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Will Automation be the Demise of the Editor?

Lately it seems everything is being automated, from factory jobs such as Amazon fulfillment warehouses to self-checkout in major retail stores, over to a near future of robotic fast food service and self-driving cars. Ten years ago it would be laughable to think a truck weighing 40 tons, possibly carrying flammable liquids, could drive themselves across the country, but it’s coming soon to an interstate near you. We’re soon going to be a jobless nation according to some theories.

But surely editors are safe from this trend? In fact, one might argue editors might thrive; after all, when a society has more leisure time the arts make a revival. Lots of ex-truck drivers are bound to have a story or two in them. Assuming editors will be excluded from the automated world could be falsely based on the limitations of grammar software on the market today.

When it comes to such programs as Grammarly, Hemingway, WhiteSmoke, and others, there is no doubt that they are a great resource tool, but as they stand now, they are not a catch all. Interestingly enough, if you visit their websites, none of them claim their intended use is for novels or manuscripts. Most claim to be for emails, business, and social media postings.

Still, it doesn’t hurt to run your chapters through it as it will point out missing commas, misspellings, and punctuation, but it won’t bring to your attention if there’s a hole in your plot, or a character needs to be stronger or if a character changes names. For example, if your story is about John, but somewhere in the writing process you accidently wrote James in the narrative or have James as an identifier in dialogue, these programs (at least for now) won’t catch this error.

Another example is your main character heads toward the beach. They hop into their Corvette and take off down the road. As he or she arrives at the shore, they hop out of a Porsche. Well either somewhere along the way the character switched cars and the writer forgot to mention it or more likely they made an error during the writing of that scene. Again, current editing software doesn’t catch this, but your editor will (or should).

Other scenarios that slip by the editing software are timelines. If your character was born in 1980 and you have a scene where she’s celebrating her tenth birthday in 1992, that likely won’t be caught. If a couple were to have an intimate encounter in January, become pregnant, and have the baby in December, again, something the editing software won’t catch, but your editor should. If not, your readers certainly will. If you have a scene where two characters are in Denver, Colorado, going to catch the sunset over the mountains, wearing shorts and tee-shirts, in February at 6:30 p.m., the software won’t point out that in Denver, in February, you’re likely not wearing summer attire and the sun probably set around 4:30 in the afternoon.

Editors do a lot more than just fix grammar. They look for the continuity of the story, the timeline, how the story unfolds, what builds your character, details in setting, and what pushes the story forward as well as what doesn’t work in the story.

All writing software, whether it be Word, Scrivener, etc. have spell check. It’s a good tool to use and a great idea to run your story through it, but just as editing software isn’t up to par with an editor’s brain, neither is spell check.

But will editing software ever be as good as a professional editor?

The short answer no…but they are going to get a hell of a lot better because software engineers are making leaps and bounds when it comes to (practically) giving certain applications a brain of its own.

For example, if a computer makes an error such as identifying a brown suit when in fact it was a gray suit, the programmer shows the computer thousands of gray suits so it will never make that mistake again. Likewise, an engineer can train the computer to flag similar names such as Joan and Jane, but it will be limited in tightening a sentence and knowing whether or not the story flows.

At first I was inclined to argue that a computer will never know if it’s “reading” good writing vs. bad. But what if the programmer were to input millions of classics into the software? Could it then tell if it was reading the next Brothers Karamazov?

Here’s the thing, I think a computer could tell it was good writing based on past exposure of literary works, but it will never share in the human emotions. It will never laugh out loud or break down in tears because of what it’s read. And isn’t that the most important thing a writer needs to do? To be able to reach across the pages (or screen) and make that human connection?

Editing software is going to get good, but not that good. It will never replace a human editor.

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