Let’s get real about the hot mess of spell-check, grammar and editing tools

Listen–whether you write for fun or to pay the rent, and whether it’s (a) screenplays about mafia members dumb enough to kill Keanu’s puppy or (b) novels featuring elves with lightsabers and the robot ninja pirates who love them, one thing is constant: editing is everything.

Editing and rewriting is where the magic happens.

Magic because the first draft of anything is a warm bucket of spit.

And magic because a great editor can polish your text until it’s a shiny diamond made of words.

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HOWEVER: Despite my love for skilled, professional and fully human editors, I do believe in using whatever tool you can.

Is this sacrilege?

Will they kick me out of the writing temple?

No. It’s good manners to clean up your text. That lets your human editor focus on kicking butt instead of chasing down typos, split infinitives and dangling modifiers.

Here’s the problem: just about all the non-human editing tools stink worse than a corpse flower, you know, the one that only blooms every 10 years because smelling it once every decade is torture enough for any soul.

You won’t notice how badly these editing tools stink when you edit small projects. 

Spend the entire month of December editing 74,000 words, though, and all of these flaws become insanely clear.

Problem No. 1: Spell-check has transmogrified into a Grammar Nazi that’s terrible at his job

So you want to hunt down typos, do you? Good luck.

Standard spell-check in Word doesn’t want to let you do that job. It wants you to swan dive into a lava pit full of demons with pitchforks labeled Punctuation, Usage and Grammar, all of which are typically blinder than the referees at an NFC championship game.

Come on, man. Let’s hunt down typos. Nobody likes them, nobody needs them and we all want to squash them like cockroaches hiding under your kitchen cabinets.

The workaround solution: Turn off grammar checking entirely in Word, and if you can, kill it with fire. Nuke it from orbit. Go with old-fashioned spelling only.

A better solution: Separate spell-check from grammar, usage and punctuation entirely. Don’t even give people the option of combining them all, seeing how that idea is an achy breaky bad mistakey.

Problem No. 2: Grammar checkers tend to be stubborn beasts

Grammarly is a decent spell-checker and far, far better than Word at pure grammar, which shouldn’t be shocking since the word “grammar” is in the tool’s name.  

The trouble with Grammarly is I couldn’t find a way to tweak settings, so 80 percent of the errors it found were…missing Oxford commas.

Want to take a guess on how many missing Oxford commas you might find in a ginormous document that purposefully didn’t include a single one?

Yeah. It was a fiery train wreck.

I don’t believe in Oxford commas, though I’m agnostic about the matter and have no quarrel with my brothers and sisters who adore them. God be with you.

Wading through five bazillion false positives, though, got old in a hurry. And yes, I tried everything possible to find a way to toggle Oxford commas on or off.

There are other style choices that would be super useful to turn on or off. I simply couldn’t find a way to toggle them.

The workaround: I have no idea. Help me, Obi-Wan.

A better solution: Grammarly and similar tools need to give users more options, so we don’t waste crazy amounts of time catching errors that are actually style choices.

Problem No. 3: Online-only tools aren’t super useful for anything large

Autocrit is an app full of good ideas and features. It catches all kinds of things spellcheck and apps like Grammarly don’t even touch, like over-used words and phrases, which is beautiful. I like it, I love it, I want some more of it.

Here’s the deal-breaker: you have to paste your text into online apps like Autocrit, do your business, then paste your text back into Word (or whatever final shebang you use). 

Most online apps like Autocrit have upper limits on how much text they can digest at a time. This can be an explicit limit or one that you find out when you cram enough words in there and watch it jam up.

I’ve subscribed to Autocrit a couple different times and had to stop using it for that reason. It chocked on the text, every time, and feeding it bits and pieces just wasn’t practical.

The workaround: It is possible to help apps like this handle big meals by predigesting your words and turning them into plain text. However: Even if these online-only tools cranked through 74k or more with ease, the trouble is you have to then paste it back into Word and REFORMAT THE WHOLE MSS AGAIN. No. Just no.

A better solution: Not sure. Unless online apps can fix the reformatting problem, there’s no way I’m going back to them for anything large and important.

How we can do better

I wound up only using things that worked within Word, to avoid the whole cut-and-paste then reformat-an-entire-novel dance. Because it takes more than one pass to edit things right.

What worked for me this time? (1) plain old spell-check in Word with grammar turned off, (2) Grammarly for actual grammar and punctuation and (3) SmartEditPro for the tougher stuff like over-used words and phrases. It’s similar to Autocrit but works inside Word.

I believe, deep in my soul, two things would make the life of writers far, far easier:

First, having every writing app and tool work inside your doc as a plug-in vs. a separate app or web page.

Second, focusing on doing one thing well. One thing, not three or five. Because that’s how writers tend to edit, in phases.

What do you think?

Tell me your editing horror stories. Whisper the names of apps I’ve never heard about and reveal the secret ways you’ve tweaked Grammarly to ignore missing Oxford commas and such. I would offer a reward for that.

4 thoughts on “Let’s get real about the hot mess of spell-check, grammar and editing tools

  1. Like you, I use multiple editing tools. One you did not mention is Pro Writing Aid. I like it better than the others. It gives you multiple reports that analyse your piece separately and in summary. There are tabs for style, grammar, overused words, cliches, readability, etc. The nice thing is that it works in Word and there are plugins to work on your web browser and email. It is working as I type this reply. You can use it for free or there is an upgrade for enhanced features. I pay for mine. As with anything there are limitations. Try it and let me know what you think. ✨😊✨

  2. I have struggled with editing tools not recognising other versions of English (except for British and American). Generally speaking, most editing tools also struggle with homophones. I have seen some homophonic hot messes in my editing career.

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