Sunday, June 25, 2017

How I went from a hack to a semi-professional writer using Grammarly

I don't know about you. I don't have the time or money to hire an editor.

In the past, that's created some nasty situations. It's gotten me some bad reviews. 

"The information was interesting, but the author really needs a proofreader. His punctuation is really bad in places.” 


“Very interesting book, but the grammar was driving me crazy. So many commas and semicolons where they don't belong.”

Those reviews were a wake-up call.

In 20K A Day, Jonathan Green called them the "kiss of death." His thought is a one-star review that mentions typos and bad grammar is going to kill your book.

Those reviews almost made me give up writing. I mean, I had to think about what I wanted to do.

My books have always sold. I’m no Stephen King. I never will be. But, a lot of people like my books.       
Finally, I sucked it up. I admitted I had a problem. I bought Grammarly, ProWritingAid, and Hemingway. They changed the way I write.

They’ve got my back. These programs keep me from looking like a total hack.

Grammarly and ProWritingAid catch my mistakes. They keep me from looking stupid. Hemingway dumbs my writing down so anyone can understand it.

Together, they make my writing more readable.

Grammarly catches typos, grammatical, and punctuation errors. It makes it look like I know what I'm doing. It makes it look like I know my craft and understand the basics of grammar and punctuation. Hemingway strips your writing down to the bare essentials. It took my book from a ninth grade to a fourth-grade level. After a run through Hemingway, anyone can understand my book. There are no big words or complicated sentences for them to stumble over.

Grammarly is a harsh master.

I use the Word plugin. As soon as you enable Grammarly, your screen splits into two boxes. The one to the left is for your document. The box to the right contains Grammarly’s suggested edits. Within a few moments, your document is going to light up with red and green underscores. Each underscore has a corresponding edit in the Grammarly box.

Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to make the red and green go away.

I’m going to talk about how to use Grammarly with the Word plugin. If you copy and paste your text into the Grammarly editor, everything works the same.

There is a multitude of errors that can show up in the Grammarly box. I can’t cover them all, but here are some of the key challenges I’ve had.

I end a lot of sentences with prepositions. Grammarly says some readers may object to that. They suggest that you rewrite the sentence to eliminate problems. Easier said than done. If I’m lucky, I can do it one out of three times.

Grammarly says slang is inappropriate and may offend some readers. The same goes for gender snafus. If you write businessman or fireman, it says you should use business person or fire person. Not gonna happen!

Commas are my biggest area for improvement. I put them where they don’t belong, and don’t put them where they belong. What’s worse, Word shows me something different. And, ProWritingAid may contradict Word. If these three programs can’t agree, all I can do is take my best shot. Typically, I read the offending sentence to my seventeen-year-old “Grammar Nazi” and accept her decision.

Grammarly highlights overused words and makes suggestions. Sometimes its suggestions are dead on. Sometimes they miss the mark entirely. It suggested I substitute “read” for “understand.” I don’t see the connection.

If you misspell a word, it highlights it and shows you the suggested spelling. Don’t just click and make the change. Grammarly is not always right. Sometimes it picks the wrong word or a different form of the word. For “understand” it might suggest “understands” or “understanding.” It still takes the human touch to get it right.

Sometimes it's suggestions are right on. I wrote "Not only does it introduce readers to you, but..." Grammarly suggested, "Not only does it introduce readers to you, but it also..."

Unclear antecedent is one of the more troubling errors. Grammarly doesn't like it when you start a statement with "they." It wants you to state who "they" are.

Sometimes it suggests you change words or phrases. It told me to use "more difficult," then a minute later it had me go back to "harder to read." Which one is right? Why the sudden change of mind?

The plagiarism checker catches bits and pieces it can match to websites. When that happens, it suggests how to cite the information.

My biggest problem with the plagiarism checker is it catches single sentences or sentence fragments. Sometimes they are famous sayings that everybody uses. Why would I cite them? Much of this book was first published on my blog. It nailed it in those instances, so, no doubt, the plagiarism checker works.

Grammarly is not just for books. It can clean up your online image, too.

When you Download the Chrome extension, Grammarly pops up whenever you write online. I use it to edit my blog posts, Facebook posts, and Tweets. If there were a smartphone version, I would download it to my iPhone. It could get rid of those stupid auto-correct errors.

Every week, Grammarly emails you a critique of your writing. It tells you how many unique words you wrote that week and how you compare to other writers. It lists your top three errors. Mine are always the same. Misplaced commas, prepositions at the end of the sentence, and unclear antecedent.

What’s your biggest writing problem? You won’t know until you give Grammarly a whirl.

Final thoughts.

  • Turn Grammarly off when you write. It’s irritating to have your document light up in red and green while you’re writing. Edit when you finish writing.
  • Edit small bites. I tend to enable Grammarly and go through a 200 or 300-page document all at once. Grammarly can’t handle it. It’s slow and clunky if you overload the interface.
  • Word and Grammarly aren’t a perfect match. When you enable Grammarly, Word gets unstable. Often, I’m forced to dump the document I’m working on and restart Word. Sometimes it saves my document. Other times, it’s back to the drawing board. Lesson learned: Save your work often.
  • Grammarly does not replace a human editor. It cleans up 80 percent of your document. The other 20 percent requires human intervention.

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