The Grammar Spammer

Every week, Grammarly sends me an e-mail, showering me with praise about how well I’ve written that week. I’ve been using the software for more than four years; it even works in addition to the auto-correct in Microsoft Word and Firefox. As such, the company has collected a lot of data about how I type.

In yesterday’s bulletin, it was noted that I was: more productive than 94% of other users. more accurate than 83%, and using more unique words than 92% of folks.

It also notes my top three mistakes, which are usually minor matters involving punctuation. For example, Grammarly doesn’t favour an Oxford comma as much as I do; conversely, I don’t like the software’s style of writing ‘3 PM’ rather than ‘3pm’.

Which brings me to an important point that software can miss certain errors. Depending on the construction of the sentence, ‘from’ might be interchangeable with ‘form’, when only one is correct.

My best advice on the matter, which I repeat often, is to read out loud what you’ve written to see whether it flows and makes sense. If you don’t have the privacy to do that, a decent substitute is to find text-to-speech software and listen through headphones. If it detects a word out of place, it’ll be obvious when it’s read out.

Either way, spelling and grammar checkers should be used as a safety net rather than an authority, however much praise they heap onto their users.


I was invited to take part in a poetry reading on Sunday night, spanning not only the UK but other countries in the Anglosphere.

This was a mammoth four-hour stint, even with a time limit of ten minutes per poet, plus just one five-minute break. My spot was halfway through, but I stayed the whole time because I wanted to listen to the rest of them, most of whom were event hosts like me.

I performed one serious piece and two humorous. Although there was no audible feedback, I could see some of the faces in the crowd and read comments in the chat box. The set seemed to go down well.

At that point, I received a friend request on Facebook. I was glad that someone enjoyed my work enough to make that request. Furthermore, I’d been in a planning group with some of the other performers, so we were acquainted already.

It must also be stated that the public part of my profile clearly states ‘Not open to friend requests’, yet as of Monday morning, I had four requests waiting. One of them sent me a message acknowledging that he’d seen my profile, and was basically trying his luck. I admire his gumption, but I told him he could either follow my Hotchpotch open-mike page or my Twitter account instead.

On the back of this, it occurred to me that when people perform at my events, they might also have the same view, and a lot of folk don’t feel comfortable telling someone to back off. To this end, I’ve added a disclaimer to the open-mike. It’s likely I’ll tinker with the exact wording, but the spirit will be reinforced in event promotions:

Unless consent has been given, the host and contributors are not open to friend requests.

This alone is unlikely to stop the issue; three people have either not read my profile or wilfully ignored it. However, it acts as a pre-emptive reminder to keep some distance from those who don’t want to interact so closely with others.


In last week’s entry, we looked at handwriting recognition software. If you read the text in the scanned picture, you might have seen I used the ‘&’ symbol instead of ‘and’.

When writing by hand, I do this regularly, barely thinking about it, whereas I would always type out ‘and’ in full. The only time it’s come to my attention is when I’ve been transcribing my notebooks.

Last week, I spotted a video from one of my favourite content producers on YouTube: Tom Scott. He makes short educational films about a range of subjects, from elevators to nuclear waste to computer programming.

This one was about the letters in the English alphabet that have been either merged or separated over the last thousand years. The ‘&’ symbol once came straight after Z in the alphabet, and he explains more below:

Video by Tom Scott about the evolution of the English alphabet.

Oddly enough, I always spell out ‘the’ in full, even although its frequency could justify shortening to ‘th’ or even ‘t’. In 2013, an Australian restaurant owner tried to invent a new symbol for ‘the’, but eight years on, it’s safe to say it hasn’t caught on.

Yes We Scan

On this blog a couple of weeks ago, I talked about starting my yearly Fun a Day project. I’m drawing pictures inspired by the years around the Millennium, then publishing each day’s output on my old blog.

However, my that’s only one part of the story. My main activities can be roughly equally divided into:

  • Producing the drawings
  • Writing in my logbook by hand
  • Scanning the above documents to publish them online.

In previous years, the logbook would be displayed on a table at the exhibition, so there was no need to transcribe it. This time, it’s looking likely that we’ll need to exhibit online again, so I’ve been typing up my words in plain text to make them readable to others.

I soon found it was time-consuming to type up each day’s entry, so I wondered whether there might be a way to use automatic handwriting recognition. There is, and I already had the means of doing it.

Google Drive has a function that turns your phone camera into a scanner. The resulting PDF file can then be opened by Google Docs as text.

Logbook entry dated 12 Jan 2021 being scanned by Google Drive.

Some correction is always necessary, to a greater or a lesser extent, but most errors can be cleared up by using a spell-checker. Even a bad scan is marginally quicker to fix than typing the whole entry from scratch.

I don’t think I’m going to use this technology day-to-day, though. When I write by hand, I normally copy it into the computer by hand so I can make revisions on the fly. For a job that needs to be done quickly, however, it’s a great solution.

Bringing Back a Bygone Blog

Every January, I take part in a project called Fun a Day Dundee, which encourages artists to be creative throughout January. Most years, I have an idea what I’m going to do; this year, by contrast, I didn’t.

I have a tradition of keeping a handwritten logbook each year, which visitors are able to inspect at a weekend exhibition. With less than 5 hours until January 1st, I found an old notebook and began my log, and as I was writing, an idea began to form.

On the assumption that public events will still not permitted in two to three months’ time, I wanted to present my scans of my drawings and the logbook online. Instagram is the go-to site for many participants because it’s perfect for photos, and I’ll still be using it. Yet it’s not geared towards long-form explanations, which this project needs, so I set about looking for a secondary site.

The solution was to resurrect my old LiveJournal account, just for January. Recycling is one of my major recurring themes in Fun a Day, so reusing that page is very much in the same scope. When you visit it via the URL, it’s been set up to show only the Fun a Day posts.

I first used LiveJournal in the early 2000s, which in turn has inspired my Fun a Day art to be themed around Millennium nostalgia and pop culture as I remember it. The interface to post a new entry hadn’t been updated by the time I jumped ship to WordPress in 2013, but I was pleased to find it’s now more user-friendly, especially when embedding pictures.

Now I have a course of action, we now begin the real challenge of finding the time and motivation to update that site every day this month.

Trying and Failing to Read

For the last few years, I’ve followed the Icelandic tradition of reading on Christmas Eve, or Jólabókaflóð if you speak the language. In a nutshell, it’s about exchanging books, then reading them all evening with a cup of hot chocolate. This year didn’t go to plan.

Firstly, I hadn’t been able to exchange with anyone, although I have plenty of unread books on my shelf. I normally choose a poetry book and try to finish it in one night. This year, it was This: Tay Poems by Jim Stewart, published posthumously.1

Secondly, I’d underestimated how rich and descriptive the poetry would be. I was enjoying what I was reading, but I found it difficult to concentrate. I gave up at the halfway mark to head to bed.

Just a few days before this, a pal of mine had arranged a 12-hour reading event the previous Saturday to roughly coincide with Yule. There wasn’t a schedule as such, just time set aside to start or finish our books, but that also didn’t go to plan.

My intention was to sit down and finish Mort by Terry Pratchett, lent to me by a friend. Instead, as the day approached, other events kept encroaching onto the day, including a three-hour Dungeons & Dragons session. As such, I ended up listening to a total of about two-and-a-half hours of my audiobook: Beauty’s Release by Anne Rice.

Indeed, audiobooks are the way I tend to take in fiction these days. I’ve been trying to increase my walking this year, and it fits in with my schedule much better than sitting down to read. Still, I will carve out time to finish Mort as it needs to be returned at some point.

1 Although it was only published in 2018, I’m having difficulty finding a place you can buy the book. The only place that seems to stock it is a Dutch website called Athenaeum. The publisher barely has an Internet prescence, although you could try contacting the editors via the site they do have.

It’ll Be Alright on the Night

On Thursday, I was invited to take part in a video project called 12 Days of Gratitude.

This initiative was started by Darryl Gaffney du Plooy who runs a cafe and a community hub. His intention is to make a compilation of a dozen poems to be published over Christmas, all following the theme of gratitude.

We filmed my piece at a public amphitheatre. Even though I was still performing to a microphone and a camera, just as I could at home, it was a joy to have someone present to witness it. There’s even a sweet spot in the arena that’s difficult to pinpoint, but when it’s found, it noticably amplifies your voice.

Unlike most live performances, there was an opportunity to record the poem as many times as we liked. This was almost exclusively for technical reasons because I didn’t fluff my lines too much.

I look forward to seeing what happens with this project, especially as I don’t yet know where the gratidude of the other 11 poets will be directed.

Using Retrospective Continuity

This blog does not normally include spoilers. However, don’t read this if you intend to watch Dallas (seasons 9 and 10), Star Wars (1977), and/or Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016).

Last week, we touched upon the concept of retrospective continuity, where facts established in the plot of a fictional work are adjusted, ignored or contradicted by what comes later.

The term only appeared in the 1970s, and its common abbreviation ‘retcon’ is only 30 years old. Yet the actual device has been used for as long as there have been stories. Arthur Conan Doyle used it with Sherlock Holmes, as have major publishers like DC Comics and Marvel Comics.

In my experience, retconning works best when the change in question:

  • is small rather than sweeping
  • adds to existing canon rather than negates it

Let’s look at when it was done well in mainstream culture, and when it was handled badly.

Season 9 of Dallas was broadcast in 1986, and a major plot point was the aftermath of the death of Bobby Ewing, who had been killed by a car. At the end of the season, however, he appeared again, and the entire season was written off as the vivid dream of Pam Ewing.

This instance was a big change rather than a small one, and took away existing canon instead of adding to it, so many viewers were unhappy with how it was handled. That said, the show continued until 1991.

Now let’s look at Star Wars, the original from 1977. It had been a point of contention among fans that the Death Star had a weak point, namely an exhaust port, that could destroy the whole behemoth.

In Rogue One, however, that weakness is revealed to have been deliberately placed by Galen Erso, so anyone who knew about it could easily destroy the behemoth. explains it in much more detail than I do. Here, it was a lelatively small detail that became important later in the story, and it added to what was shown in Star Wars rather than negating it.

Unlike the Dallas retconning, this move went down well with fans, even impressing the folks at ScreenRant.

The Stories That Have Legs

Around this time last year, I intended to write a silly joke for Twitter. It was intended to read along the lines of ‘Does anyone remember before the Internet, you had to phone in your YouTube order and wait for the videos to be delivered?’

I never posted that joke because I kept thinking of details I wanted to add. at last count, that one-liner has gradually morphed into a short story of more than 1,800 words.

Now another piece is currently growing legs in a similar manner. My old school sports grounds are on a main road, so I often walk past them. This prompted a one-off story about a group of teenage school pupils who are required to take games class, but either loathe it or are at least indifferent about it, so they find other ways to keep themselves occupied during this time.

Unusually for me, I posted it to a popular writing website to see what the feedback would be like. Some commenters pointed out there was a potential cliffhanger, so I wrote a second part to fill that gap.

That second installment received as much attention as the first. By this time, the characters were so well-rounded that I could take them out of games class and into other locations, so a third part quickly followed.

In an effort to avoid confusion in the one-off story, I’d only named a handful of the 14 characters. This was fine for the sequel, which took place in the same location the following week. However, it had been established in the one-off that the summer break was nearly upon them. The narrator is shown to ask the named characters to meet up again during summer, but none of them were keen for their own reasons.

I therefore injected some retroactive continuity in an effort to avoid inconsistencies.

It would have been possible, but implausible, for all the named characters suddenly to change their minds about meeting up again. However, there were two unnamed characters mentioned en passant by the narrator. I pushed them centre-stage when said they had somewhere to meet over summer. This in turn persuaded the best friend of the narrator to change her mind and join them.

As such, the number of characters reduced to four, arguably a more manageable than 14. Introducing that new location then meant I was able to introduce other characters who weren’t necessarily required to have been in the previous installments.

The third part hasn’t made nearly as big a splash on the website as its two predecessors. I’ve nonetheless planned for a series of six or seven short stories because I really need to write this tale, almost regardless of the reaction.

I’m now considering releasing them as one collection, which will give me even more opportunity to make the continuity seamless rather than retrospective.

The Plot Summary and the Log Line

When submitting work to a publisher, the writer is often required to summarise the piece, especially if it’s a long-from work. This is one of the most difficult post-production activities, as it can involve removing tone and nuance from the piece, leaving just the key plot points.

Here are the two main types of summary that might be expected.

The plot summary

This type is most associated with novels. The publisher will ask for around 500 words to summarise the entire plot, even if that novel is 100,000 words long.

This means focussing on only the main characters and the key story points, however interesting the side plots might be. There is no sure-fire method of making the process simple, but one tip is to divide the number of words by the number of chapters and apportion the summary accordingly. To make it flow better, the ratio can then be changed once the summary is written.

Note that ‘entire plot’ means just that, and it should include details of how it ends, not a teaser.

Log line

This type of summary is most associated with screenplays.

It’s one or two sentences long, but never three, and acts as a teaser that gives the premise but not the ending. It’s also customary that characters are mentioned only by role, not by name.

There are some good examples at, including one from Titanic:

Two star-crossed lovers fall in love on the maiden voyage of the Titanic and struggle to survive as the doomed ship sinks into the Atlantic Ocean.

Here, you can see the protagonists (the lovers), the setting (the ship) and the inciting incident (the sinking), but not the ending nor how the protagonists reach it.

Remember that a publisher might form their first impression of your project on a summary or a log line, so it’s worth giving it as much attention as the work itself.