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Generated by Google Gemini using the phrase "space age typewriter"

AI Proofreading: Why I Use it and What I Learned

AI proofreading tools are transforming the way we write. Learn why even non-writers should embrace this technology to improve grammar, readability, and clarity. Get tips for writing effective AI prompts, discover best practices, and understand the potential limitations. Whether you're crafting blog posts, reports, or emails, AI can help you polish your writing to a professional level.

AI Proofreading: Why I use it.

I'm not a writer, but I have things to share. How do I get my writing into shape?

Writing isn't my forte. I sometimes stare at my drafts, knowing something's off, but I'm unable to pinpoint the issue.\

Why use AI to proofread?

I worked alongside professional editors and writers for many years. For important projects, we'd collaborate on outlines and early drafts, and they'd refine the final work.

For my personal work, I don't have a team to fall back upon. I don't have a budget to pay for editors. I know the benefit of having a proofreader.

Tools like Microsoft Word help with editorial quality. However, they can't provide (yet) the in-depth, multi-pronged review I need. I use these technologies to check for consistent point-of-view, active voice, readability, and more so my drafts are polished.

That said, if given the choice, I'd always choose a human editor over the machine. Humans grasp nuance and context in ways current tools cannot.

Is it still my work if I use AI?

I'm not an attorney and it's clear this is still being sorted. Because of this, I don't blindly copy the automated suggestions for my work. I'll explain how I do this in a later section.

By using AI, I understand that the machine will store and use my writing, most likely to improve itself. That means there's a potential loss of rights to my work, which I'll also discuss in another section. (But honestly: I'm not basing my living on this writing, so my concern here is low.)

What options exist for AI Proofreading?

Services like Grammarly or Writer are popular. I use Google Gemini. It's less polished but offers flexibility. I can write complex prompts, have in-depth 'conversations' about drafts, and ask why it made certain decisions. As I work on revisions, the suggestions improve – or maybe I'm just getting better at using the tool!

Eventually, this kind of functionality will be in tools like Microsoft Office. For now, I appreciate the value of learning how AI works by interacting with it directly. I think it's a valuable experience.

Can AI (ChatGPT, Gemini) Proofread My Work?

Yes, absolutely! AI is a powerful tool for proofreading and editing. But it's crucial to remember that this technology is still evolving, so use it wisely.

Writing proofreading prompts for AI

The quality of results depends heavily on the quality of your prompts. A vague "Make this better" won't be as effective as "Minimize jargon and remove clichés." I'll share some of my own successful prompts, below.

My focus on tech content means I need to write clearly about both digital marketing and web technology. It's been a journey to find prompts that help me avoid overly technical language.

Warnings: Don't trust AI with your secrets

It's vital to understand that anything you input into an AI system may be stored and used for training. This has important implications:

  • Never share proprietary information with AI. The legal ownership of ideas shared with online tools is still murky. If you have trade secrets or sensitive intellectual property, it's safest to avoid giving AI access.
  • Never share private information. Assume anything you share online could potentially become public. Even if the risk seems low today, remember: what's possible technically will eventually happen in reality.

Crafting Effective Proofreading Prompts

My writing can be longer and may get overly technical, so I need prompts beyond the standard "proofread this." Here's how I approach it, along with several prompts I've found effective.

First, it's important to be aware of two ways we can frame the prompt for AI:

  • Direct Editing: Have the AI edit your text, but be aware this can blur the lines of authorship and ownership.
  • Suggestions List: This requires more manual editing as we need to read the suggestions and implement them by hand, **but** this is a great way to learn and retain full control of your writing.

My Key to Effective Prompts:

For each prompt, I attempt to cover three things when asking for help:

  1. Goal: Briefly summarize the intent of the writing under review.
  2. Guidelines: Prevent radical changes or unwanted suggestions that I can anticipate.
  3. Task: Clearly state the specific proofreading task.

Specific Prompts and Explanations:

1. Grammar and Awkward Phrasing:
  • Prompt: "In the following section, please review for grammar errors and awkward phrasing. Please provide me with suggestions for improvement in list format so that I can use those to edit my document."
  • Reason: My stream-of-consciousness writing often leads to grammatical errors and awkward phrasing. Catching these early makes later revision steps easier.
  • Advice: This prompt is a good starting point for any draft. It identifies specific issues that are typically most noticeable and distracting.
  • Comment: Thankfully for this one, providing in-depth context is often not needed. This is one of the easiest prompts to write as it's not tied to the meaning as much as the language.
2. Clichés and Overused Phrases:
  • Prompt: "In the following section, find all cliches and look for phrases that are overused. Please be careful not to change the meaning. Give me a list of cliches or phrases, in bullet format, that I should review for removal or replacement."
  • Reason: Clichés and overused phrases can make writing sound generic and uninspired. This is especially risky in longer articles where I might use the same phrase many times, which becomes distracting.
  • Advice: Be mindful that the AI might not always perfectly identify clichés specific to your field. Review the suggestions carefully before making changes.
  • Comment: This is another prompt that is easy to use. Often, I merge this prompt and the prior one (grammar) into one as they seem to be compatible and they don't overload the tool as it reviews my work.
3. Removing Analogies and Metaphors (Carefully!)
  • Prompt: "Please edit the following section to remove all analogies and metaphors. While doing so, DO NOT add new analogies or metaphors. Provide a list of all changes you made, in bullet format, at the end of your response to help me compare your changes to my original. Ensure that the original meaning is not changed. DO NOT ADD NEW ANALOGIES OR METAPHORS."
  • Reason: I find the comparisons are rarely as helpful as we hope. Worse, for complex subjects, they over-simplify things and the end result is more confusion (not less). I try to remove them all and instead write as clearly and plainly as I can.
  • Advice: The emphasis on not adding new metaphors is crucial. AI tools can sometimes replace your metaphors with new ones, defeating the purpose of the prompt. Be specific and persistent if you encounter this issue.
4. Maintaining Active Voice:
  • Prompt: "Review the following text and ensure consistent use of active voice. Provide a list of places where passive voice is used and suggest corrections for each. If passive voice is acceptable, give a reason. Format the list as bullet points that I can use while reviewing the original."
  • Reason: Active voice makes writing more engaging and easier to read. It avoids passive constructions that can sound weak and convoluted.
  • Advice: This prompt identifies passive voice usage, but I find I need to use judgment for each suggestion to determine if a passive voice construction is necessary in each. Warning: AI gets confused by quoted text that should not be edited.
5. Consistent Point of View:
  • Prompt: "In the following text, correct the passage to use a consistent first-person point of view. Provide a list of specific changes you made, as a bullet point list, that I can use to review the changes and make edits to my original draft."
  • Reason: Inconsistent point of view can confuse readers. This prompt ensures a clear and consistent flow of voice throughout your writing.
  • Advice: This prompt is particularly helpful for "How To" guides and other instructional documents where there's the risk of describing things in third person, but toggling to a different PoV while explaining things.
6. Readability for a Target Audience:
  • Prompt: "Please edit the following passage to improve readability for a general non-technical audience. Ensure that the passage would conform to a United States 8th grade reading level. Provide a summary of the changes you made and include additional suggestions that I might take to further improve readability."
  • Reason: Tailoring your writing style to your audience is key. This prompt helps ensure your message is clear and accessible to your target readers.
  • Advice: Be aware that the AI might not perfectly understand the nuances of different audiences. Use your own judgment when evaluating the suggestions. You can experiment with different audience descriptions (e.g., "business audience") to see the variations in suggestions.
  • Comments: you can change the 'reading level' or 'audience' to anything. I've used 'digital marketers and managers', 'general audiences', 'web development experts' and so on. It can be useful to ask the AI to run the same prompt several times with variations on the audience description.

Tips for Further Success

Getting the best results from proofreading prompts takes practice. Here's what I've discovered:

  • Be Nice: Studies show that AI performs better when you're polite. It seems silly, but "please" and "thank you" make a difference. Here are some links with more support than my own anecdote:
  • Focus on One Goal at a Time: The current generation of tools work best when you break tasks down. Instead of asking it to fix everything at once, target grammar first, then clichés, then readability, and so on.
  • Work in Smaller Sections: Similarly, the best results come with shorter text blocks. I'll often give the AI a single section at a time (like this "Tips" section I'm writing now). This requires multiple passes, but it also helps me link sections together better as a whole.
  • Provide Context: Explain the larger topic of your writing. For example, when editing this section, my prompt includes context like: "this section is part of an article about how to effectively prompt AI to proofread my work." This reduces the chances the result oversimplifies concepts in an attempt to make them "more clear."
  • Request Suggestions, Not Edits: This is key for me. Reviewing a list of suggested changes helps *me* improve my writing skills as I consider and implement them, rather than mindlessly accepting changes.
  • Iterate and Refine: Don't be afraid to run the same prompt or variations on it multiple times. If a result isn't ideal, tell the system why. For example: "You're still adding metaphors when I've asked you to remove them. Please try again, ensuring no new metaphors or analogies are included." Repetition and reinforcement within a single editing session is also important and seems to produce the best overall results as the system learns what I prefer or need.

    Personal Note: These tips might not work for everyone or at all times as AI tools are constantly evolving. Experiment to find what works best for you and the specific AI you are using.

The Takeaway

AI proofreading tools, while still under development, offer incredible potential to improve our writing. Using them effectively takes some practice, but the benefits are substantial. Here's what you need to remember:

  • Be Smart, Be Strategic: Focus on specific goals with your prompts, break down tasks, and provide the AI with context for best results.
  • Learn as You Go: Asking for suggestions rather than direct edits forces you to engage with your writing more thoughtfully, improving your skills over time.
  • Iterate, Experiment, Evolve: Keep trying! Adapt your prompts and experiment with different AI tools to find what works best for you.

Finally, even with these powerful tools, they cannot replace the value of an experienced human editor. The tools and systems are a powerful addition to the toolbox, but aren't a single solution to all problems.

(Up next: As I experimented with proofreading prose, I decided it was time to try out Copilot and some programming AI tools to see how those fared...)