Writing tools to avoid: WhiteSmoke


I was lured in by a slick promotion, and decided to give a new writing tool a try. WhiteSmoke seems like it’s primarily aimed at folks for whom English is not a first language, but quotes likeInnovative technology for native and nonnative English speakersmake it seem like it could help. When I wrote an article for xml.com that summarized recent mailing list activity, I liked to compile readability statistics on the messages. Maybe this would be similar.

I had some question of whether this would work on a Mac or not, but the FAQ assures one thatMac users are able to use WhiteSmoke’s online interface (also known as the Online Editor), which contains all grammar, enrichment and spelling featuresand (in curiously clumsy language) “Should you be running Safari MacOS x10.3 and encounter any problems, please use FireFox.”

Sounds good.

The spell checker is decent, probably about as good as the one in WordPress.

The thesaurus is pretty good. Clicking on almost any word will prompt a dropdown list of synonyms. This sometimes makes selecting text troublesome. The list itself is often too small, and entries toward the bottom are obscured.

The grammar checker is OK, but I couldn’t point to anything it does that Word couldn’t have handled (though it has been a long time since I have run Word).

The user interface is terrible. Any errors are shown in slightly bolder text either red or green with nothing distinguishing in the background. I’m not too good with colors, so it’s hard for me to say. The text is very difficult to scan. It has an AutoCorrect mode, which can fix some mistakes without interaction, but just as often breaks your text. For example, it changed the previous paragraph fromSounds good.” toremark: Incomplete Sentence good.” The changed text is bold, but only until the next scan, when it becomes indistinguishable from actual text.

At the XML level, it produces horrible output, with stacks upon stacks of nested spans, with duplicate IDs. Some of this may be from the necessary back-and-forth between the web interface and whatever your actual editor is. View source on this posting to see what I mean.

It gets worse. The online interface is limited to 10,000 characters-at-a-timenot wordscharacters. To compare, this short posting contains slightly more than 3,000 characters. I did some experimentation and found the actual limit is somewhat less than the stated 10K; somewhere north of 7K characters, it will show a spinner forever and never finish checking. Clicking the browser “back” button from the forever-spinner screen takes you back to a blank page–all your text is gone. For someone working on, say, a 60,000 word (360,000+ character) project, it would have to be diced up into maybe 50 small pieces, each individually checked, each introducing the prospect of adding rather than fixing problems. Making even a single pass through all the text would require a senseless amount of tedious cutandpaste work. It’s essentially unusable.

To make sure I know what I’m talking about, I composed this posting in WhiteSmoke, which very well may be the last time I use it. -m

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