Editor’s Note: WhiteSmoke has been a sponsor of the blog for a while, and we often get emails from readers asking how good their software are. That is why we decided to review it. But keep in mind we did not get paid to do it. Ali Hale did the review for us, and I asked her to be completely transparent with it.
I found WhiteSmoke very easy to install and get started with. It checks the grammar, spelling and readability of everything that you write (it will do this whilst running in the background, or you can load up the program directly). It’s a bit like a very advanced and more intelligent version of Microsoft Word’s spelling and grammar checker.
I liked the way it automatically checked my typing in not only Microsoft Word but also in emails and when leaving comments using web forms. It caught a few potentially embarrassing typos before I had a chance to hit “send” or “submit”…
I tried running a few pieces of my regular writing through WhiteSmoke to see what it would say. This passage came from a piece I was writing for my blog The Office Diet:
Now you know what calories are and you know how to figure out how many are in your food … you just need to know how many you should be eating.
WhiteSmoke suggested putting a comma after the words “calories are”, and when I clicked to find out why, I was told:
Explanation: This sentence requires a comma to separate its clauses and improve clarity.
Definition: Two coordinated clauses should be divided by a comma.
So far so good: I agree that the sentence is improved when rewritten as:
Now you know what calories are, and you know how to figure out how many are in your food…
The next suggestion, however, was to put a full stop after “out” and before “how”, which would make the sentence:
Now you know what calories are and you know how to figure out. How many are in your food …
This time, when I asked why, WhiteSmoke explained “Two distinct sentences have to be divided by a full stop [period].” However, these were not two separate sentences, and putting a full stop here would lose meaning. I suspect the use of “figure out” (which is quite informal or colloquial) confused the software.
My frequent use of bullet points, rather than conventional paragraphs, also caused a few issues:
- It suggested putting a period after the first bullet, but not after others. (Conventional advice is that you do not need to use periods for bullets consisting of short phrases, but if you do use periods, you should be consistent.)
- WhiteSmoke believed that “Your weight” and “Your activity levels” should be “You’re weight” and “You’re activity levels” respectively. Again, I suspect the use of bullets and fragments rather than full sentences caused this confusion.
Sometimes, the software didn’t recognise what role a particular word was playing in a sentence. In the following example, the word “fast” is an adjective modifying “food”, but WhiteSmoke believed it was a verb:
They found that those who skipped breakfast tended to eat more fast food.
I was advised to “Change ‘more’ to ‘faster’”. I can understand where the confusion came – “more fast” would be poor grammar if the sentence was “I ran more fast than Billy.” But my sentence was correct as it stood.
WhiteSmoke makes a number of enrichment suggestions which can help improve the flow or style of your writing. For example, one of these came up for me when it recommended changing “And” in:
And your muscle mass is also important
to “Furthermore”, “In addition”, or “Moreover”. I would probably have picked one of these if I’d been writing a more formal piece, but for a blog post, I don’t think starting with “And” is a problem.
I enjoyed using the WhiteSmoke software, and found it was particularly good at spotting typos as I wrote. It could seem a little intrusive at times (a small window pops up in the right hand side of the screen as you type, when the software is running), so I usually turned it off when writing fiction or informal emails as I tended to get a lot of warnings about these!
There were a few occasional slips when the software didn’t understand the meaning of what I’d written, but so long as you don’t just accept every suggestion automatically, these infrequent mistakes shouldn’t cause too many problems.
I think it would be an excellent piece of software for:
- People learning English as a foreign language
- Students writing academic essays
- Anyone producing a formal business-related piece (perhaps a report, or a job application)
- Freelancers writing for print or traditional markets
You might find the WhiteSmoke software frustrating if:
- You mainly write fiction or poetry (especially if you use a lot of dialogue or your style involves breaking grammatical rules)
- Your emails and other non-fiction writing tend to be very informal
- You use a lot of bullet points or other sentence fragments
- You’re already very confident about your spelling and grammar
Overall, WhiteSmoke is a very easy to use, intuitive piece of software, and considerably cheaper than paying a proof-reader to check your work!