First off, I have to correct something from my last blog post. Apparently, you can hire a beta reader.

Darling Beta Readers has since followed me on Twitter. If you’re looking, give them a gander.

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Also, since a friend of mine wanted to offer this as a service and, in fact, can do a good job, please check out

RDG Books. Rod Gilley is a great beta reader, can do an in-depth critique, and also knows a thing or two about bookkeeping.

Now, to today’s topic: The burning question of what editing tool to use. That’s the one thing you, constant writer, have in common with your editors. Even if you depend on the squiggly lines in Word, you’re using an editing tool. That does not eliminate the need for an editor, proofreader, or even a beta (free, barter, or pro.) It just makes 
your job and theirs a lot simpler.
So what’s out there? I’ll give you the ones I know about personally.
Microsoft Word – Editing
People knock Microsoft for a lot of reasons. They’re still overcoming their early Windows phase when the software earned a reputation as buggy. Windows XP was a leaky and insecure, which brought an annoyed Bill Gates out of retirement. So did the disaster that was Windows Vista. And the 90s? When Excel for Windows was a ripoff of the late, somewhat lamented Lotus 123? Word a wholesale copy and paste of the old Word Perfect Suite? Yeah, that and a loyal Apple base has left a bad taste in people’s mouths, some too young to remember why.
Microsoft ha
s moved on from the bad ol’ days. Windows 7 was a great OS. Windows 8 was a well-intentioned misfire, but Windows 10/11 are pretty solid. So, too, is Microsoft 365, the latest incarnation of the once-maligned, now venerated Office beloved by corporate America. Office has matured to become an almost Apple-like ecosystem, best used in the cloud. And Word has gotten much better at its spell-check and grammar functions. It’s dictionaries can be customized to your writing skills. Unlike the big apps, Grammarly and ProWritingAid, it’s more dependent on your language preferences than on strictly UK English. (More on those two in a moment.)
The spellcheck is on par with just about everyone’s. In fact, as a developer, I’ve run into issues with installing Google’s spellcheck on in-house apps.
The Grammar Check still needs work. It flags odd things, has questionable logic around commas, and often contradicts the Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS). CMOS is, at least for American and Canadian English, is the preferred font of wisdom. But it has become more robust and predictable. If you have a 365 subscription and don’t want to buy a separate tool, Windows utilities can do the trick. More useful is track changes and comments, more of interest if you’re beta reading or doing full edits. A permanent “Ignore” option would make this even better.
Sigh. I want to tell you Grammarly is good. But I used the free version, which locks you into UK English. I have no problem with UK English. In fact, it took me about twenty years to stop writing “litre” instead of “liter.” But it tends to be restrictive and, even factoring in (or using) UK English, it makes a lot of mistakes. I’d like to say this is the result of the free version, but I’ve had writers and pro editors alike say the paid subscription doesn’t really measure up.
That said, the free version is a more robust alternative to Word’s built-in functions. Like ProWritingAid, you have to upload your work in small chunks. For the brief time I used it, it also would put its suggestions in as tracked cha
nges that could be imported back into Word. That’s handy when you have to pick and choose suggestions.
`is the Mack Daddy because I came of age just before the 90s began, and that was Gen X’s phrase. (Pause while I go yell at a cloud.)
ProWritingAid adapts to your language. And it gives you options for how you want it to look at your work. Like Grammarly, it has a free version with the same constraint: Only a few pages at a time. Fifty is about the limit.
If you subscribe, as I do, it also has free plugins for Word, Scrivener, Google Docs, and your favorite browser (even Safari, Apple fans. Rejoice!)
ProWritingAid hates passive voice and will try to steer you toward simpler words and phrases. If you think it’s overbearing, tell it to ignore the suggestion. Better still, there’s a Report Incorrect button. Believe it or not, they’re paying attention. A few suggestions I made have made it into the app. (I suspect they got a lot of feedback, so I’m not exactly taking credit here.) Subscribers to the Premium and Lifetime versions can also build their own dictionaries within the tool while using the plugins. I find that very handy.
PWA hates passive voice. Usually that helps me keep it to one page or forces me to write a more active sentence. It will try to steer you toward inclusive language, important for corporate work. However, that doesn’t always work for fiction or other narrative work. Don’t complain. Just hit the ignore button, Francis. It’s one mouse click.


I’m writing this in Hemingway, which doubles as a word processor. .hemingway files can port to Word or other format or even post directly to blogs. It’s only $20 for a one-time install you can transfer to another machine of the same OS.
It is a bit aggressive on long sentences. As of this line, it’s flagged ten as needing a trim. One of the problems I run into while blogging, though, is typos.
Hemingway is very aggressive about adverbs, maybe too agressive. For starters, it’s scolding me right now for using “maybe” and “However.”
But Hemingway only makes suggestions. It doesn’t try to correct you. And it formats and does links. For $20, I’ll take it. Blogging or quick emails are on-the-fly writing. (It just flagged “on-the-fly” as an adverb. Twice. It cares nothing for your puny quotation marks.) Hemingway gives you a quick visual reference. If it flags something, you decide if you want to keep it. It shouldn’t be the end-all-be-all of your editing aresenal, but it can make a single draft look better.
There are other tools. Scrivener, for one, has built-in tools, but it’s more of an interface to give writers the same visual reference as Visual Studio or any number of open-source development tools. (It hates that sentence, too. It’s about software development, Hemingway. Nothing is simple about that!)
These are the tools I’v
e dealt with. Except for Hemingway, they all have free or built-in options. If it’s in your budget, use two as they catch different things. And do your research. I’ll bet you can find something better suited for you if you look. For me, it’s Hemingway for the short work, PWA for the long.
As we used to say in the early days of the WWW, your mileage may vary.
Wadded paperWelcome to the first post of this site’s blog. No fanfare. No title. I’m just here to talk about editing.
Today, I want to talk about the beta reading, the poor man’s method of editing. As an editor, I want to charge for my services. After all, this beats Uber as a side hustle – no fuel costs, no wear-and-tear on the vehicle. But it’s labor. One should always charge for their labor.
As a writer, I completely get why one doesn’t want pay for an editor. Self-publishing and small press are crapshoots. Editor’s fees make it that much harder to recoup your investment. But you need to polish, and every writer, including this one, is too close to their work to see mistakes clearly.
Editing tools are great. I have a ProWritingAid subscription and am writing this post in Hemingway. But those cost money as well, and again, you’re too close to the work.
So, many writers turn to beta reading. Get a fresh set of eyes on the work without handing over huge amounts of cash. That leaves one question.
What the heck is beta reading?
In software, there used to be alpha testing and beta testing. Alpha testing would happen in-house with other developers or QA testers. They would put an app through its paces and see what broke. You may have done beta testing. Big software producers, like Microsoft or gaming companies, want end users to find real-world bugs in their products. Mind you, this is old-school development, and it did not always work. Anyone remember Windows Vista? Apple fans may not want to admit there were a couple of iPhone iterations and versions of OS X that stunk up the joint. But they happen.
While Agile has elminated the Alpha and Beta testing system, writers still use it. Even writers who hire editors. I have two alpha readers. Jenn Nixon reads all my science fiction while Brian Thornton reads anything I write as Jim Winter, crime fiction maestro*. Both of them have read pretty much every novel or novella I’ve written in each genre. How do I pay them? I return the favor. Or I do other tasks for them they don’t have the budget to pay for.
Which is how beta reading works. But again, what is beta reading in this context?
When I write, I write with the door closed. No one gets to look at what I’m working on. I might bounce a scene off Jenn or Brian (or even both), but the story remains locked down until I’ve done one pass myself. And lately, that goes through ProWritingAid after an eyeball pass. After I take their suggestions, I pass it on to the betas, the second wave. Now, what do they do?
Some make a cursory pass at the story. If it’s a series, they point out assumptions I’m making about what a reader would know or figure out. Are my ranks for law enforcement or the military correct. And while a line edit is not expected, some of them often will have reams of tracked changes to go through. Sometimes, it’s just a quick summary. “I liked this story, but I was confused as to why Davra likes vanilla ice cream when she’s clearly a sea salt caramel kinda girl.”
Betas are doing this for free or for trade. So, if you don’t like what someone says, keep it to yourself. (Note: Even if you’re paying a freelance editor, it’s always best to ask why than get nasty. You’re paying them to improve your work. You might want to know why you can’t say, “For all intensive purposes”**)
Sometimes, it doesn’t work out. I once had a beta ask me why it took me ten chapters before she knew the story did not take place on Mars. (Apparently, the narrator saying, “Unlike Mars, we have a magnetic field” in chapter one was not a clue.) She also didn’t quite get the Andy Weir-style of narrating via log entries. I suspect she was trying to sell editing service via a backdoor. Yes, that happens. No, I do not do that when I beta read.
Other times, a beta will ghost. This is for free, and often, it’s a favor that’s not a priority. Real life takes precedence, and random writer on Facebook takes a backseat to child or spouse in the hospital. Deal with it. And sometimes, the reader just won’t get it. That’s why I use three. If two flag the same problem that the alpha or #3 didn’t, I fix it. It’s a good barometer.
A friend of mine just starting out said betas are hard to find. He even toyed with offering a paid beta reader service. He did the most recent Suicide Arc novel as a free beta. What he would be selling is best branded as a critique. (Incidentally, I’m open to that.

Contact me

, and we’ll talk if you need something like that.) The fact is you have to network. Shake hands. And occasionally, find a person who just reads. They’re not a writer. They’re the person flopped out on a bean bag chair or on a beach flipping pages of your book. That’s useful, too. Very useful.

Betas are a hedge against turning in or publishing bad work when you can’t afford me or another editor. Even when you can, they can tell you if your story’s a winner.
*Yeah, let’s go with that. Fake it ’til you make it!
**If I have to explain that one to you, you might want to drop what you’re doing as a writer and go buy a book on grammar.

Need professional help? Contact TS about line and copy editing for your crime or science fiction work.