6.04.2013

AutoCrit or My Rage at the Pedantic Homogenization of Art and the Robots that Make it Possible

That's one tug on the cilice for every adverb...
Wanna know a little secret? Writers kind of hate themselves. They really do. When they aren't thinking dark thoughts about spiraling into total irrelevance or dying in the gutter before the world discovers their genius, they're self-flagellating over their supposed bad habits, such as their overuse of certain words and sentence structures and adverbs and things. They worry themselves half bald and insane over "the rules" and they think  if they master them and become technically flawless, they will finally get that book deal and live happily ever after. It's no different than what any other artist does, really, but the neurosis seems to be concentrated particularly hard in the writing community, because there are just SO MANY WAYS in which an author can go wrong. So many variables. So many... WORDS and ways to mess them up. Well, combine that age-old anxiety with the technology of the modern age, and what do you get?

AutoCrit!

This self-described Editing Wizard will "with the click of a button" show you "all the problems with your manuscript!"

Of course, it goes wrong pretty much immediately, doesn't it? "All the problems with your manuscript" is such a negative phrase that it might as well be "all the ways in which you fucking suck as a writer." It drives me nuts, really, because I don't believe anything good ever comes from a place of shame. I don't care if we're talking about weight loss or writing a story. Once you start seeing your life as nothing more than a series of problems that need fixing, you're in for one shitty roller coaster of a life that only gets worse as it rolls on. You might think getting kicked in the balls repeatedly is helping you somehow, but all it does it turn you into someone who overcompensates later. It's just not good.

So how does this whole AutoCrit thing work? Well, after you plug in your manuscript, or a chunk of it (the free version will let you do 500 words, which isn't a great sample but works for demonstrative purposes) the program will give you a series of "reports" that help you target everything from overused words to cliches to adverb usage to homonyms to sentence fragments (and that's not all!). In other words, it will micromanage your novel into lube-free anal penetration territory, all for the fee of $47 to $117, depending on the level of rectal assault you're looking for. I plugged a few paragraphs into the free version just to see what it found. You can see some of this sexiness in the picture below:

Remove three of your six occurrences of the word "that", and you too will be the next  Hemingway!
This sounds great on the surface, I suppose. AutoCrit seems like it can do what any competent and literate editor can do at a fraction of the cost. Yeah, I guess that's cool in some ways. But it's also freaking terrible too when you really think about it.

There is a difference between a human and a robot when it comes to editing. For one thing, I'm not perfect and no editor is. We're going to miss things that AutoCrit probably will catch. There is also a very high likelihood that there will even still be some objective mistakes (like spelling and punctuation errors) left behind when we finish the job. Try as we might, it happens in nearly every single book. Even the ones published by the big boys.

 And that's... okay!

But how is that okay? Aren't we looking for perfection here? No, dammit! Just... no. I submit that while excessive use of adverbs should be curtailed, the occasional one or five isn't going to kill anyone. I also submit that 'tis better to have slightly messy language than it is to have flat characters and a boring story. That's ART, damn it! Those little flaws and idiosyncrasies are often what separate one writer from the next. It's what reminds us all that works of art are created by imperfect human beings and not machines, and that's okay because a judicious display of imperfection is fucking beautiful.

You can't fool us, Miley. You're not a great singer.
But whatev.
It bothers me that we think we can just sterilize our writing or whittle it down to satisfy some mechanical algorithm the way AutoTune can make singers sound like they have a rudimentary grasp of pitch. It bothers me that artists are allowing themselves to become so concerned about mechanics that they forget to be actual storytellers. Language can be cleaned up later, but first you must TELL YOUR STORY, and it's amazing how many people have this whole thing turned around backward. You can have the most amazing technical writing skills in the world, but without artistry and a story that makes people give a shit, you might as well be writing a washing machine manual.

But I can hear people saying, "I already know how to tell a story really well! I'm a self-published author. I don't have or can't afford one of them big fancy New York editors to help me find all my uses of 'that' and 'was/were'."

Okay, fine. Let's say you don't have a single person in your life who can read your manuscript and be smart enough to pick out even a quarter of the things AutoCrit claims to find. What about you? What can you find?  There are a million ways you can customize the Find/Replace feature in any word processing program to search out certain words and turns of phrase so that you can address them directly. Certainly you don't need to spend upwards of fifty bucks to find how many times you used the word "that." Also, what about taking the time to read your work aloud to find inconsistencies and repetitive words and other phrasing problems? What about printing it out and reading it on paper? That's another great way to find awkward phrasing and mistakes. Again, not something you really need to pay a robot to do for you. And why would you even want to anyway? If you turn that process of refining your prose into something completely automated, then what exactly are you learning about the craft? How are you developing a style and voice all your own?

The answers to those questions are: nothing and you aren't. Not really. You have to do the work. And you have to keep doing it, repeatedly, so you can improve. And just as soon as you think you're good enough, you get another wake up call, because you're probably starting to get lazy by that point. If there is anything I find offensive about this whole automated editing software thing, it's that it's just soooo lazy. It takes away that whole "doing" aspect of the craft that is so important for growth. If all we ever have to do is spit out words and shoot the resulting story through a robot's brain to find everything that some algorithm says is incompatible with desirable fiction and prose, then can you really say you have crafted anything? No, you can't. Just like you can't stick a metal rod into a forge and then say you made a sword. You haven't pounded the fuck out of it with your hammer yet. You haven't shaped it into something that is uniquely yours and adheres to your voice and your style. You haven't immersed yourself into the gritty, sweaty, awful, wonderful, shitty, amazing world of Making Your Art.

Whatever you think Autocrit can do for you, here's what it can't do:

It can't give you a voice. It can't breathe life into your characters and make them act and speak in ways that make readers swoon and cry and seethe. It can't help you make ART. Those things that AutoCrit claims it can do... humans have been doing them for thousands of years. In that time, we managed to produce gorgeous works of the written word. I wonder what Dickens or Twain or Tolkien or Asimov or King or Austen or Woolf or Atwood would think about something like AutoCrit. They would probably think it was a horrifying way to scrub all of the personality out of a piece of writing. To sterilize all possible flaws and idiosyncrasies that make a piece of writing memorable or an author special. Those words you throw down on the page, perfect or imperfect, are your literary thumbprint.

Sure, clean up your work. Editing remains as necessary as ever, but don't leave it to the wiles of a digital, inhuman spurt of code that doesn't understand things like ruggedness and context and style and artistic intent. And don't be afraid that maybe you abused a few adverbs or dialog tags or turns of phrase in the course of tens of thousands of words. It happens, and you shouldn't beat yourself up for it. Agents and readers aren't looking for that so much as they are looking to be entertained. And rather than see your manuscript as full of problems, embrace your imperfections and then just let go. It's that moment, after the realization of your true voice and the ultimate release, when the real magic happens.