Eats Shoots & Leaves

Upping My Game

I use Grammarly for proofreading because left to my own devices, I’m a guide to my own literary self-destruction. It’s one of several tools and books I’ve been exploring for the sake of upping my game as a writer.

Writing is hard. One of my mentors in graduate school, a man everyone esteems as an academic who can write well—that rarest of birds—once confided to me that writing was a real struggle for him. I was somewhat flummoxed, as he was someone whose writing was flawless: never a wasted word, and every word chosen perfectly. He engineered his writing like a fine-tuned precision engine.

I’m reminded of what Dorothy Parker once said: “I hate writing. I love having written.” Many people think that writers, or artists, or musicians operate as geniuses, creating their works effortlessly as if carried away by divine inspiration. There are moments like that, in writing, art, and music, where one finds oneself inspired to the point that one’s fingers can’t move fast enough to capture the activity of the imagination as it fires idea after insight. But creative activity—which includes academic writing, in my book—is mostly hard work: carving out time, collecting and evaluating sources, discovering the facts of the matter, organizing one’s thoughts, writing them down, and rewriting over and over again. And there is that existential reward at the end of the process when one sees something in print after untold hours over months or years of work. Until one finds typos which one should have caught in the several rounds of proofreading…

The good thing about writing not being a matter of pure genius and inspiration is that it can be improved. We can work on it. One of the worst best things I ever did was take the GRE exam as part of my applications to graduate school. I loathe standardized testing in general, but neither ETS nor the grad schools to which I was applying would have cared about my whining. A necessary hurdle, I got Barron’s GRE guide, which had about 4000 vocabulary words. I went through the list, scratching the ones I knew well enough, and made a master list of the other words, roughly 2000 of them, and spent the summer learning them. That simple exercise has paid all sorts of dividends. To this day, I still work to build my vocabulary. I have a Word document with about 350 English entries, as well as foreign language words and phrases, a list which is also growing. (Most of the English words I’ve needed to learn have come from reading David Bentley Hart, who, I’m convinced, spent his adolescence memorizing the unabridged OED.)

Since writing can be improved, I’ve always been interested in resources on becoming a better writer. Some people don’t like it, but Strunk and White’s Elements of Style was a great help to me once I discovered it in graduate school. (Yes, I know that’s late.) I was always a decent writer, but it got me thinking about the craft of writing, whatever the merits or demerits of particular pieces of advice therein. I also enjoyed Stephen King’s On Writing, which talks about his work as a writer of popular horror fiction. More inspiring than technical, getting inside his head as an author was fascinating, and one learns why King’s works are they way they are: He begins with characters, not plot, letting the characters he creates write the plot for him. Recently my friends at First Things have pointed me to a couple other heftier resources. The first is Clear and Simple as the Truth, which advocates “classic style”: “The writer adopts the pose that the motive is truth, the purpose is presentation, the reader is an intellectual equal, and the occasion is informal. Classic style is at home in everything from business memos to personal letters, from magazine articles to university writing.” The second is The Reader over Your Shoulder, a basic but substantive handbook for cultivating clearer written communication.

There’s many more, of course, but these have proven helpful to me. Why does good writing matter, however? Why work on it to point of consuming and consulting big books about it? Because the truth matters, and words present claims to truth; because audiences comprise persons, who deserve our best; and because we work too hard to come up short and be found wanting. Form and content cannot be finally separated, even if one doesn’t wish to go so far to say form is content, and so we shouldn’t let bad prose limit us.

And what about tools, like Grammarly? They contacted me and asked me to try it, and so I’ve used it on this post. Good writers are generally wary of computer-generated critiques of one’s work, for good reason; I’d love to see a website entitled “D*** You Spellcheck” just like “D*** You Autocorrect,” as I see spellcheck fouling up student writing almost every day, and we all know how foolish MS Word’s grammar checking feature is. And every so often someone runs some classic piece of writing like Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address through some software to point out how using software in writing leads to prosaic prose.

Grammarly is different, it seems. It lets you select the type of writing you are doing—academic, general, casual, etc., and so you can set it to evaluate your writing a certain way. It caught about two dozen things it regards as issues, some which I think are good suggestions, while others I haven’t felt the need to correct. (For instance, it found a problem with subject-verb agreement with “Elements of Style was…”; it didn’t recognize the plural noun as part of the title of a singular book.) It’s like having a good TA who catches errors and makes style suggestions proof your work, whose ideas may or may not be helpful. I’d recommend it as a tool, but like all computer tools, the writer should feel free to ignore certain suggestions and consider others.

Posted in Blog.

3 Comments

  1. I read “Eats, Shoots & Leaves” some years ago. Good stuff. And I am in awe of D.B. Hart’s writing. One thing I LOVE about spellcheck are the suggestions for correcting people’s names.

    I’ll share your post with my wife and other homeschooling moms I know.

    Thanks,
    Robert

  2. I acquired Clear and Simple as the Truth about ten years ago, and can honestly say that the one book I esteem more is the Bible. Even before putting pen to paper, I always come away from rereading CASATT a better writer. I love that you mentioned it here.

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