Will Dean's Ideas Factory: How does a robotic copy editor cope with Ulysses?


As the newspaper industry works out how to tackle the threat from free online news and other structural problems, some journalists can at least take heart that, no matter, what the medium – newsprint, the web, or electronic paper – a good copy editor is an essential role. As it is in publishing and advertising/copy-writing, too. When the robots are making our coffee and vacuuming our floors, at least they won't be criticising us for our use of cliches... Oh. Hang on a minute...

Pro Writing Aid is the creation of Chris Banks, a London-based programmer. It allows writers to insert their copy and uses algorithms to pick out redundancies, cliches, overused words, unvaried sentence lengths and other errors which relate to neither spelling or grammar.

I put the technology to the test by entering a feature I wrote for these pages last week on 3D printing. The analysis came back with a plethora of suggestions, including four "overused words", a couple of redundancies ("component parts", tssk) and a massive 16 issues of "vague or abstract words". Alright, Sir Harry Evans-robot, I get it. Though some of the points were fair enough, others still need a bit of human nuance. One of my red-marked phrases was "kind of" which might be weak for a novel but was part of a vital quote from one of the people I spoke to.

So, to test the standards of the Pro Writing Aid on behalf of copy editors and subs everywhere I put the first chapter Ulysses by James Joyce (above) into the programme. The result: 14 sticky sentences; 46 diction queries; 22 cliches and redundancies. Must try harder, Jim.


A mouse-mat custom-built for couch potatoes

It may be due to the fact that the touchpad on my laptop broke many moons ago, but it's rare I don't spend at least part of an evening on the couch dragging my computer mouse along the surface of the sofa. It's not ideal.

Many whose PCs and Macs aren't half-working actually prefer using a good old-fashioned optical mouse, but it's usually only for the desk-bound. Although, in the post-mousewheel world (something we've all struggled to adjust to, no doubt), mice do tend to work on almost any surface. It's not always totally comfortable though.

This problem led Nuala Lewis to invent a solution. Lewis, from Chorley, Lancashire, found that when she was pregnant, she was doing almost all her laptopping on the sofa. This led the former council worker to create her first product, the Slouch Mat, which debuted at The Gadget Show in Birmingham in April.

The Slouch Mat, as you can see from the picture, above, is a mouse mat made with a mouldable base which grips to your sofa arms, or car armrest or – depending on the timidity of your pet – your cat's back, allowing lazy browsing/work in no desky situations. A great idea. And retailers agree too, catalogue giant Argos is stocking them already.

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