About QW: The Problem Finder… neither friend nor enemy

With version 2.4 now out the door I can turn my attention to certain aspects of QW that I think people should know more about.  First up, the Problem Finder.

What is it?

The Problem Finder is a tool tucked away in the tools menu of a chapter (you can also use Ctrl+Shift+P to access it while editing a chapter). It looks for problems in your text, such as overlong sentences, the use of certain words or phrases or readability of paragraphs.  When it finds a problem it highlights the text at fault and gives you a description of what it found.

It is not designed to be used frequently.  It is akin to a vacuum cleaner, you probably need to use it (hey I’m a man!) but not that often.

So what isn’t it?

In short, the Problem Finder isn’t your friend but it isn’t your enemy either. Think of it as guard railings for your writing or warning lights that flash when you are going off course.  If a sentence or paragraph breaks one rule, two or even three that’s probably ok, we are talking about creative writing with the emphasis on “creative”, your text can and will do anything you damn well want it to.  However, if a sentence breaks five rules then it probably needs to be examined and potentially tweeked or reworked. But that choice is yours, you can choose to ignore all the problems it finds, you don’t have to take notice, but you probably should.

The Problem Finder is an impartial advisor that does not know your text nor cares about it, it blindly follows the rules it is given. As such it does not serve the same purpose as a human editor, it can’t tell you whether a sentence makes sense or works. Again it is the warning lights in the cockpit not the co-pilot.  As such it should be heeded but not followed.

How does it work?

The Problem Finder works by applying a number of pre-defined rules to your text. The rules can range from “does a sentence contain this word” to “how complex is this paragraph”. Each word, sentence and paragraph is examined and the appropriate rule or rules applied, any rules that are broken (matched) will be displayed and the offending text highlighted in the chapter.

Some examples are shown below:

A very long sentence, but is there anything wrong with that?
A very long sentence, but is there anything wrong with that?
A complex sentence with the passive voice!  But I'm hard pressed to see anything "wrong".
A complex sentence with the passive voice, oh my! But I’m hard pressed to see anything “wrong”.
A long, complex sentence, but it's in dialogue so is this a bad thing or a trait of the person speaking?
A long, complex sentence, but it’s in dialogue so is this a bad thing or a trait of the person speaking?

All of these examples are taken from “The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes” but I’m struggling to see anything that needs changing.  Herein lies the strength, and weakness, of the Problem Finder.  It works on a basic principle that I follow and is embedded into all aspects of QW, “A reader can tell you where you are going wrong, they can’t tell you how to put it right.”

Types of problems

There are 3 categories of problems that QW looks for:

  1. Words/phrases
  2. Sentence Structure
  3. Paragraph Structure

See the little cog icon in the images above?  Click on that to view the Problem Finder rule editor.  It looks like this:



This type of rule means “look for a specific word or set of words at a particular point in a sentence.”

It can also take dialogue into account and ignore matches or look for them as needed.  For example, it’s generally not a good idea to often use “that” in your writing since it can make the reader stumble but in dialogue it’s probably ok.

You can look for words/phrases at the start, the end or anywhere within a sentence and add as many rules as you want or need.

Sentence Structure

There are 5 different sentence structure rules:

  1. Look for passive sentences (use of the passive voice).
  2. Use of an adverb as a modifier for a speech verb, he said excitedly.
  3. Sentence that are over X words in length, where you can decide what number X is.
  4. Sentences with more than X clauses, because, reading a sentence, with too many commas, or semi-colons; can be difficult.
  5. Sentence complexity where the ratio of sentence length to number of words can be defined.  This is a crude measure but has its uses.

Unfortunately you can’t add your own sentence structure rules since they need complex processing to make them work and as much as I’d like to hand you a bag of spanners and say “Enjoy”, writing “toolkit software” is often a nightmare without end.  If you have an idea for a sentence structure rule, please let me know.

Paragraph Structure

Only 2 rules here:

  1. Readability, for paragraphs 100 or more words in length check the readability against some threshold values, where you decide the thresholds.
  2. Paragraph length, where you can set the maximum number of words and/or sentences each paragraph should have.

Once again, if you have an idea for a paragraph structure rule, please let me know.

Ignoring problems/removing rules

Each problem the finder discovers can be ignored, next to each issue there is a checkbox, press that and the problem is ignored so you won’t be bugged by it next time.  If you change your mind just click the “un-ignore” link that will be displayed.

But if you aren’t finding a rule useful, for example you like long paragraphs or complex sentences then you can remove the rule from either the current project or all projects.  Either right click on the problem and select “Ignore this type of problem” or edit the rule and click on the delete button.

Sentence and paragraph structure rules can be quickly added back in if you change your mind.

When should you use the Problem Finder?

Good question, I’m glad you asked.  I’d recommend using the Problem Finder when you are happy for someone else to read the chapter, somewhere between first/second draft and beta reading (depending upon how confident you are about its quality).  The Problem Finder is there to help you smooth out the bumps, not force major changes on your text, as such you need to be confident (as much as we ever are) that someone could read and understand the text.  Just like vaccuuming the carpet, do it too often and you just make a lot of noise and fuss with little benefit, do it too little and you get bits on your feet or worse.

Overall, whatever the Problem Finder tells you don’t take its findings too seriously, it’s a tool that blindly follows the rules, it doesn’t understand what you are trying to achieve and it doesn’t care.  Don’t be afraid to ignore problems you don’t agree with and remove the rules you don’t like.  The Problem Finder is there to help not tell you what to do.

3 thoughts on “About QW: The Problem Finder… neither friend nor enemy

  1. jljovano

    Hello ! Very nice feature… when you can use it 🙂 Is is disabled when not in english, I just changed language to test it. Why not allow it to work (even badly) in other idoms ? It would still give usefull hints…
    (a sentence with 32 words is too long, whatever the language is :p)

    1. Thanks for the feedback. The problem with the problem finder is that I’m English and I only have any real knowledge of English. Since I have little to no understanding of other languages I took the safe route and switched off those functions rather than have something that could produce weird to nonsensical results. For instance I have no idea what constitutes a “clause” in polish or spanish, the readability indices are also geared towards English.

      That said, I would like the rules to work in other languages so if you can let me know what language you are using and which rules you think are applicable I can change things in a future version so that those rules would work.

      I would add that depending upon the rule I would also need a definition of what a “syllable” is.

  2. […] changes occurring in the text that you didn’t intend) it would be a tool that works like the Problem Finder.  It would be designed to be run at the end of editing and it would ensure that the correct number […]

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