WhiteSmoke 2011 is described on the vendor’s web site as “World-Leading English Writing Software.” It contains tools for spelling, grammar checking, punctuation, style, and structure. For reasons that aren’t quite clear, it also contains full-text translation capabilities and a multilingual dictionary. (It is, after all, “world-leading ENGLISH writing software” isn’t it?) I first learned about WhiteSmoke while compiling my Writing Resources list for MikeSalsbury.com. I was pleased to find that the GiveawayOfTheDay.com site recently offered it to visitors for free. I downloaded and installed it to see what this $99.95+ software package could do for my writing. While WhiteSmoke is a decent product overall, and delivers on most of the vendor’s promises, I do have some significant concerns about it.
Installation of WhiteSmoke 2011
WhiteSmoke 2011 is delivered as a typical Setup.exe style Windows installer. (There is no Macintosh version or Linux version, although they do have a web interface that is Mac compatible – and probably Linux compatible since it works with Firefox.) It is one of the simplest and quickest installations I’ve seen. I’d like to see more software vendors do this.
It prompts for the installation type, destination folder, and acceptance of the license agreement all on one screen.
Click “Accept” and the software is installed a few seconds later.
After installation, the software prompts for your email address, to ensure that you have a valid license.
It’s then up and running.
WhiteSmoke’s “Writer” Tab
On its initial launch, WhiteSmoke displays the Writer tab, containing a writing sample with various style, punctuation, and grammar errors. This sample is shown along with WhiteSmoke’s suggested corrections:
To the right of the editor, WhiteSmoke rates the overall writing quality on a scale of “Poor” to “Excellent.” It then rates the sentence length, sentence structure, redundancy, voice, informal expressions, and word choice in the piece. Below that, it provides a sentence count, word count, and character count.
As you can see in the sample, WhiteSmoke has highlighted three spelling errors, six grammar errors, and no style errors in this particular piece. Each error is color-coded to help the writer quickly identify the obvious mistakes (suggestions written in red) from the suggestions (those written in green).
Anxious to see what WhiteSmoke could do, I fed it a couple of paragraphs from my article on writing software reviews:
Perhaps I’m not the target market for this software. It rated my writing “almost excellent” and only suggested three changes. The only thing it didn’t like was my sentence length. Looking at WhiteSmoke’s suggestions, I have to agree that they all improve the paragraph. Changing the paragraph as they suggest and asking them to check it the new version, I see that they still dislike my sentence length. This prompts me to adjust my sample again, to shorten the sentences:
I can’t argue with WhiteSmoke. This revision is much better than my original draft. Is it “excellent” writing now? I don’t know. It’s definitely better.
I decided to give WhiteSmoke something different to work with. I copied a fictional scene I’d written into the software, a few paragraphs at a time. I then hit the “Check” button to see what WhiteSmoke thought of my work. I was immediately greeted with:
So, I’m limited to 300 characters, or approximately 600 words. That seems rather short for a product that bills itself as useful by creative writers. A typical chapter from a novel is 2500 words. Pasting 600 words into the software at a time is likely to get tedious over an entire 50,000 word novel. Still, I deleted the text from the Writer tab and pasted about half as much back in. This generated a different error:
The error also contains a misspelling (“ammount” instead of “amount). I cut my text in half and re-pasted it. This time WhiteSmoke accepted it. I clicked “Check” and a few seconds later it had suggestions for me:
This was an interesting result. While I do agree that the comma after “each other” is a good idea, I am appalled at the phrase I wrote after that “they saw they were all thinking the same thing”. I suppose it is probably grammatically correct, but it’s a terrible choice of words. More interesting is the suggestion below that. In the line of dialogue where Jesse says “Me, honey” to the waitress, the software suggests that I change “Me” to “MeI” (which isn’t a word). Curious to see if that was just a glitchy graphic, I clicked on the “MeI” correction to see what WhiteSmoke really meant. Below is its auto-correction:
I guess it’s fortunate that WhiteSmoke doesn’t auto-correct all of your text, or errors like this would creep into it occasionally. This is a very surprising mistake for “World-Leading English Writing Software” to make.
Here is another interesting result from later in the sample:
WhiteSmoke believes that “Frank glared.” is an incomplete sentence. Perhaps WhiteSmoke is upset because I didn’t explain what Frank was glaring at? I try a revision:
I will admit that I am not a grammar expert, but I’m pretty confident that’s a complete sentence. We have a subject (Frank), a very (glared), and a direct object (him).
In the Writing Review section, there is a “Show my activity report” button. I clicked this to see what WhiteSmoke would tell me. It displayed the following report:
The “Error summary” section is interesting. It’s a much better summary of what’s wrong with the piece than the Writing Review box. Perhaps more interesting is the heading of that window, which indicates that WhiteSmoke had to go out to the Internet to get this report (the “http:” is a dead giveaway). Does that mean WhiteSmoke can’t function without an Internet connection? I wondered. I disconnected my network cable and hit the activity report button again:
As I suspected, WhiteSmoke was unable to provide an activity report. That made me wonder if it could provide ANY results without a network connection. I asked it to re-check my sample passage. The software appeared to be “thinking about” my text for a few seconds, then re-displayed it with no corrections and without updating the Writing Review box. It also didn’t generate any errors. The WhiteSmoke FAQ explains:
While I can appreciate that the WhiteSmoke people are improving their product behind the scenes, and that they don’t want me to have to download a massive database, this does limit the utility of the software. There are many times I want to sit down and write that an Internet connection isn’t available. Having no access to the software at those times would be a problem. This also raises another question. Presumably, in order to analyze the text I’ve provided it, WhiteSmoke must transmit that text to their web server. Is this transmission done through an encrypted connection? If not, while I’m sitting in a coffee shop working on a confidential business proposal (using WhiteSmoke to get things “just right”), my words are being shot across the airwaves (and the Internet) in plain, easily-readable text! That’s not cool. (WhiteSmoke does suggest that this product is intended for CEOs and novelists, so that’s certainly a possible scenario.)
A WhiteSmoke Security Concern
To confirm my suspicion, I installed WireShark on my test system. (WireShark is a program that captures the Internet traffic in and out of your PC. It shows you exactly what went out, and what came in.) Sure enough, I easily found the text in my sample:
I’ll admit that I could be overreacting here. For a school paper, encryption probably isn’t a big deal. For typical work emails (which often flow over the Internet unencrypted anyway), it’s fine. For short stories or fan fiction you might be writing for web publication, who cares if the text is flowing across the Internet unencrypted? WhiteSmoke has marketed this software (in the recent past) to businesspeople and novelists. I would imagine that a CEO who is using WhiteSmoke to clean up the text in a confidential proposal might be concerned to know that her competitors could be capturing the details of that proposal off the wire or out of the air. My advice would be avoid using WhiteSmoke to check any sensitive documents, trade secret paperwork, etc., that you might be working with.
WhiteSmoke Translation Tab
While it’s not something I would expect from an English-language writing tool, WhiteSmoke includes the ability to translate English text into other languages. Specifically, it appears to support translation to and from Arabic, Chinese, French, German, Italian, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish. Having lived in Brazil long enough to learn Portuguese, I decided to test the software’s translation capability on a paragraph from my essay-writing article. Here’s how it came back:
If you don’t speak Portuguese, you’ll have to take my word for it that this is actually a decent translation. I don’t understand why the software doesn’t properly capitalize the sentences in the example. That seems like a bug, albeit a minor one.
Something I consider a bigger issue, though, is that you can’t select the translated text and copy it. The software doesn’t allow it. You don’t get an error or warning. You just can’t select it.
If you click the “Human Translation” button, a web browser window opens, and you’re taken to the OneHourTranslation web site. OneHourTranslation will have a human being who speaks Portuguese look at your sample and provide any necessary corrections – at a price:
If my sample text was important enough, I could have it reviewed and corrected for $5.38. In a business context, this would be a very valuable feature.
WhiteSmoke Dictionary Tab
WhiteSmoke’s Dictionary tab allows you to translate single words to another language, or investigate the meaning of a particular word. It displays results from the Wordnet English Dictionary, Wordnet English Thesaurus, and Wikipedia.
All things considered, it’s a nice feature. However, there are plenty of online dictionaries (like those used by WhiteSmoke), and you don’t necessarily need WhiteSmoke for this feature.
The Dictionary translation feature produces results like this:
For those who speak other languages, or are trying to understand something written with foreign words and phrases, this is useful. (But there are similar translation facilities online from Google and others, so it’s not necessary to buy this software to get that capability.)
WhiteSmoke Templates Tab
WhiteSmoke offers a number of pre-written templates on its Templates tab:
Here is their sample for “Personal Matters” entitled “Upset Regarding Loss of Job”:
Some of the templates are not, in my opinion, very well written. Consider the “Letter of Condolence” from the software:
In particular, the phrase “Although I’ve never had the chance of meeting” sticks out to me. It would sound better to say “Although I never had an opportunity to meet” to me. For amusement’s sake, I copied this letter and fed it to the Writer tab (after a minor edit to replace the placeholder text) to see what it had to say:
One would think that WhiteSmoke’s templates would come through “squeaky clean” when checked by their writing tool. Instead, the template is given a “fair” rating and cited for less-than-optimal word choice. WhiteSmoke suggests adding commas after “stories” and “time.” The first recommendation is simply wrong. Adding a comma at that point would break the sentence in a strange place. Changing the word “Know” to “Now” would be incorrect as well. The comma after “time” is probably an improvement, but a better improvement would have been to break the compound sentence into two.
The WhiteSmoke settings allow you to customize some of the software’s settings. The general tab allows you to enable or disable WhiteSmoke’s “Writer Everywhere floating button” and its email checking feature.
The Shortcut Keys tab allows you to specify shortcuts to be used to activate the software:
The Info tab provides the software version and your unique User ID in their system.
The Connection tab allows you to specify an Internet proxy server and port:
The Content tab identifies the “writing styles” that WhiteSmoke has authorized you to use.
Although it appears to have changed, they used to offer different pricing for Creative Writing and Business styles.
The WhiteSmoke “Writer Everywhere” Feature
WhiteSmoke’s settings reference the “Writer Everywhere floating button”. While it’s possible I somehow missed this feature, I didn’t see anything that looked like a floating button on my screen at any time during the review process.
I did, however, find that it’s possible to invoke WhiteSmoke Writer from other applications. For example, I typed a sentence into Windows WordPad and hit F2. WhiteSmoke grabbed the text from WordPad, pasted it into the Writer tab, and performed an immediate check. However, if the document I was working on exceeded their 3,000-character limit, WhiteSmoke displayed its error message:
After selecting a couple of paragraphs from the document and hitting F2, WhiteSmoke could perform its checks and display the result.
I had mixed results with this feature. It seemed to handle most applications properly. For example, I opened a web page in Internet Explorer and typed a sample sentence into a text box:
After pressing F2 to bring up WhiteSmoke, I found that it could not capture the text from the box
The WhiteSmoke window appears on top of the browser window and cannot be moved to the back. Further, you can’t make a second grammar-checking attempt until you close the WhiteSmoke window.
WhiteSmoke CAN be used with web browsers. You just have to select the text you want to check first, then hit F2 to pick it up.
When you click “Apply”, WhiteSmoke will replace the selected text in the browser with your newly-edited text (assuming what you selected is editable).
WhiteSmoke and Dual Monitors
My main computer at home has two monitors attached to it. I’ve noticed that although dual-monitor setups are becoming increasingly common, and have been for many years, some software products don’t cope well with them. You see things like drop-down menus appearing on the wrong monitor, graphics showing up on the opposite display, and things of that nature. WhiteSmoke has the same issue. When I launch it on my dual-monitor PC, one monitor displays the usual WhiteSmoke interface. The other displays this:
This would appear to be a part of the WhiteSmoke Dictionary tab. You can interact with the drop-down menus, but it doesn’t actually do translations.
I contacted WhiteSmoke support about this issue. They confirmed that there is a problem in dual-monitor setups and told me “the solution is not to use WhiteSmoke with dual monitors.” They didn’t suggest that they were working on a fix. They just told me not to use it on a dual-monitor setup. Not exactly great customer service. Had I paid the $99 annual fee for the software, or the $299 “permanent” license fee, I would have been extremely upset with this response. Since I got the software for nothing, it bothers me only slightly.
Overall, WhiteSmoke is a decent writing tool. In my experience with it, the suggestions it makes often help me improve the readability of my writing. WhiteSmoke works with a variety of Windows applications, offers some interesting features like language translation, and seems to perform quickly. However, I do have a number of issues with it that bear repeating:
- In at least one case, it suggested a misspelling. That is unacceptable in a writing tool.
- In many cases, it suggested adding commas in places that would have made the sentence read poorly or were simply incorrect.
- It sometimes suggests wording changes which are either grammatically incorrect or “sound funny” to the reader.
- It doesn’t handle dual-monitor setups well.
- WhiteSmoke support responded quickly to my problem report, but the response seemed to indicate that they had no intention of correcting the problem.
- The 3000-character text limit makes it a nuisance to check longer passages like reports, white papers, book chapters, or documentation.
Because I received WhiteSmoke 2011 free of charge, I’m willing to overlook the issues above and continue using it until I find something better (or until it stops working). However, had I paid their $99.95 annual fee or the $299.95 one-time payment, I would be really disappointed with the product. Given what you’ve read here, you’ll have to make your own judgment about WhiteSmoke.