Monday, June 18, 2012

Manic Monday: The Least Sexy Writing Tool You Need

Bad Grammar English is our language
It is time, my friends, to talk about the least sexy of all writing subjects: Grammar. Specifically, let's talk about a tool that I have found that will help you improve the quality of your manuscripts. The product? Grammarly.

I know - you're probably rolling your eyes at me and are thinking about leaving the page. Perhaps you, like some readers, care almost exclusively about the book's premise, plot, idea. Perhaps you, like some readers, don't give a hang about typos and ignore poor grammar.

But not all readers feel that way. In fact, at the other end of the spectrum are grammar nazis. These people are irritated by the most minute errors. Grammar nazis take great pleasure in going onto Amazon and giving one star to a novel because of grammar errors (I saw this kind of review posted for one of my favorite books of 2011, The Night Circus).

Perhaps you're saying, "Yes, but very few readers are that into grammar."

Probably true. But I think the majority of readers fall between these two extremes. Most readers are annoyed by books with a significant number of typos and spelling errors. Many get irritated if a writer consistently overuses a word or uses banal and vague descriptions.

But even if the reader is not consciously aware of errors, I believe a book riddled with errors wears on the reader, if only unconsciously. If the reader actually gets to the end, she may be 'meh' about the book and not recommend it, even though she generally liked the premise and the main character(s).

If you have stayed with me this long I hope I've made a case for why you, as a writer, should care more about the polish of your prose than most of us probably do. The attention to detail can lift a book from "just so, so" to "pretty good." It can be the difference between, "I struggled to get through that book," to "I highly recommend this book."

A book free of errors cannot guarantee sales. We have all been witness to books that have topped the charts and are poorly written or full of errors.

But you and I - while we care about sales - we care more about giving the reader the best possible book we can give them. We care deeply about the product. And because we care about the prose, we owe it to ourselves - and our readers - to invest time and money into products and services that help us put out our best possible product.

What does Grammarly do? How do you know if you need Grammarly?

1. If you didn't know that modifiers can squint, you need Grammarly. Until I began using it, I was unaware that modifiers could squint. Apparently they can, and apparently I had modifiers squinting all over the place.

What the heck is a squinting modifier and why should I care?

If a modifier is placed in a sentence in such a way that it could be modifying either of two different clauses, it's a "squinting" modifier. And this is confusing to the reader. And that's why you should care.

You never want to confuse your reader. Confused readers become frustrated readers and frustrated readers don't recommend your book to their friends and don't come back for more books by you.

Grammarly will not only point out all of your squinters; you will learn to stop doing it in the first place. By using the program and correcting the mistake yourself, you'll be learning. When you do this over the course of an entire manuscript, trust me, the rule will become engrained. If the rule is engrained, you are less likely to break the rule in the future. Ergo, less confusion for your readers = happier readers. Yeah! We love happy readers.

2. If you love to use banal words such as very, even, good, bad or others like them, you need Grammarly. The program will not only point these words out, but it will recommend more juicy, specific words to use.

Why is this a problem and why should I care?

Every word should count. So make each word work for you. When is the word "very" necessary? Perhaps never. Consider "very good." That's the most juicy description you could come up with for chocolate lava cake (for example)?

Once Grammarly has pointed this out to you several dozen (or hundreds) of times, you'll start to get the picture. Again, it becomes engrained, and you'll write juicier, less banal words to start with.

3. If you never use commas (or use ten per sentence), you need Grammarly.

Why do we care about commas?

Your prose is easier to read when you properly use commas. If you help your reader out, you'll have a happy reader. A reader shouldn't have to work at reading your novel.

Have you ever had to read a sentence more than once to figure out what it means? Okay, if you're reading a physics book, perhaps that's to be expected. But a novel? No, you should never have to read and reread a sentence to figure out what the heck the writer is trying to say.

Misplaced modifiers, dangling participles and other freakish grammar beasts can be to blame. But the lack of or misplacement of commas can also contribute to lack of readability.

Grammarly is genius at the use of commas. If you use it regularly, you, too, may become a comma genius.

Grammarly, or similar programs, cannot replace a substantive editor. Writers still need human editors to help craft the story. But for writers, especially self-pubbers and other Indies, Grammarly will help your prose achieve a higher state of polish and readability.

Readability = happy readers. And happy readers = happy writers.

Everyone's happy. Isn't that wonderful?

What writing or editing tools have you found indespensible? What have you purchased that you'd gladly purchase again?


  1. Great post, thanks Natalie. I find grammar errors pull me out of the story and that's not good.
    I had never heard of Grammarly so will check it out.
    I did use and subscribe to the Autocrit Wiz. which you can use for basic stuff without paying. It picks up re-used words and overused words, but not punctuation etc.
    Apart from dangling modifiers (which I think is the same as squinting modifers) I have difficulty with sentences like this: "Closing the door behind him, he climbed the staircase." The word "after" is missing, so theoretically, the two actions must be taking place at the same time which is obviously impossible. It works if the two sections can be simultaneous eg, shutting his eyes, he climbed the staircase.
    I'm sure there is a name for this....But I find this really irks me. But, hey, maybe I'm wrong and it is correct?!?
    The other thing I have a problem with is that the rules of what is acceptable keep changing. Maybe you can write a blog about that one day!

    1. Glad you found this post useful A.G.
      One could say: "He closed the door behind him then climbed the staircase." That way you take out the passive voice "closing" and keep it in the active voice and it seems to also address the issue you raised.
      I agree, the rules change! So just when you think you've got it down, you'll find out you don't!
      But hey, it's all fun, right?!


Featured Post

An Interview with Hugh Howey, author of Wool

Hugh Howey Author of Wool Robyn and I were super thrilled to have the opportunity to interview bestselling author Hugh Howey for our Ma...