With NaNoWriMo 2021 behind us, it’s time to talk about editing programs again. Several writers in our region have asked me if I use one in my own work.
I do use Grammarly—but also, I don’t.
I rely on my knowledge of grammar and what I intend to convey more than I do an editing program. While they are good at alerting you to some errors, these helpful programs are not as useful as we wish they were.
No software can replace knowledge of grammar. An author must have confidence in what they intend to convey and how they wish to say it.
For this reason, editing software may not be a good tool for every author.
A person with no knowledge of grammar will not benefit from relying on an editing program for advice. There is no way to bypass learning the craft of writing.
You may have found that your word processing program has spellcheck and some minor editing assists. Spellcheck is notorious for both helping and hindering you.
Spellcheck doesn’t understand context, so if a word is misused but spelled correctly, it may not alert you to an obvious error.
- There, their, they’re.
- To, too, two.
- Its, it’s
Grammarly is an editing program I use for checking my own work, in tandem with Pro Writing Aid. I pay a monthly fee for the professional versions of these two programs. Each one has strengths and weaknesses.
For me, especially in my first draft, some words are like tics—they fall out of my fingers and into my keyboard randomly and out of my voluntary control. I don’t self-edit as I go because, at that point, I’m just trying to get the story down. The second and third drafts are where I shape my grammar and phrasing.
I want to write active prose, so I don’t want to use words with no power behind them.
Often removing an adjective or adverb strengthens the prose. Descriptors are easy to find because these words frequently end with the letters ‘ly.’
You could do a global search for the letters ‘ly,’ and a list will pop up in the left margin of your manuscript.
However, the most ludicrous advice I’ve ever heard at a critique group came from an author who was about to publish his first book. He had a great deal of enthusiasm for the craft but was armed with too little knowledge: he told a new writer to remove all adverbs from her narrative.
Unfortunately, he forgot that words like “later,” or “everywhere,” or “never” or “alone” are also adverbs.
That sort of wrong-headed advice survives because it is based on a writing truth: unnecessary adverbs and adjectives inflate the word count but add no value. Worse, they sometimes fail to tell us something that we need to know.
In other words, use adverbs and adjectives when they are necessary and cut them when they aren’t.
In my own work, I seek out adverbs, descriptors, qualifiers, and “weed words.” I look at how they are placed in the context of the sentence and decide if they will stay or go. Many will go, but some must stay.
The BIG problem for those who don’t understand the basics of grammar is this: editing programs cannot see the context of the work they are analyzing.
In one of my older manuscripts, this sentence triggered the algorithm:
“The tea was cool and sweet, quenching her thirst.”
Grammarly suggested replacing quenching with quenched and then suggested a comma at the end instead of a period.
Pro Writing Aid made the same suggestion but didn’t tell me to add a comma.
These programs operate on algorithms defined by finite rules. They will often strongly suggest you insert an unneeded article or change a word to one that is clearly not the right one for that situation. That is where your eye and understanding of context and grammar must prevail.
New writers should invest in the Chicago Guide to Grammar, Usage, and Punctuation and learn how grammar works. For people new to the craft and who don’t understand grammar or how to construct a sentence or a paragraph, or how to write dialogue, editing programs will confuse and mislead them.
To get the best out of editing software, you must know the basics of how to write.
At this stage in our technology, understanding context is solely a human function. Context is defined as the parts of a written or spoken statement that precede or follow a specific word or passage, usually influencing its meaning or effect.
A person with no knowledge of grammar will not benefit from relying on Grammarly or any other editing program for advice. There is no way to bypass learning the craft of writing.
Because context is so important, I am wary of relying on these editing programs for anything other than alerting you to possible comma and spelling malfunctions.
You might disagree with the program’s suggestions. You, the author, have control and can disregard suggested changes if, as illustrated above, they make no sense. I regularly reject weird suggestions.
However, when the editing program highlights something, I examine the problem sentence. Just knowing that the way I phrased a sentence tripped the program’s algorithms encourages me to look at that passage with a critical eye.
I may not use the program’s suggestion, but something triggered the algorithm. That means my phrasing might need work. I may need to find a better way to get my idea across.
Even editors must have their work seen by other eyes. My blog posts are proof of this as I am the only one who sees them before they are posted. Even though I write them in advance, go over them with two editing programs, and then look at them again before each post goes live, I still find silly errors two or three days later.
Certain words and phrases don’t add to the narrative and only increase the wordiness. Used too freely, they separate the reader from the experience.
In my first draft, these words are like tics. They fall out of my fingers and into my keyboard randomly and out of my voluntary control. I never self-edit as I write the first draft because I am just trying to get the story down. The second and third drafts are where you deal with grammar and phrasing.
When I begin revisions, I will seek out adverbs, descriptors, qualifiers, and other “weed words,” look at how they are placed in the context of the sentence, and decide if they will stay or go
You can’t take shortcuts. If you are too impatient and choose to “Replace All” without carefully thinking things through, you run the risk of making a gigantic mess of your work. Some weed words are parts of other words, for example:
- has—hasten, chasten
If you have decided something is a “crutch word,” examine the context. Inadvertent repetitions of certain words are easy to eliminate once we see them with a fresh eye.
Context is everything.
I can’t stress this enough: take the time to look at each example of the offending words individually.
It’s unfortunate, but there is no speedy way to do this. You will be rewarded, though, when your book is finished to the best of your ability.