Bullsh Uh, make that, “No.” For proof, look no further than the “auto-correct” option on your (alleged) smartphone, a function that’s generated more embarrassment than all the unintended pregnancies on record.
I’ll admit, technology can improve our work. Word processors alone easily prove that, but we’re crazy if we expect some sort of techno-wizardry to do more than help us get our stuff to the “okay” level. The brutal truth is, no matter how snazzy the software looks or how lofty the claims are, we still have to do the heavy lifting. That’s we, meaning you and me.
But the technology sellers are still peddlin’ this stuff, and writers are still buyin’ it, so it only seems right that someone discusses it.
Four programs for making writer’s lives easier and more error-free dominate the market. The first is Microsoft Word which has been around, it seems, since… well, since forever. In fact, the first version of Word actually came out in 1983, which in terms of personal computing *is* forever. Nobody actually cares how many versions (sub-versions, revisions, and re-revisions) of this venerable program exist, but the number has to be stratospheric. Most of the really useful stuff in Word has been in the product since the mid-1990s, although that hasn’t kept the software giant from constantly tinkering with it, adding so many bells and whistles that its primary function — word processing, remember? — is almost hidden. That said, the good stuff is still in there, and two of Word’s earliest enhancements can actually help you write better: spell checking and grammar checking.
Stop yawning! I’ll admit, neither function is flashy, but both are reliable within certain limits, which isn’t surprising when you consider they’ve been tested by a zillion users for a couple decades. That wasn’t a tyop; I really did say decades. I rely on Word’s spell checker, because I’m a lousy speller. (And my handwriting isn’t going to win any awards either.) As for the grammar checker, I’m not a huge fan. That’s not because Word’s grammar checker does a bad job; it does what it can, but I can do it better. Still, I don’t turn it off, because there’s always the chance I’ll miss something. What could it hurt?
I’m more likely to break a rule of grammar intentionally than accidentally. Since none of the grammar checkers on the market are good enough to know which is which, I rely on my own judgment. You should, too, even if your grammar skills are a bit on the sketchy side. So, review the flags Word (or the other programs I’ll mention) raise. If the issue merits a change, make it. If not, ignore it. But don’t assume you’re done. You still need someone with a critical eye to examine your work, especially if your eye isn’t critical enough. Just because something is grammatically correct doesn’t mean it’s worth reading. Ever slogged through a really boring book? I have. Too many, in fact, and I absolutely refuse to write one. You should, too.
In addition to Word, there are several other programs available to check your work for spelling and grammar gaffes. The biggies are Ginger, Grammarly, and After The Deadline (all of which offer free versions). They all work pretty well, considering the price, and among the free ones, they’re getting the most attention. They’re all clean and spiffy and promise to deliver what you want. Alas, if you write fiction, that’s not gonna happen.
They’ll spot clearly misspelled words, and claim to pick up on contextual spelling errors — like improper usage of they’re, there, and their. God help you if you type hots instead of host, or plumb instead of plump. (Just for fun, see what funky paragraphs you can come up with using those four mis-wordings, or whatever they’re called. A free copy of Write Naked! to whoever <whomever?> supplies the best one.)
I’m disappointed that these programs don’t learn from their users. Seriously, whatever happened to “artificial intelligence?” If I’m writing a novel (which quite honestly, I’d rather be doing right now), and I run it through a program whose writing rules were meant for scientific papers or software documentation, the results will be ugly. Not only will they be massively discouraging, but they’ll also mostly be wrong. Shouldn’t the program be able to figure out I need a different set of rules? I see it as an unnecessary burden on creativity.
If I feel the need to dangle a modifier, I’ll dangle one. I don’t need the blessing of some knuckle-rapping robot. The same goes for run-on sentences, which can often be quite effective. The occasional incomplete sentence works the same way, as do split infinitives, passive voice, contractions and colloquialisms. It’s art, folks, not engineering. If the goal was to make every writer produce the same stuff, there would be no need for more than one writer.
PS: With any luck I’ll post my thoughts on ProWritingAid, a tool like those discussed above, but one which comes with a helfty price tag. Is it better? Is it worth it? Tune in next week and find out.