A new app for your writing

Juan Castro wrote to me earlier this year to show me his new, free application ‘writefull’ designed for people who are doing their thesis in English when it is not their first language. I’ll admit, as a native English speaker and confident writer I’d never thought to use the Google technique he described, but it makes perfect sense as a way to check sentences are well formed. I was so impressed with the idea and the work I asked him to write a post to tell us all about it.

 Juan is a research associate in Computer Science at the University of Nottingham, UK. He has a strong interest in psychology, and in particular in natural language processing and acquisition. His work focuses on artificial intelligence and on the development of language tools.

Screen Shot 2014-03-03 at 4.38.54 pmOne of the hardest things of the PhD is to get the thesis written up. I submitted mine a few months ago and can honestly say that the writing up was not as easy as I thought.

For me, the hardest part was knowing if I was saying things the right way. At times I realised there was something odd about my sentences, but I couldn’t figure out what it was. Other times I had a sentence in mind, but I just kept looking for that one word that would fit in nicely. It was these sentence-level issues that made the thesis-writing process slow and painful.

How did I deal with this? Like many of us do: by using Google as an accuracy check. That is, by endless visiting and re-visiting the Google webpage to enter chunks from my text, and checking how often these were found on the Internet. The more results Google gave me, the more ‘accepted’ the chunk apparently was, and the more confident I would feel to use it. And it’s not just me doing this – as soon as I started admitting this (slightly embarrassing) habit to my friends, I realised that most of them did the same.

And we aren’t crazy for doing it. The areas of language learning and teaching make great use of this frequency-technique to develop classroom materials. (The technique itself is called ‘corpus linguistics’).

But using Google for this purpose does have a few annoyances. The biggest one is that you constantly have to leave your text to check the frequency of chunks. Another is that you can’t really trust Google’s feedback. Something sloppy like ‘gotta’ might give you a lot of results but is really not something you should be using in your thesis.

So I decided to develop an app to make this frequency-approach more accessible and more accurate. I wanted something non-interfering; an app that would allow you (the writer) to get the frequency results without having to leave your document. I figured a popover would be best for this: You could select a chunk from your text, activate the popover, and get the feedback you needed (for example the frequency of that chunk on the Internet).

A tricky question was what type of feedback I could offer. I figured the first option would be the number of results, which would give you the same information as a Google search. The second option I decided to add was a ‘compare option’, where you could directly compare the number of results of two chunks (so this is basically doing two Google searches in one go). Besides these two, I added a few options tailored for writing. One was a display of examples of your chunk in different contexts, to give you an idea of how it could be used.

Another option was meant to help you in finding the right word for a context: by putting a star (*) in your selected chunk, you’ll get a list of the most frequently used words in that particular spot. For example, if you select ‘research should * this issue’ your list will show ‘research should address this issue’, ‘research should explore this issue’, ‘research should examine this issue’, etc. A last option I added provides synonyms: by putting a star before and after a word in the chunk you select, you’ll get a list of the most frequently used synonyms of that word in that context. For example: ‘a *difficult* situation’ will give you ‘an awkward situation’, ‘a serious situation’, ‘an embarrassing situation’, etc.

I decided to use the Google Books database to get the data. This is a massive database which includes more than 5 million published books. The best part of this is that you can trust that the language is accurate, and appropriate for academic writing. The downside of Google Books is that it only includes English books. This is why I created another edition of the app which uses data from the Internet, covering a lot of different languages.

And this is how I wrote my thesis. With a cute little popover that gives a surprising amount of information.

What’s next? I really believe in this app’s usefulness and I wouldn’t want it to be forgotten. I’m sure it can help a lot of other students with writing their theses (or their publications, grant proposals, reports, you name it). So I’ve created a website to make it freely downloadable for others (editor’s note: a $5 has been now been put on this app**). I’d love for you to check it out and give it a try: www.writefullapp.com.

Any comments are welcome – if not about the app itself, perhaps about the frequency-approach it’s based on. After all, I can be a huge fan of my own app, but that doesn’t mean it works for everybody. (Plus I do realise I might be slightly biased.) I’d love to hear what you all think!

** When asked for clarification on the charges and the need to create an account, Juan supplied the following explanation: “Writefull doesn’t only provide results from the Google Books database, but also from the web. These web queries are not free – we, as Writefull, pay for them, and the user pays us back. If users wish to use these web queries, they need to put credit on their accounts – so the accounts are needed for us to track who is using how many queries.”

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55 thoughts on “A new app for your writing

    • Hi,

      I wrote this blog quite a while ago, and at the time of writing the app was still free. But due to the large number of users we couldn’t maintain the server expenses any longer, so we had to set a price of $5.

      Apologies for any confusion!

      – Juan

  1. FYI: The writefull app link does not work (or did not work for me) and there is a cost, not free as you stated.

  2. I do the Google thing all the time! Sounds like a great idea and from your webpage it looks like the interface is clean and quite intuitive.

    But I’d like to first give it a go and see if it’s better than my Google method, as well as see how it integrates into my writing workflow, before I pay $5 for it. Perhaps you could work a trial period of two weeks or even a month into the download. In fact, I’d pay more if I found it really useful and started to use it regularly. But I wouldn’t know because parting with $5 for something I’ve never tried isn’t something I would do, as low as the price may seem. Something to think about 🙂

    • Thanks for your feedback! We’re sorry to say that, at least in the short term, we won’t be adding a free trial period, as our server is just too loaded!

      – Juan

      • Ah it just occurred to me that the software accesses your server each time it’s used, therefore server load would be a concern with a free app (the assumption being more people would use it). I originally thought you meant server load from people merely downloading it which should be less taxing since it’s a small app. Fair enough.

        Might I then suggest you include videos and tutorials on how the app looks and is used. You’ve got a couple of screenshots up on your website but more detail would be appreciated! Especially with regards to workflow. I’d be more willing to part with $5 if I knew more about the product.

        It sounds like the app’s a hobby for now so maybe the path of least resistance to keep everything manageable is charging a blanket $5 to cover server costs. But I see real potential in scaling it up into a business in future so it might be in your longer term interest to make it easier for more to give it a go.

        Regardless, looks it looks fab, thanks for the effort. Maybe I’ll give up lunch today and put down a fiver for it! 🙂

      • I installed this app in my computer running on windows 7 with word 2013 last November based on review on this blog but looks like I wasted my 5 bucks in precious time of my thesis writing. I could have spent on nice late!!

  3. An brilliant idea and excellent app. This is what I have been waiting for. I am writing up my thesis as an international student. English is my third lauguage and I cannot agree more about the ‘sentence level’ struggle in my head. Thanks so much for your sharing. $5 is a resonable price for anybody, only half price of a lunch at Uni.

  4. As someone who has just spent nine hours marking student assignments, I can say that something like this is desperately needed.

    Yet, it seems like a quick (and perhaps rather hit and miss) solution to a bigger problem: students lack basic writing skills.

    Language/communication skills should be compulsory throughout a degree as they are the foundation of academic success.

    Sorry for the rant, but after nine hours my soul is destroyed 😦

    • Thanks for your positive feedback! We do hope that, in the long run, using Writefull does help people in their writing. They can get help with whatever it is they find most difficult, and hopefully they will also learn form this!

  5. Thanks so much. I think $5 is very reasonable. My husband is a developer in Nottingham as well. $5 for the work such a piece of software entails is a bargain.

  6. I’m in agreement with other commenters about two things:
    1) $5 seems like a very reasonable price. However,
    2) I would like to have the opportunity to try the tool for free before committing to paying any amount.

    Even the opportunity to try the tool for a few days or weeks before paying would make the decision to part with any of my limited funds that much more obvious.

  7. It is also unclear from the website what the term of service is for the $5. Is that $5/unlimited? $5/year? per month?

  8. It is a great idea and I would definitely give it a go.
    However, I agree that a trial period would be nice.
    I would be happy to pay if I knew that it fits into my way of writing.

    • Hi Joanne,
      the Google Books version doesn’t (as it only includes the English Books database), but the Web version of Writefull does. When using Writefull, you can select whether you want it to use Google Books or the Web. Please note that the Web queries are paid – see the Plans section on the website for more info.

  9. I have to say i am slightly disappointed. I took a leap of faith and downloaded the app, without having the option of trying it first. I used it on my thesis intro, which is heavily populated with linked references (Endnote) and, unless i am doing something wrong, the app cannot deal with text containing linked references. If this is the case, this is a fundamental flaw in this app, assuming that most theses would include such links. Of course, one could select around it, but that seemingly defeats the purpose of this app. In the event that i using the app the wrong way, assistance would be appreciated.

    • Hi Dan,
      sorry to hear that! I wasn’t expecting people to be selecting and checking texts across references, as references are normally not within clauses/structures. We might change this in the future.

      • might just be more prevalent in my field (neuroscience), but i would assume that the majority of theses (or manuscripts prepared for a peer-review process) would include a hefty number of references, scattered throughout the text. in that sense, the “ease” by which this app can be employed is non-existent, making the use of it rather time-consuming, which is too bad, because it sounds like a good idea. Having said that, i think it is fair for you to either offer a trial version or at least warn potential buyers of these issues.

  10. Hi I bought the software, but this pop up: “Writefull” can’t be opened because it is from an unidentified developer. Would you please let me know what should I do?

  11. Hi I bought the software, but this pop up: “Writefull” can’t be opened because it is from an unidentified developer. Would you please let me know what should I do?

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  14. I bought the software and installed it in my PC and in my laptop.First attempt all good; second attempt, the app doesn’t run in my laptop after using it in my PC. When I open the app in my laptop appears just a white box with the writefull logo and nowhere to log in, so how do you resolve this?

  15. Argh, this would probably be way too complex for the developers, but I’m from the UK working in the US – it is surprisingly difficult. I’ve been here for a couple of years and have worked out the majority of casual and technical US dialect (still something new every week though), but my labmates keep telling me that my phrasing doesn’t sound American. I can’t for the life of me even see where the ‘problems’ are; everything looks natural to me!

    • Hi Sooq, we’re afraid that Writefull does not work for 10.6 and previous versions of OSX. This is due to the limitations of the Operating System.

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