Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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September 20, 2021

5 Reasons Tech Can't Replace Editors

By Lisa Norman

Have you seen the new products on the market to replace live editors with an automated intelligence? I see authors spending a lot of money on these services, while being excited that they can now save the money they used to spend on editors.

I see editors moving to other careers or accepting impoverishing fees just trying to stay marketable.

Pick up a newspaper and you'll see that more and more publications are using automation instead of live, intuitive, experienced editors.

A friend recently asked me to help decipher a recipe that was in a published, highly rated cookbook. It included such ingredients as "tortured cream" (whipped cream) and "evening meal exercises" (dinner rolls).

Aside from the above silliness, here are my top 5 reasons why I was horrified to learn some publishers are switching to automation for editing their clients' books:

Right can be Wrong

Something can be technically right, and horribly wrong. Let's say you have two characters in a book. You teach your automated editor how to spell both names. What happens if you include a correctly spelled name of the wrong character in a scene?

One book I read had a scene where a character walked into the room and sat down on the sofa. Two pages later, the same character walked into the same room and sat on the same sofa.

Technically both scenarios are right and do not violate any grammatical rules. But they're both wrong.

My editor actually keeps a list of characters that she refers to and makes sure that each one is where they are supposed to be in a scene.

Several times I’ve seen her catch an idiom that was misplaced in time. The idiom is correct, but completely wrong in context.

What if a certain character's actions are not true to their inner motivations? Details like this make a story come alive. Or kill it.

Wrong can be Right

On the flip side of this, automated editors may flag rhetorical devices like anaphora and epizeuxis and polysyndeton as wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong!

A good human editor will see the power in these techniques and leave them alone!

An experienced editor will understand that some POV characters use language that ain't always grammatically correct. I double-dare a computer to handle a colloquially challenged narrator.

Oh, sure, you can click ignore. But who wants to do that through an entire manuscript and tell it to accept a lower standard of grammatical correctness for this work of fiction? Then how is it going to handle Aunt Mabel's perfect dialogue?

Content can be Missing

In my own writing, I often miss opportunities to describe setting. I can envision a powerful AI that might notice missing description, but what if I didn't describe it clearly? What if the correct words that I used did not convey my intent?

My editor will not let me get away with that!

As authors, we see things in our head that don't always make it to the page. Good editors will absolutely call an author on that.

Right may not be Good Enough

Just because something is technically right doesn't mean it is empowered.

Can your AI recognize that this is the turning point and we've minimized the main character's reaction, missing the impetus for a dramatic change?

My editor loves to tell me when my endings aren't strong enough!

And this brings me to my last point.

Writing gets Messy

When my last book's ending wasn't strong enough, I would have run straight into a huge writer's-block wall, but my editor returned the manuscript with a series of suggestions on how to fix it. She didn't just tell me it was weak, she told me why and what it needed.

Having another person to talk to who cares as much about your story and your success as you do is not something any computer can ever replace.

I work with writers every day. As writers, we deal in emotions, and those creative emotions can sneak up on us, destroying our ability to think dispassionately about our darlings. We wrangle ourselves into plot twists and scenes with no sequels.

For me, my editor is my mentor, my cheerleader, the person I trust to tell me if I need to get back to my desk or get away from it for a while.

She is completely irreplaceable by any artificial intelligence.

Lori – you are my superhero!

When editing your work do you use critique groups, Beta readers, and/or professional editors to make your work shine? What do you think about automated editing?

* * * * * *

About Lisa

Lisa Norman's passion has been writing since she could hold a pencil. While that is a cliché, she is unique in that her first novel was written on gum wrappers. As a young woman, she learned to program and discovered she has a talent for helping people and computers learn to work together and play nice. When she's not playing with her daughter, writing, or designing for the web, she can be found wandering the local beaches.

Lisa writes as Deleyna Marr and is the owner of Deleyna's Dynamic Designs, a web development company focused on helping writers, and Heart Ally Books, an indie publishing firm. She teaches for Lawson Writer's Academy.

Upcoming Classes

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

40 comments on “5 Reasons Tech Can't Replace Editors”

  1. Same reason machine translation will never replace a human translator. AI is getting better, but it cannot discern humor, sarcasm, idioms, and other purely human renditions of language.

  2. Hi Lisa! I am so glad I can stop looking for tortured cream and exercising at dinner (although I can't say that would hurt). Seriously, though, I have been concerned about the decreased quality in publications these days, from online news articles with obvious grammar issues and missing words to novels scenes repeated a few pages apart in what was clearly 2 different edit versions. I was wondering what was going on, but maybe these issues were AI related. I am using a real life human editor for my manuscript and the cost is well worth the real eyes and ears! Thanks for the post!

    1. The error you describe is probably the result of formatting while using Kindle’s MS Word template. Said template has numerous maddening quirks.

      Merely having an inadvertent space at the beginning or end of a chapter can completely throw off the alignment of an entire chapter. Moreover, trying to cut and paste to correct such a problem might appear to have worked-except for not actually “cutting” the original chapter and text. At one point in the formatting process on my first novel I discovered that I had seven (yes, 7) of the same chapter repeated back to back, before I finally found a way to delete the offending text. I discovered I could only delete blocks of text ((starting only from the bottom) within the errant chapters, but had to use the backspace to delete the remaining text at the very beginning.

      Otherwise the redundant chapter wouldn’t disappear. Obviously, this took a lot of unwanted-stark, raving, mad at Kindle & Microsoft-trial and error.

      I sure hope they’ve improved the process. I dread the formatting as much as I do the endless editing.

    2. I’m in critique groups, and use Beta readers, but find programs such as Prowriting-Aid to be extremely valuable for doing the first edit. The vast majority of writers do not derive their livelihood from their writing and cannot afford an editor. So, for those truly serious in publishing a professionally edited work, the process is long and arduous.

      In addition, even having a professional editor is no guarantee of catching all the errors. It’s hard to pick up even a bestseller from a major publishing house, without still finding missed errors

      1. I think there will always be some errors. Also, let's face it: there are many different levels of editors. I've seen some bad ones in my day. I'd can be a case of getting what you pay for, and increasingly publishers don't want to pay the price for quality editing. It shows in the end product.

        1. Jenny, There are many different skills that make up the term "editing" - from proof reading to grammar to developmental editing to empowering writing... Editors are amazing. We need every one of those skills to make our books read so smoothly that the reader gets lost in the story and forgets to see the words.

  3. Hi Lisa,

    Do you think it’s helpful to use AI in addition to an editor or saving the money and not bother with the AI at all?

    I’ve used them and found them helpful for finding word repetition and grammatical errors. But I’ve wondered if it changes the writer’s voice. The perception that the AI has to be correct is there, and as a result I find a tendency to accept the AI suggested changes.

    1. Cynthia, you have a point. I can see using some AI help to cut down on the simple errors, but we have to trust ourselves and know when to hit that all important ignore button. I know my editor appreciates having the simple errors fixed before something comes to her. Then she can focus on the big picture. Saves money on the editing sometimes, too. Depends on the editor and their pricing structure, I think. While most charge per word, they can have a different price for a fairly clean manuscript than for one that needs a ton of cleaning.

  4. I have critique partners, sometimes use beta readers, and have some free versions of "editing" software. But it's my editor I rely on before I hit "publish." The automated programs serve an entirely different purpose - they catch things I don't see, like overused words and phrases. I've yet to find a grammar checker that can handle genre fiction.

  5. Hi, Lisa. Great points! I use all of the above. Since I am comma-blind (or ignorant),I use AI-based programs to do a first run through. I use beta readers for their story- and pacing- level help. And I use a paid editor. She catches all sorts of errors and helps me use stronger words or phrases. Then I use a proofreader. And yes, errors still slip through, but very few.

    1. Perfect, Lynette! I think that's wonderful - leveraging each one's strength to create something that comes together well. When you think about how many words we are writing...that's a lot to perfect!

  6. Hi Lisa!

    Excellent post. Can I just say a hearty Amen!

    I can't tell you how many times I have to tell my popular grammar checker (not naming names here but everyone uses this one) not to change something I've written for effect. Often it would read weird and wrong if I were to blindly accept all the suggested changes. On occasion, it misses even glaring problems. (That baffles me.) I do find AI checkers useful for a first pass, and the cleaner the copy I give to beta readers and editors the better my end product. But nothing, NOTHING, absolutely nothing replaces a talented human editor. (And no, that's not an echo LOL)

    1. I hear you, Kathleen! Those popular ones do seem to struggle with understanding rhetorical devices. And yes, taking care of the little things so that our real-life editors don't have to work so hard...that's a win. I'm a big believer in treating a good editor like the absolute treasures they are!

  7. I help a friend when she's doing her final pass or if she doesn't agree with her editors. She likes my replies, because I give her the grammar rule with my response. I'm also an Oxford comma gal, and I've converted her.

    We also suspected that one of her previous editors may have been relying on AI to do the editing, because of the errors missed *and* the quick turnaround time for edits.


    1. Ugh. I've heard of editors using automation before, and that is sad, because it misses out on the power of a human who truly gets the story! In my work, I've seen bad editors, good editors, and great ones. When you find a great one, you want to hold onto them!!! It is good that your friend has you to help. My editor has converted me to using the Oxford comma. It avoids speed bumps! Long live the Oxford comma!

  8. PREACH! As a copy editor, in addition to being a writer, I'm amazed how many people think a machine can replace a person. Yes, it can help! I use those tools myself at times. But, as you point out, there are serious limitations.

    And when I copy edit, I respect the author's voice, recognizing when the "mistakes" are intentional choices for tone, mood, and character. Tech can't do that.

    So thank you. Well said!

  9. Nope. Give me a human editor and proofreader and sometimes you even have to confer with them when it comes to what you meant in your story. I notice that AI can't comprehend what you mean when I'm on a chat line, which is why they have the option of chatting with an actual person, smh.

    1. Exactly, Pamela! When we're talking about stories, the nuances are still beyond the comprehension of AIs. And ugh. Those chat bots! Of course...for those, we really need to blame the lack of imagination of the person who programmed it!

  10. As a professional proofreader I am not worried about AI taking my business away from me. You are all correct for so many reasons. I read 50 to 60 books a year and I find spelling errors in all but one, each of the last 7 years. I am still waiting to find that book this year. Even with Grammarly, which I use, and other programs I still find things the software misses.

    1. Mark - what you do is an amazing skill. I find errors in almost every book I read, and it makes me sad. Don't even get me started about trying to read news articles. Human editors are irreplaceable!

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