Editing is hard…
The best editors are human beings — highly experienced, keen of eye and with an ear for grammar and style. Most are university-educated — to bachelor or even masters level — while others learn their craft old-school in publishing houses of yore. Editing is a skill that takes years to master and thus to hire an editor is an expensive luxury, costing hundreds if not thousands of dollars.
Many independent writers can’t afford this luxury and those who can…well, the math might not play out if you are business-minded. If you’re a blogger monetising through advertising or affiliate linking, an editor’s fee will rapidly eat into your profit. This is especially true if your post’s appeal is time-bound, and the views drop off after the first week. If you’re a self-published novelist with a 100,000-word manuscript…well, honestly you’ll be extremely unlikely to recoup the $1000s of dollars spent on editing from the few hundred sales you’ll be lucky to make.
There is an alternative, one that’s improving each day thanks to the Rise of the Machines. I am, of course, talking about computer-based grammar checkers. These aren’t new — Microsoft Word has had the ability for twenty years. In their early years, these grammar checkers were crude and not particularly useful. Grammar is bloody hard — even for humans, and we’re hard-wired to understand language. Moreover, style is even more difficult, being a matter of convention and taste rather than mere correctness. Computers are precise and logical; language is not.
Recent years have seen an explosion of cloud services aimed at creators and businesses alike. We live in an age of cheap computing processing in massive data centres. Platform vendors offer free machine learning algorithms as they compete for developer mindshare. It’s created the perfect environment for automating tasks once reserved for human beings.
One such service is Grammarly, which I’ve used for nearly three years. I started with the free tier, but for the last 14 months, I’ve subscribed to Grammarly’s premium service. Having renewed my subscription for a second year, I thought it time I did a review.
But why do I use Grammarly?
The answer is two-fold, and I’ll preface it by adding I began using Grammarly for my work as a technical writer and blogger.
To begin with, I’m terrible at proof-reading my work — as are most people. The human brain is lazy, often blind to the details when dealing with the familiar. When I write, I become intimately familiar with the text, and unless I’ve put the draft down for months, my brain will gladly ignore what my eyes see.
Writing is different from editing. When I draft a text — be it an article or story — I often enter a trance-like state, where my creative faculties take over. Even when writing technical content, I’m not thinking about good style or correct grammar; I’m engrossed in the content. When I write fiction, the problem is compounded as I juggle characters, plot points, world-building, pace and continuity like some mad clown in a circus.
Grammar and style are for editing, which uses completely different parts of the brain to drafting. If an app can remind me to tighten here and prune there, while highlighting those bloody dangling modifiers, then all the better. Even though I’m an editor, it’s nice to see when I’ve broken one of the millions of rules of good style or correct grammar. English, after all, is a rather complex language.
Secondly, Grammarly has helped to eliminate a bottleneck in my workflow. Previously, I either had to wait until enough time had passed that I could self-edit. Or I had to nag my already time-poor wife to cast her eyes over the document. With Grammarly, however, I could significantly reduce the downtime.
So, I started using the service for its promise of speed and accuracy — at least for my day job and blog. But as the months marched on, it’s helped out in unexpected ways.
Grammarly comes in two flavours: free and premium. The free service covers you for ‘critical grammar and spelling checks’ (their description, not mine), as well as conciseness. The premium service adds readability, vocabulary suggestions, genre-specific style checks and a plagiarism detector — the latter of which will appeal to anyone writing academic essays.
The free tier is ideal for casual web writers. I define casual as an occasional blogger, maybe you write your email in Gmail, post a lot on Twitter, Facebook or LinkedIn, or occasionally write a readme on Github. If that’s that you, then the free version is very likely enough.
If you make a living as a writer, be it an academic, professional blogger, technical writer or author, then consider at least trying out the premium tier. The added features are worth the cost. Grammarly’s subscription is flexible, allowing you to pay by the month, quarter or year. The longer your subscription time, the more you save.
I subscribe to the yearly plan (USD 139.95), which as a professional writer, I can claim as a tax deduction in my country of residence. If words are your trade, then this is a no-brainer.
If you are interested in trying Grammarly, please consider using this link. I will receive a small commission at no extra cost when you sign up. It helps to keep the lights on and motivates me to keep writing my reviews and tutorials.
At work, I use Grammarly’s Chrome plugin to edit release notes in Jira — remember I use Jira at home too! Meanwhile, at home, I use the Mac app to I edit blog posts and stories. I haven’t yet used it with Google Docs or Microsoft Word as I rarely use those apps.
Where Jira’s concerned, I typically draft my release notes directly on the web page. Almost at once (subject to the network connection), Grammarly will begin to proof-read the text as I write. For the most part, I find it excellent for picking up the common typos I make. I never learnt to touch-type correctly. I’ve picked up a lot of bad habits over the years to my detriment. I repeat words or miss-spell them, drop articles and occasionally use the wrong tense or verb form. Then there're all the damned homophones that plague English.
Grammarly is excellent for picking up the common typos I make, like double words and dropped articles.
When my release notes get long and technical, I'll expand the plugin to its fullest extent. This view offers more real estate the real estate, allowing me to see the issues as a whole in the side panel. Note that I can't share images of this workflow because my work as a technical writer is company-confidential. The examples I show below are taken from an article I wrote about one of the towns in my fantasy settings. You'll find the finished article over on my codex — this review will also go through the wringer too.
With the Chrome (or Safari) plugin installed, Grammarly works well with most sites, including Twitter. Grammarly has saved me from tweeting something dumb on more than one occasion, at least when I use the desktop.
When I write a longer article (usually in Ulysses), I will import the text into the Mac app and edit in the full UI offered. When you load in a long article, there is an initial delay while it's sent off to the cloud for processing.
Once uploaded, Grammarly will ask you a few questions to determine the type of document you are writing, and your intended audience.
The screenshot above shows the default settings. These settings help to determine the language and style Grammarly will use in its suggested edits.
Style is subjective, and changes depending on what I’m writing. As a writer, I wear different hats: technical (day job), casual (blogging) and creative (novelist). Grammarly is style aware, and I like that it supports the domains in which I write.
I agree with most of the suggestions it makes. There are the usual suspects — passive/active voice, split infinitives, end-of-sentence prepositions, verbosity, and so on. Grammarly can even suggest when a sentence is difficult to read, probably using Flesch-Kincaid or similar readability metrics.
Over the last year, I've seen it improve measurably, presumably as its machine learning algorithms improve.
I like the clarity feature, which flags overly long sentences. You know the ones — too many filler words, dense and cumbersome structures. For me, this feature alone is worth the upgrade as it forces me to reduce the complexity of my sentences — a bad habit from my career as a technical writer.
Grammarly often flags false positives. I find this happens when I use constructions that are technical, formal or archaic (I’m a fantasy author, we do that). The key is, don’t blindly accept something the software highlights. Be sure of your intent and meaning, and refer to a style manual.
Above, Grammarly’s flagged a false-positive. In the passage, I describe a region as being ‘rich in game’, as in there’s plenty of wildlife to hunt. The suggested correction, ‘in-game’ is meant to be a compound adjective, which is incorrect in this context.
Grammarly also makes suggestions to encourage you to vary your language or improve the strength of a sentence. In the example below, it dinged me for using the work alliance too much. However, since I was writing about an alliance that took place in my fantasy setting, I let this one slide.
In the above example, it suggested ‘robust’ instead of strong. Fair enough, but I didn’t like it — nor my original sentence — so I rewrote it instead. That’s okay though; I see Grammarly’s job as much to provoke thought as fix glaring mistakes, like this one.
As a fantasist, I make up my own words and place names. I’ve never added them to a custom dictionary (it is an option in Grammarly), so they are flagged too. I find this useful for making me double-check these constructed words, which I keep a record of in my world-building files.
When I published my first book, I wasn’t using Grammarly. I sent the manuscript straight to the editor. Consequently, it took longer, requiring more corrections. When I got it back from my editor, I found several more typos in the manuscript — including two after I published.
I never intended to use Grammarly for fiction; however, since I was already paying for it, I thought 'what the hell'.
So as I worked on my second book; however, I used Grammarly at each stage of my process. After I completed the second draft for my beta readers, I used Grammarly. When I got their changes back and prepped the MS for my editor, I used Grammarly. Even when I got the manuscript back from the editor, I ran it through Grammarly before doing my final proof-read on paper.
Doing this gave me a much cleaner manuscript. My beta readers could focus on the story with fewer distractions. My editor had less work to do and returned the manuscript to me quicker than the first — even though the book was a third longer.
Of course, Grammarly can’t analyse my story. It doesn’t understand characters, pacing, narrative structure, nor can it detect errors of continuity. It will try flag dialogue even when I’ve deliberately broken the rules of grammar to convey a character’s dialect or personal quirk. For that, one still relies on a human editor and engaged beta readers. Writing is writing and I’m a sloppy, poorly trained typist, and that’s where Grammarly helps.
Grammarly has a couple of annoying niggles, though at least the biggest one (not working with rich text), is now resolved after a recent update to the service.
One nitpick that always irritates me is the lack of formal markdown support. Attempt to import a file without a supported extension, and you’ll receive an error.
You can work around this problem by changing the file extension to .txt, but seriously this is 2019…markdown should be a first-class citizen.
Another source of annoyance is the app’s aggressiveness. Often when it flags a problem, I will attempt to rewrite the sentence rather than dumbly accepting the suggested fix. If the app deems the problem fixed, it will jump to the next issue, even if I’ve not finished my edit. Sometimes there’s a lag too, likely due to network latency, even when I’m typing. The result is that I can inject an error into a new part of a document before the app’s UI has caught up. Since there’s no ‘back’ option, I have to manually find my half-finished edit, fix it properly and then resume the workflow.
Latency is often an issue with Grammarly. Yes, I know its a cloud service. Yes, I realised the app processes text in some monster data centre the size of the warehouse protecting the Ark of the Covenant. However, in Australia, I have to deal with constant NBN outages and throttling. When the internet craps out, my workflow is halted.
Grammarly gets points for its support of the major web browsers, Google Docs (in beta) and Microsoft Word (Windows only). However, it doesn’t work with directly Scrivener or Ulysses — the two apps I use to write. I’ll admit this is a minor issue, but it’s worth noting for those writers who loathe the idea of having to copy-paste their work between apps to get the job done.
Is it worth it?
Yes, and without reservation, and despite my nitpicks. Grammarly has become my safety net and my first line of defence against careless typing. More than that, walking through the editing process as it chews on my words, often encourages my re-engagement with the text, not as a writer but a more clinically minded editor.
Grammarly is not a solution unto itself. It will not pick up every mistake, nor will it fix a structurally flawed document. It won’t improve your rhetoric, or help you make a more persuasive argument. If you write fiction, it won’t improve your narrative elements. However, fixing the glaring mistakes will make it easier on the human readers you’ve asked to beta your work.
Then again, no human editor is perfect — especially some hack on Fiverr. I’ve read plenty of traditionally published books, even major bestsellers, where errors abound. Editing is hard for machines as well as people.
I find that Grammarly is good enough in most respects, and very good in others. For the solo blogger or technical writer, it’s invaluable, and even the premium subscription is much cheaper than a human editor. As I’ve discovered, it’s also enormously beneficial even for writers for fiction.
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