As an Italian translator living in the United States, I write in English all the time: emails to customers and colleagues, this blog, articles and presentations; now even Twitter.
I try to write as well as I can, but I'm well aware English is not my native language; to improve it I read and study books on writing and taking courses online or from the Teaching Company. If some software offers to help improve my writing, I am interested; I was happy, therefore, to agree when WhiteSmoke offered me a limited-time license if I would then write a review here on About Translation.
WhiteSmoke makes heady claims of helping to improve your writing, using a mixed bag of tools: style, spelling and grammar check; dictionary and thesaurus; "writing enrichment"; writing templates. It even offers bilingual dictionaries and automatic translation.
WhiteSmoke grammar check
To run the program, you have to be connected to the Internet. The program only checks up to 3000 characters at a time (about 600 words): enough for a medium-size blog post, but not nearly enough for longer articles. You can check longer documents in sections, but that is awkward as it involves either cutting and pasting into WhiteSmoke's window or splitting your document across several files.
The WhiteSmoke people boast their program is the best grammar checker available. To buttress this claim they sent me a document with a long list of errors that WhiteSmoke corrects while MS Word does not. I tested both programs against this list, and, indeed, WhiteSmoke performed remarkably better than Word.
I was not, however, content with relying only on such cherry-picked sentences, so I also tested both programs against the list of errors used by Daniel Kies in his "Evaluating Grammar Checkers: A Comparative Ten-Year Study". Using Kies' list as a test bed, WhiteSmoke's advantage over MS Word was far less clear. Both programs missed several types of errors, and the suggestions they offered were sometimes misleading or wrong. Paradoxically, the suggestions by any grammar checker make the most sense to the people who need them the least: someone with a shaky knowledge of English can easily be led astray and implement with disastrous results some inappropriate correction.
WhiteSmoke does not provide readability statistics, a feature offered even by MS Word that can help achieve a concise a more readable style. For a writing improvement program, this absence is puzzling.
While several of the WhiteSmoke tools are useful (for example, the dictionaries and the thesaurus), they are easily available elsewhere. Nevertheless, WhiteSmoke does offer a feature not available in other programs: their "language enrichment" suggestions. Unfortunately, these suggestions can lead to a cliché-ridden style as they merely propose adverbs and adjectives to sprinkle in one’s writing – the opposite of what most books on style and writing recommend (remember "Omit needless words" from Strunk and White? Well, WhiteSmoke's enrichment is all about adding extra words, instead).
WhiteSmoke “enrichment” tool
Apart from the first day, I was unable to test WhiteSmoke's automatic translation service (the server was down every time I tried). From what I saw on that first day, the translation from English into Italian was worse than Google's. Anyway, I don’t see the point of adding machine translation to a program aimed at improving English writing – especially when several free translation sites are available, if all you need is gisting.
The translation tab sports a link to request “human” translation – while this is commendable (at least it implies that MT is not the way to get good translations), it leads to a site that offers translations at abysmal rates ($ 0.07/word for English to Italian, and other language pairs even cheaper).
The bottom line: WhiteSmoke has some useful features, but most of them are available elsewhere (dictionary, thesaurus, spelling checker, automatic translation, even the writing templates). The enrichment feature is not easily available elsewhere, but, in my opinion, it is worthless.
The grammar checker is somewhat better than MS Word. If that is important for you, then you might consider paying for the annual license (starting from $ 69/year).
If you are thinking of installing this tool, please see my update post: “WhiteSmoke: writing tool or malware?”