Do Writers Need Help? (AKA Why I *Hate* Grammarly)

Well, obviously we do, just look at our search histories…

But, in all seriousness, yes, writers do need help from time to time but, it’s the source of that help that is important and, in this entry, I’ll be looking at some of the collective ‘Do’s and ‘Don’t’s that I’ve encountered in my journey to date.

One of the earliest areas where help is needed is, quite logically, spelling and grammar. It might come as a surprise to some but, not all authors are Language Majors, Academics or even Native Speakers. I’ll note here the growing market (in a mainstream traditionally dominated by works written in English and translated for foreign markets) for pieces written in other languages, from non-western perspectives to be translated into English (the most popular example I can quickly bring to mind being Andrzej Sapkowski’s The Witcher series, first published in Polish).

Most publishers will require a submission to be as grammatically correct as possible, they don’t want to waste time hunting down spelling errors. Errors in the text disrupt the readers flow, drop them out of their immersion and reflect badly on the publisher. The same is true of self-pub where you are the publisher. The spell-checkers and grammar algorithms of most commercial word processor programs can be quite limited, especially when it comes to writing dialogue, so you might be tempted by the shiny, all-singing, all-dancing programs of the likes of Grammarly. I would ask, nay beg, that you don’t succumb and I’ll tell you why.

The big selling point for the Grammarly platform is that, aside from spelling and grammar it can clean up your writing, make it more concise and help you get your message across which is great, for commercial businesses. As a writer you want allowances to change the ebb and flow of your prose. At times urgency and clarity are the order of the day, sometimes you want to be more languid, florid or, dare I say it? Flowery in your language. The biggest problem I see with using these programs as an aid is that, if you don’t manage just how much help you allow them to lend, your writing loses it’s voice and ends up reading just like every other author who uses the same Grammar engine. Don’t surrender your voice.

A quick tag-on for the above is writing in languages you don’t know, Google Translate is not the be-all and end-all of linguistics. Try and find a native speaker or, if you can’t, at least double-check your translations

Another area where we often need help is to communicate the voice of characters whose experiences are far removed from our own. Whether it’s cultural differences or life-experiences we haven’t had the only answer to making your characters experiences genuine is research, it’s kinda what the Internet was created for (aside from porn and cat pictures of course). It’s always great to speak to someone directly, it adds a real personal element that (when approached sensitively) can really lift your writing to the next level, but even if your research is all text-based articles it’s infinitely better that coming across as wrong or false.

Essentially, those two points are what it comes down to. Whatever world you’re building, whatever characters you’re introducing, whatever situation you’re creating? If the words are there and the experiences read true then you can encapsulate them in a way that ought to compel and entertain the reader and that is largely the point. If you can’t achieve those two things then there’s little hope of educating the reader or broadening their outlook because they won’t finish the book. Think on the overall story, but pay attention to the details and language mechanics. I cannot over-stress the importance of editing and beta readers, our brain gets very good at overwriting our mistakes for us, we see what we expect to see, perfect prose. We cannot operate in a vacuum (who would read our books?) but, with the ever-increasing variety of assistance to hand (and the associated cost) being selective and critical of the help we do draw upon becomes even more important.


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