughts.
Problems and Bugs
StyleWriter is not without its issues.
Generally speaking, in the few days I have used it, I am happy with its word suggestions. It has found plenty of errors I have missed and offered thoughts that have been useful. It is less dictatorial than some other similar systems, but it does lean towards the corporate a little.
I have come across three bugs so far which may be related to longer documents.
- Spelling lag. This is what I mentioned earlier with there being quite a wait sometimes to see a word you have added has updated in the StyleWriter window. This is not a particular problem, but is frustrating. I tend to just ignore it and keep editing.
- Finding its place in a big document. If your document is too big and you last edited somewhere towards the end of the doc, then when you open up to resume editing, StyleWriter crashes while trying to find its place. This is solved by keeping docs smaller or using the highlight method suggested by Michelle Dumbar earlier.
- Freezing on startup. I get this when I start StyleWriter from the Add-Ins menu in Word sometimes. I have no idea why. Starting the program from Window's start menu isn't a problem - so that is what I do!
- Display Formatting Error. This is probably the biggest bug and the one that will annoy people the most. When you go to edit in Word and then "resume", the text can be corrupted in the StyleWriter window. It hasn't messed up your doc, it is just displaying wrongly. Words can be missing, lines repeated and so on. This is solved normally by scrolling down a little so that the mis-displayed text is out of the window, and then scrolling back again. However, it is a nuisance, and hopefully the makers of StyleWriter will sort it out soon. I have noticed this happens even when working on just a section rather than the whole document.
My only other complaint with the system is that the interface and various windows look like they are from ten years ago. They are certainly clear, but it would be nice if they looked a little more modern! One of the tricks to working efficiently is feeling comfortable - the interface is a little cold for my liking. But it works well enough.
For general editing of a novel, that covers most things you need to know to get you started.
There is a lot more to this program and I am still working a lot of it out. You can edit the dictionary, edit other word patterns, customise and create categories, including adding items to the "house style," mess with colours and more. The most expensive version creates detailed word lists.
Much of this is possibly of more use to companies who want to look for consistency, but it is probably too fussy for the person writing a dragon story.
I have only been using it for a few days and I am quite pleased with it. The display bug has been annoying me and if I buy the software, I will bring it up with the developers.
I suspect the perfect editing system for the novel writer does not yet exist, or at least, possibly does by combining bits from different existing systems.
For me, my biggest problem is with words rather than commas, and perhaps StyleWriter will suit me better than the very buggy Grammarly. But having a few more grammar checks would be nice. I will be interested to see how it develops in the future.
There is some bad news if you are a Mac user - it is a Window's only program. I have three close friends who are full-time, professional writers working in the business sector. They would love this program, but they all work on Macs. That is three customers the company Editor Software in the UK have missed out on. They also do not seem to have much of a web presence - no Twitter that I can find and a neglected Facebook page. Not major issues, but something they should probably look at. However, they do offer a phone number for users who are in dire need, and in this market, that is very rare - lots of stars for that! (They prefer to give support via email, I should add).
There are three editions of StyleWriter and I have been using the Standard edition, which is the middle one. It costs $150 (plus 20% VAT) for one computer at the time of writing (14 day trial available), but this is a one-off payment and not a subscription. However, they update the editing advice in the program every 12 months, and that upgrade costs $25. I think it is optional.
I have opted for the Standard, because it allows for the creation of additional categories. Since I am writing fantasy, I can see a use for those. It also has things like Pep, which is helpful when you are writing in a more informal style. You can check out the various editions here.
I hope this little tutorial is of some use and I will be interested to hear of your own experiences with StyleWriter. Have fun.
PS: I would welcome any comments from the StyleWriter Devs :) - hints and tips are always nice!
PPS: Although StyleWriter can add comments to your doc, there are two advantages to using the StyleWriter window. Firstly, as you change things, it updates so you can see what it thinks about your changes. Secondly, because your work is displayed differently, you look at your words in a fresh way. That helps!