Part of the Indie Authors Series
I recently decided to test out some editing software to help with a final polish of my latest writing guide, Captivate Your Readers. Since I’m a professional editor and former English teacher, I know my spelling and grammar inside out, so I was mainly looking for help with flagging lazy errors like overused or repetitive words, typos, and awkward or overly long sentences.
So far, I have checked out several editing programs, including PerfectIt, SmartEdit, and Grammarly. For today, I’ll just share my experiences with Grammarly’s editing software.
Grammarly offers specialized robo-editing for over 30 different document types, so you first choose among general, academic, business, technical, medical, creative, and casual, then from there, a subcategory. For example, under “creative” you can choose one of these: general creative, creative non-fiction, novel, short story, or script. For my book manuscript, I chose the “general” category, since my writing guide is nonfiction but not academic or technical.
Grammarly checks for problems in these areas: contextual spelling, grammar, punctuation, sentence structure, style, vocabulary enhancement, and plagiarism.The plagiarism feature is especially useful for students and academics who are handing in research papers and publishing articles in journals.
Here’s a quick takeaway, if you’re in a hurry today:
I really wish I could report that I’ve discovered a reliable, accurate, low-cost alternative to hiring a professional live editor. After using Grammarly’s editing software on my whole book, I did find it very useful for flagging overused or repeated words, convoluted sentences, and the odd typo. On the other hand, many of the recommendations were blatantly incorrect where suggested (examples below). So unfortunately, if you aren’t already quite proficient in English grammar and word usage and you just follow the suggestions without question, you could easily end up with tons of new errors where there weren’t any before. So go ahead and use it to flag possible weaknesses, but be prepared to override or ignore many of the alternate suggestions and look for your own improvements.
Where Grammarly worked well for me:
Wordiness: I found this feature helpful for flagging overly long sentences, even though Grammarly doesn’t offer any suggestions as to how to improve them. I carefully reread each sentence flagged for wordiness and looked for words to cut or ways to break it into two or three shorter sentences.
Overused words, repetitive word: Flagging these was also very helpful. Unfortunately, most of the time the alternate words suggested didn’t work in the context (some examples below), but at least it gave me a starting point so I could brainstorm for other words or check the thesaurus.
Spelling and typos: It caught a few typos, like “read nose” instead of “red nose.”
Where Grammarly needs improvement:
It repeatedly suggested adding a comma where it would be blatantly incorrect to use one, such as: “I like apples, and oranges.” (No comma with one subject and only two items named.) Then it suggested taking out almost all instances of the serial (Oxford) comma, which is favored by Chicago Manual of Style and most professional editors: “I like apples, oranges, and bananas.” (the one before “and”)
It’s correct to put a comma after Yes and No, as in, “Yes, please,” and “No, thanks,” but Grammarly wanted me to change “No answer,” to “No, answer.” Huh?
Also, it suggested a comma several times instead of a period at the end of a correctly formed, complete sentence!
Spelling, word usage, word choices
Unfortunately, their “contextual spelling” rarely takes into account the context of the sentence.
They flag as “commonly confused words” words, terms, and phrases that are used correctly. For example, incite vs insight. I had used “incite” correctly, as in “incite a riot.” It didn’t say it was wrong, just indicated it was a “commonly confused word.” But if it’s correct, why flag it? Ditto with there, they’re, and their (again, used correctly, as in “their car”), its vs it’s, and many others.Why not only flag them when they’re incorrectly used? As it is, the alert could cause writers less proficient in spelling to doubt themselves and replace their already correct usage with Grammarly’s alternate suggestion.
The “overused words” and “repeated words” are both great features, but be sure to just use them as general suggestions, rather than automatically opting for one of their suggested words. For example, as a replacement for strong in my advice to writers to “use strong verbs and nouns,” they suggest “healthy” and “high,” neither of which remotely fit the context. For “reader” they repeatedly suggest “user,” which I don’t really think fits as an alternate word to describe the reader of a novel.
For “vocabulary enhancement,” they don’t take into account the context of the sentences, so alternate word choices suggested are often highly inappropriate, even laughable. For example, for deep point of view, they suggest dark, thick, or broad, none of which work. For character (a person in fiction), they suggest trait or nature. For a scene in a story, they suggest using arena or stage for variety. For describe the setting, they suggest explain. For good in “Unless there’s a very good reason for it,” they suggest magnificent, splendid, superb, and exquisite, none of which fit the context!
They (the robo-editors) flagged every use of “own” as a problem or error, where often it was needed for clarity of meaning, as in “They needed to weigh the evidence, then draw their own conclusions” or “It’s important to trust our own feelings and form our own opinions.”
Conclusion: Even though the suggested words were rarely apt or useful, flagging them did indicate an overused or repetitive word, so I just used the thesaurus to find a better one. For example, I hadn’t noticed that I used “realistic” twice in one sentence! Then twice again in a paragraph on the next page! Oops!
They suggested many, many changes that would have made the phrase incorrect. For example, in my chapter on Showing vs Telling, they wanted me to change “avoid telling” to “avoid is telling,” and to change “telling includes explanations to the readers” to “includes explanations of the readers. For my advice, “Create a character with lots of personality,” they wanted me to write “Create a character with lots of personalities”!
Prepositions: For a “general” document, Grammarly flags all prepositions (of, to, by, at, with, etc.) at the ends of the sentences as errors. This might be fine for academic documents, but for general or casual usage, changing this can lead to a pretentious-sounding sentence. For example, they flagged this as an error: “Don’t include any details the character wouldn’t be aware of.” In perfect English, that should be “Don’t include details of which the character wouldn’t be aware,” but that sounds too formal for most of today’s general nonfiction writing, magazine articles, and blog posts.
Verb tenses and agreement
Here are a few of many examples where their advice on verb tenses would lead to an error: They wanted me to change “She’d missed his call” (past tense, she had already missed it) to “She’d miss his call.” Similarly, “He was cold. He wished he’d worn his jacket” to “He wished he’d wear his jacket.” Just doesn’t make sense!
Passive: Too much use of the passive voice can definitely weaken a piece, as in saying “The ball was kicked by the boy” instead of “The boy kicked the ball,” but Grammarly flags passive as an error even when it’s the only or best choice, such as “This list is based on...,” “The door was locked,” and “Most fiction is written in third-person, past tense.” None of those sentences would really work in active voice.
These are just a fraction of the many, many incorrect or inappropriate suggestions that Grammarly made in my 60,000-word book. Following their advice to the letter would have resulted in hundreds of new errors in this writing guide!
So my recommendation for using Grammarly’s editing software (or any others I’ve checked out so far) is: User beware! Don’t blindly accept mechanically created suggestions or expect editing programs to replace a knowledgeable, skilled, live copy editor or proofreader. Editing software is great for flagging issues you may not have thought of that need to be addressed, but unfortunately it doesn’t do all the work for you – and if you’re not careful, could do more harm than good.
By the way, John Yeoman, a British writing instructor with a PhD in Creative Writing, analyzes Grammarly and two other writing programs, AutoCrit and ProWritingAid, in his excellent article, “Do copy editing programs work?”
How about you? Have you tried any editing software? What has been your experience? Let us know in the comments below.
Jodie Renner is a freelance editor and the award-winning author of three craft-of-writing guides in her series An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction: Fire up Your Fiction, Writing a Killer Thriller, and Captivate Your Readers. She has also published two clickable time-saving e-resources to date: Quick Clicks: Spelling List and Quick Clicks: Word Usage. When she’s not reading or editing compelling fiction, Jodie enjoys combining her two other passions, photography and traveling.
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