Tuesday, February 26, 2013

 

Interview with Don Russell, creator of DARedit software and AutomatedEditing.com

Don Russell is a nationally known software developer and self-confessed “geek.” During a conversation with a friend regarding the cost of editing Don’s cerebral light bulb lit up and it’s been flashing ever since.

Don impressed us with his website, AutomatedEditing.com, which we reviewed in May of 2011. After many improvements, Don launched version 4.0 of the site and it is absolutely a joy to use. We really began to wonder, though, “Just what drives this man to constantly tinker with this editing website?” So, of course, we decided to ask!

WOW: Hello Don, welcome back to The Muffin! Automated Editing is constantly evolving—this must be time consuming. What drives you to constantly improve the website?

Don: Because it will never be “finished.” The problem with the English language is, well, the English language. It is amazingly complex, and totally inconsistent. It keeps evolving, and changing. So trying to write algorithms that can look at something so “squishy,” and still give valuable, valid advice is worse than herding cats. It never ends. Robyn, you once reminded me that Oscar Wilde spent a day inserting and deleting the same comma. Only a writer or an editor (or a senile algorithm creator) could see the wry, painful humor in that event.

Let me use the simple example of a period. We all know periods end sentences. Ah, I wish it were that simple. What if they are the end of an abbreviation, or part of a number, currency, or part of an ellipse? What if there is a following parenthesis or quotation? Are they part of an internet address? One of the most difficult things for our software is something that probably sounds easy—determining where a sentence was meant to end.

And what about certain words? “Friend” is a noun, right? Wrong! It can be a verb today (I just friended you on . . .”) or even, in very tortured English, an adjective (My friended neighbor is the one who . . .” And it could also be a typo/misspelling of “fiend,” or a common salutation. Ugh.

The bottom line is that every time I run a new test document through the software, I find something new—an exception I never thought of, or an outright error. Unlike a pro editor, around 20% of the time our software gets it totally wrong. That will never change, even as we improve and add to the software, because English is so squishy. (Just visit the forums at the CMS to see brilliant editors and writers arguing over how something should be done!) The only solution is to strap on the keyboard, brew a large pot of coffee, and get back to work.

WOW: How has usage of the software compared to what you expected when you started the project two years ago?

Don: I was not even close on predicting why members most enjoyed the site. When I started this project, my goal was to help fellow starting authors and I thought the main (perhaps only) use would be by authors who could not yet afford to invest in a great pro editor, and needed a low-cost way to get to the point where investing thousands in pro editing would be a great decision. They could catch most of their major errors and style issues, and get their writing to the next level to prepare for contests, first submissions, etc. Soon they would get to the point where a pro editor would be a logical next investment in their writing.

Yet today, with 20-20 hindsight, I discovered that there was another usage that has proven to be much more important to many users. The number one use is by authors who want a 24/7, easy-going English tutor to help rapidly improve their writing and style. The best example I can give is an author who told me “People keep telling me I have a run-on sentence problem. How can I change that?” Well, all she needed was a few passes with the software where all her run-on sentences were flagged, along with suggestions for improvement, before she made huge improvements in that part of her writing.

That’s the benefit of the instant feedback from the software. It takes only a few times being flagged for a dialog error before you tend to stop making that particular dialog error in new writing. Misuse “which” and “that”—and the software points it out for you, so you easily learn the proper usage. Your writing gets better and better!

So my original goal turned out to be the number two reason. Oh, and the number three reason never dawned on me back when I started—business people checking reports and emails before sending out a potentially “embarrassing” mistake!

WOW: I confess; I’ve used the software to improve my writing as well! About your software, how do algorithms help us edit our writing?

Don: In a word—instant feedback! (Or maybe that’s two words!)

I cannot overstate how exciting it is when I get emails from members who find that their grammar, and therefore their writing, improves week after week as they use the software. People forget that the reason we want good grammar and punctuation is not to please the editors and publishers—but to make sure the reader gets our message! Good editing makes your intent clear to the reader. I think those who have the creativity to write are also, almost by definition, good learners. The software instantly points out problem areas, explains why, and offers suggestions. Their writing gets clearer and more powerful as the grammar becomes easier.

One other insightful comment I received was a bit of a surprise, but made a great deal of sense the more I thought about it. “The computer doesn’t judge or threaten. It just offers ideas late at night when I am looking at what I wrote. I can deal with that. It’s a lot easier than having my boyfriend point out every mistake he thinks I made.”

I get encouragement every week from members of our site who find that the instant feedback on their writing continually improves them, and make them better writers. The stories start to jump out from the words. After all, it only takes a few times when the software points clauses that are confusing before they stop making that mistake!

WOW: This has been quite a journey for you. What have you learned about yourself or others along the way?

Don: I am sad to say that one thing I have learned was a real surprise to me, and was very discouraging. In short, I find that more and more writers see very little value in proper grammar and punctuation, and their writing suffers as a result. I see this every day in e-books, blogs, and even major websites. They seem to believe that “. . . people should only look at the idea, not the grammar.”

Sadly, it is not as simple as that.

I think they miss the point about why editing is important. It is not just to live up to some silly rules set by ancient librarians somewhere! It is that the sole purpose of editing is to make sure your message and story are clear to the reader. Bad grammar or punctuation (unless you are Ferlinghetti!) destroys even great writing when it loses the reader.

The best examples of this are run-on sentences and passive voice. Neither of these is automatically “bad grammar.” Often they are excellent and powerful ways to convey and image or story. But more often than not, run-on sentences are so messy that they lose the reader completely. And passive voice often runs the danger of making the object of the sentence unclear. Beyond these two examples, I would guess that a large portion of those who purchase books (I personally would guess more than two-thirds) find bad grammar to be so distracting that it would significantly detract from their enjoyment of the work.

And all that goes double for contest judges and publishing acquisition evaluators!

The good news is that the best writers (in terms of creativity and stories) consistently have better grammar and punctuation. There seems to be a relationship between creative writing, and good grammar. The best writers create an idea, and then precisely use the English language to get it across. That is what hooks the reader. You somehow stop looking at the words, and start to enter the author’s vision. Neat!

WOW: You obviously love language as much as you love those algorithms! Thank you for visiting with us today, Don. We appreciate all the time you put in to help us polish our work. I'm sure writers will want to check out the new and improved AutomatedEditing.com.

Interview by Robyn Chausse

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2 Comments:

Blogger Margo Dill said...

Robyn and Don:
Great interview. I know that this type of program would help many of my writing friends, too. What I love about this interview is your message that the main reason we need to learn grammar and punctuation is to make our message clear. YES! YES! YES! I completely agree with this. Thanks for sharing your software and the hard work that goes into it.

5:59 AM  
Blogger Angela said...

I agree with Margo! Great interview and love that you created software based off of The Chicago Manual of Style! (The writer's bible!) Thanks for creating such a useful site for writers.

2:08 PM  

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