StyleWriter 4, billed as a “plain English editor,” is a style and English usage checker that runs with Microsoft Word in Windows. It goes beyond simple grammar and spell checking and aims to eliminate cumbersome and cliché writing via a pattern-matching engine. StyleWriter defines and assesses three measures of good writing (average sentence length, passive index, and readability) and provides a summary overview as well as sentence-by-sentence feedback.
The ability to choose both writing task and audience is one of StyleWriter’s greatest strengths. The standard edition has three audiences (public, in-house, or specialist) and 20 different writing tasks—including general, academic, technical, and fiction. Selecting a different writing task provokes varying kinds of feedback, and results in a different overall analysis.
StyleWriter flags clichés, overused phrases or words, and misused words. It suggests alternatives in some cases, but mostly provides general advice. Similarly, the readability index highlights “bog” and “glue” sentences—words or patterns that hinder clarity and concision. StyleWriter identifies bog and glue sentences, but doesn’t tell you which words to cut; instead, it offers general advice and examples. The idea is that once you recognize weak patterns, you’ll be able to edit yourself more easily.
Another advantage is the ability to create categories and patterns (e.g., banned wording, required wording) for individual house styles. Other editing customizations, like creating specific word lists, are also available—but only with the professional edition.
StyleWriter works as a Word add-in: it opens a new window, and you have to switch between Word and the StyleWriter window while using it, so it’s not a seamless experience. The edit text function is probably the worst feature—it seems like it should eliminate some of the toggling back and forth, but it’s unclear how it’s meant to work. In general, StyleWriter’s interface takes some getting used to, but the help documentation is easy to understand if you get stuck or want to know more about specific ratings.
Additionally, some of the ratings seem a little opaque. For example, StyleWriter measures “pep” and classes roughly 50,000 words as interesting and specific, but doesn’t tell you what those words are. Though there are some general guidelines, there isn’t anything like list of peppy words to consult if you want to punch up your writing.
One of the biggest limitations is that it’s only supported for Windows. Though it works on Parallels Desktop for Mac, there’s no technical support for Mac users. It’s also fairly expensive—the standard edition is $150.
StyleWriter stands out for its editing versatility; unlike other tools (AutoCrit, White Smoke, etc.) StyleWriter offers guidance on broad range of writing tasks, so it’s appropriate for a wide audience—students, researchers, copy writers, non-native English speakers, and so on. It’s easy to be skeptical of an algorithmic approach to writing style, but StyleWriter consistently highlights problematic writing patterns. Some of the suggestions seem like unnecessary edits, and there are times when you’ll ignore StyleWriter’s advice, but it does help you critically examine your own writing—and ultimately, that will help you improve it.