Your Weekly Writing Update by Grammarly

A few weeks ago, I started a subscription to Grammarly.  As I sometimes churn out my writing work quickly, especially blog posts, it’s a useful tool to pick up any spelling or grammar errors that creep in.

There’s already a proprietary checker in Microsoft Word, and it’s possible to download browser extensions that perform a similar function. But Grammarly software is consistent in Word, in your browser, and anywhere else you type on your computer. It doesn’t, however, seem to be available for mobile devices.

Every week, I’m sent a summary of how well or badly I’ve performed in my spelling and grammar. Here are selected stats from 06 February to 12 February.

  • You wrote more words than 96% of Grammarly users did.
  • You were more accurate than 82% of Grammarly users.
  • You have a larger vocabulary than 97% of Grammarly users.

So far, I feel like a latter-day Shakespeare. However, it’s not all happy news:

Top 3 grammar mistakes

1. Missing comma in compound sentence: 44 mistakes.
2. Incorrect use of comma: 15 mistakes
3. Missing comma(s) with interrupter: 10 mistakes

Grammarly and I can’t seem to come to an agreement on this issue.

Sometimes it allows the use of the Oxford comma in a list, but sometimes I’m told to take it out. Similarly, I’m often shouted at for placing a comma before and in a sentence, but it’s occasionally required to stay in.

I’ve also discovered a problem with the verb form in the following sentence:

  • The audience here tends to be corporations.

I’m advised this isn’t correct:

tends

So I duly drop the final letter to make the verb agree with the plural subject corporations. Then I’m told:

tend

Now the verb form is incorrect because it doesn’t agree with the singular audience. And so we go around in a loop. There is a facility to add custom spellings or to ignore a suggestion, but no way to let the software learn your writing style or to flag up false positives.

Ultimately, the writer has to determine whether the words that are written, or the way in which they’re written, are suitable for the intended purpose. Grammarly is a tool that uses algorithms to apply the conventional rules of English; it’s not a textbook that must be followed precisely.

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How to Fix a Broken Piece

I think all writers have pieces that, for some reason, don’t have maximum impact or aren’t coming together in the way we want. In this entry, I have some suggestions for these pieces based on my own experience.

In 2013, I was given homework from a writing group to pen a story inspired by lines from a poem. As it wasn’t coming together, I spent the afternoon in the library writing until it made some sort of sense. I eventually created a flash fiction piece that became my first published story.

A couple of years later, I was working on a poem for performance at an upcoming gig. When it wouldn’t come out in a way I liked, I went for a walk in the cold. By the time I returned home, all the elements began to settle into a list poem. The finished product gained a positive reaction on its début, and has done on each reading since.

Broken mirror
Broken mirror (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Which brings me to my most recent difficulty. This was another list poem, in response to a friend’s work, that wouldn’t flow no matter the order in which the lines were arranged. I ended up writing each line on a separate slip of paper and drawing them out of a bag like raffle tickets. That method helped to identify which lines felt out of place and could be removed, then the remaining fragments naturally joined together.

The most recent poem hasn’t been heard by an audience yet, as I think it needs to be left aside for a while. I’ll revisit the piece in the future with fresh eyes and decide whether I still like it as it stands. And time is one of the best ways to fix non-urgent work.

In  2014, I came home from the aftorementioned writing group having been unable to think of a story from the prompts given. I was so annoyed with myself that I typed up my frustrations in short sentences with plenty of negative space between the paragraphs, then closed the document. Thinking it would be embarrassing, as it was never intended to be seen by others, I didn’t reopen the file until earlier this year.

I was jolly surprised to find that it might actually work as a poem, and I’m also more inclined to figuratively bleed onto the page than I was two years ago. So it might yet be seen before an audience.

Cameron’s Rule

Last week, I was called a perfectionist, not as an insult but as a statement of fact. It is true I like to siphon out as many errors as possible – all of them, ideally – before the public ever see it. But what’s the best way to make sure mistakes are picked up?

Read a printed copy

Many authors are in the habit of writing their work directly into a PC. In many ways, this is ideal because the words are in digital form and can be corrected without fuss, or sent to a third party. But it is more difficult to pick up errors: Scientific American has a detailed article on the subject.

So consider printing out your work to give yourself the best chance. Some people also like to change the font. I accept that printing is not good for the environment, so I keep a folder of used paper and print on the back where possible.

Read it out loud

When many people read, they like to ‘hear’ each word in their heads as if it’s being read aloud by someone else. So reading out loud as an author enables you to imagine how the reader will interpret your words, and can highlight any overlong sentences or incorrect punctuation use.

If you’re unable to find the privacy to read out loud, the next best solution is to use text-to-speech software, plenty of which is available on the Web. You can then listen to it spoken through headphones. The voice tends to be a monotone – although still miles ahead of Stephen Hawking’s antiquated synthesiser – allowing you to concentrate more on the words themselves.

Ask a friend or a professional

Be careful who you pick for this: family members or friends might gloss over the bad bits. Make sure you pick someone who’ll tell you honestly what’s wrong with it, but will also pick out what you’ve done right. Asking a professional proofreader is a more expensive option, yet it can be vital in a novel-length work.

Pocket watch, savonette-type. Italiano: Orolog...
Pocket watch, savonette-type. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Give it time

When you’ve finished a draft, one of the best moves you can make is to leave it alone for a while. If you go back too quickly, it’s possible to read what you want to see rather than what’s actually on the page because your mind’s still thinking about the words that have just been written.

But how long should you leave it for? That’s a question I’ve been wrestling with. After much thought, I’ve come up with my personal method, which I’d like to name, in an egotistical manner…

Cameron’s Rule

As a bare minimum, for work of:

  • 1500 words or fewer, leave it 24 hours;
  • 1501 words and above, allow one minute per word.

By this method, flash fiction and some short stories would be left a day, while an 80,000-word novel would be left for nearly two months. Bear in mind these are merely minimum times. There’s no harm in putting away work – especially shorter pieces – for a longer time.

 

I’ve started so I’ll finish.

Normally, blog entries come to me easily. It might be prompted by a comment during the week, or be inspired by a particular problem I’m having.

This week, however, I’ve been struggling to complete an entry. I started on the topic of swearing, then about gaps in your writing CV, then about third-person biographies, but none of these topics were going anywhere. I might return to them in the future, but today’s entry is about finishing what you start.

I normally good at finishing stories and poems, but I have a few that have been untouched since the first draft. Most recently, I was asked to respond to an exhibition at Dundee Contemporary Arts. I abandoned my original idea after four verses because it was much too wordy and I wanted to take the narrative in a different direction. Here are those four verses:

We saw the archipelago of masts
while sailing over Dogger Bank in gale
force six conditions. They displayed full sails
like pirate vessels of the ancient past.
They numbered in the twenties. We informed
our captain. She immediately warned

them of our presence with a blast,
instructed us to try the radio.
All frequencies, all wattages, yet no
response was heard. When 30 minutes passed,
she ordered that her ship should deviate
of-course toward the masts, though gale force eight

was forecast. Once we had a closer view,
we noticed something out of place. The decks
were underwater. So it seemed. We checked
again. Correct. All decks submerged, no crew,
no skeletons, no personal effects,
just masts with sails and ragged flags. Perplexed,

we asked the captain where to go. Perplexed,
she stopped us by the archipelago.
Again we tried to use the radio
as gale force eight turned into 10. The next
the next we knew, the bow was pointing in the air.
It knocked us to the deck.

This needs a lot of work done. There are a number of options to breathe new life into it: cut out unnecessary words and phrases, continue to add verses, rewrite it as prose, recycle elements of it into other works, and/or cut it into individual phrases and shuffle them about.

To make what became the response, I used some elements of this story, cut out a lot of detail and rendered it as prose. The final result mimicked the shipping forecast on Radio 4.

I’ve done something similar for older pieces. Around 2011, I wasn’t writing much poetry and I thought what I had was quite a good piece. Four years later, I revisited it while answering a writing prompt and it wasn’t as good as I remembered. I took the same idea but structured the verse differently and I’m now happy with it.

Some writers seem scared to finish pieces, as if they’ll think of a better word or structure as soon as it’s been submitted to a publisher. But if its publication you’re looking for, there comes a time when you need to let go of it. Remember there will be every opportunity to amend it if it’s rejected, and some publishers will allow – or insist upon – amendments if it’s accepted.

I’ve been asked before how I know when I’ve finished a piece. That’s not an easy one to answer, but the best measure I have is when I stop thinking about it day-to-day. That’s when I leave it alone for a while, then revisit it with fresh eyes later on.

It’s a good idea to finish what you start, at least to the best of your ability. If you see the perfect outlet for your piece, it’s much easier to tweak it than to have to add or remove significant portions. You might then be able to submit it comfortably before the deadline.

Patronising: that’s where you talk down to someone.

The other day, I saw a petrol tanker. It had a sentence painted on the side that said, as far as I can recall:

We take the petrol to the pump so you don’t have to go to the refinery to collect it.

I thought this rather insulted the intelligence of the audience. That’s how you might explain it if a child asked. But if you’re old enough to buy petrol, you’re old enough to understand what a tanker does. A friend’s daughter used to work in the media and often encountered this kind of tone. She brands it infantilisation.

It’s timeworn advice not to think about your audience while you’re writing fiction, but I do think it’s important while editing. Let’s say your character plays a musical instrument. It’s probable your audience would know what a balalaika is, but would they be familiar with a theremin?

If you’re unsure how a passage will be received by an audience, give it to other people. If it’s not clear to the majority of them, can your meaning be shown through dialogue or action rather than plain description? For the balalaika, you might only need the action:

Becky strummed her balalaika every evening, adding a fresh twist to popular rock classics.

Whereas the theremin might need more explanation, done here through dialogue:

An Etherwave-Theremin, assembled from Robert M...
An Etherwave-Theremin, assembled from Robert Moog’s kit: the loop antenna on the left controls the volume while the upright antenna controls the pitch (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“What’s that aerial thingy?”
“This? It’s a theremin; it’s what I play.”
“How do you play that?”
“Put your hand near it and it makes a noise.”

Also ask yourself whether something actually needs to be explained. It’s a common habit of beginner writers to overexplain:

Jessica pushed down the door handle and pulled the door towards her. She stepped back as it opened and she saw Fiona in the room. Fiona was sitting in a chair and clasped in her hand a stack of £50 notes. When Jessica looked at her, she raised her eyebrows and opened her mouth wide, knowing she had been caught with the takings from the shop.

Whereas this could be made less flabby by allowing the reader to make the mental leap between actions:

Jessica entered the room. There was Fiona; £50 notes in her hand. The takings from the shop. “This is not what it looks like,” said Fiona.

Notice in the second passage that the focus is on the actions that drive the plot forward. Here, the facial expressions are of little relevance to the story; the reader wants to know what happened to the money. The question of relevance is key to pitching your text at the right level.

If anyone sees that oil truck, please pass on my comments to the company.

When you don’t like your own work.

Last week, I discussed what to do when you don’t like someone else’s work, be it a novel or a live event, and a big thank-you for all the responses I received. However, I had an experience last week where I didn’t like part of my own work.

I was invited to write a piece inspired by the D’Arcy Thompson Museum at the University of Dundee, which would then be performed in the museum a few weeks later. Sir D’Arcy was a naturalist who disagreed with some aspects of Charles Darwin’s work, and the museum houses his surviving specimens.

I’m quite used to turning round work very quickly: I write it, leave it alone for a few days or a few weeks – depending on the deadline – then give it an edit. If I’ve time, I might be able to repeat this process, refining further each time.

With the Sir D’Arcy piece, I struggled to come up with the idea in the first place even after two long visits to the collection. Finally, I wrote a short poetic monologue inspired by a seven-foot narwhal tusk on the wall. The piece imagines what might have happened when the tusk was delivered to Sir D’Arcy and his students, and uses this to demonstrate that some of his ideas and views are now accepted by today’s scientists.

I was happy with the first section of the piece, but was less happy with the second, which I felt broke the Show, don’t tell rule. I felt it was too factual as the story was not shown through the actions of a character, as in the first section. The actual reading went well, but if I had more time, I could have improved it; in the process of writing this entry, I’ve thought of a possible way.

However, unless I’m invited back for a second performance – and that is a hint to the organisers – I have to accept that I put out what I consider to be substandard work.

Putting quill to parchment.

Many authors are asked the same questions over and over again. One of these is often Do you write longhand or into a computer?

But however repetitive it becomes, it’s a question worth considering. A commercial novel averages around 80,000 words, and that’s just the final product, not taking into account the many redrafts that will inevitably have gone before.

Let’s consider the different ways that different authors physically externalise their words, and the alternative approaches that could be taken.

Learn to touch-type

One of the best choices I ever made at school was learning how to type with 10 fingers, as it’s a skill that served me well in my working life. There are a couple of huge advantages over using just two or three fingers: your word speed can more than double, and it spreads the effort between all your fingers rather than straining just a few of them.

Be advised that it takes a while to master initially, but you’ll eventually be able to do it without conscious thought. A word about tablet computers as well. These have virtual keyboards, so it is possible to touch-type on these, but you’ll need to keep an eye on your finger position as you won’t be able to feel for the keys.

Choose an alternative keyboard

It’s a well-known story that the QWERTY keyboard was originally designed to slow down typists as the first machines were prone to jamming. It’s less well-known that the jamming problem had been solved by the 1930s. This allowed August Dvorak to invent an improved keyboard to help typists increase their speed by placing the most common letters on the middle row.

Sadly, it failed to catch on widely, but it is available on every major operating system. I’ve used the Dvorak layout for some years and it has the edge over QWERTY in terms of word speed. To increase it further, you could try a chorded keyboard. Clerks of court and TV subtitlers use these to keep up with the pace of normal speech. I haven’t used one myself.

Open your notepad

Unless you’re employing a shorthand system, this slows down your thoughts to the speed of the pen or pencil, and some authors are convinced it makes for higher quality writing. Martina Cole claims to be able to tell when a novel has been written directly into a laptop, while James Ellroy sends his handwritten work to a typist.

Be aware, however, that there’s no backup unless you’re using carbon paper. I’ve been told that a highly regarded author was forced to rewrite a large section of a novel when the paper blew out of an open window.

Be a dictator

Barbara Cartland famously dictated her words to an assistant, sometimes producing around 7000 words a day. Happily, you no longer need to pay someone for this service, as voice dictation is supported by many devices.

When I first tried this in the late 1990s, I gave it up as a bad joke. It. Required. Each. Word. To. Be. Spoken. Individually. Today’s software works with normal speech to a reasonable degree of accuracy without any training, even with my Scottish accent, although I recommend doing some to improve it even further.

I often use Dragon NaturallySpeaking, which can also be used to control many of your computer’s functions. In my experience, the actual dictation is fairly quick; it’s the formatting that tends to take a while.

Unconventional means

Probably most famous user of assistive technology is Stephen Hawking. He uses a switch activated by his cheek to choose words and letters from a computer screen.

But another author had to use a more difficult method. Jean-Dominique Bauby was struck by Locked-in Syndrome, so he could only blink and move his neck in a restricted manner. He wrote every word of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly by listening to somebody physically reading out the alphabet and blinking at the correct letter.

 

There are many ways to put your words out there, and not all of these will work for every author. For me, it’s through necessity that I use voice dictation and handwriting because my fingers are currently strained with typing too much. So until they improve, that’s how I’ll be writing my work.

But I’ve long thought that when you’re forced to take a certain action, you can always learn something useful from it. And that’ll be the theme of next week’s entry.