Monday, March 21, 2016

You are Your Own Best Editing Tool

photo by Monika Wisniewska via Dollar Photo Club
When I first started writing, I had very few tools: a typewriter, dictionary, and thesaurus. I also used notebooks and pencils (and still do.) Writing was a long, laborious endeavor but I loved it. After the emergence of the PC, I longed for one of my own because I wanted Microsoft Word. Imagine: a word processor with built-in editing tools, including a dictionary and thesaurus. Now we have handheld devices that allow us to do everything we can on our PCs and Macs at any moment, wherever we are. A miracle!

I’d guess most of us thought writing would be a lot easier with all of this technology, and it is, but while these editing tools are useful they are no replacement for human intelligence, skill, and experience.

I use Word’s proofreading tools and Grammarly for my initial spelling and grammar checks. One of the frustrating things about rewriting and revising my current WIP Swim Season is that my editing tools often don’t understand what I’m writing, and bring to my attention issues that are not actual issues. This wastes my time, energy, and physical stamina for keyboarding. While they provide easy ways to identify problems quickly so I can move on to the deeper stuff, each can create its own time-consuming and frustrating difficulties because they don’t understand what I’m writing or don’t get the “lingo.” Here are some examples:

Grammarly, which helps identify 250 grammatical mistakes, points out possible contextual spelling errors, and offers vocabulary enhancement, doesn’t understand swimming terminology. Each time I use a word in this context, it tells me I’m not using it correctly. For example, “heat” usually relates to temperature, but in swimming this word refers to “one of several preliminary contests held to eliminate less competent contenders,” (see Merriam-Webster.) A swim meet consists of 12 events, some of which may have as many as 6 or 7 heats or more. The word “heat” is used a lot, and not incorrectly, but each time it shows up Grammarly suggests I reconsider its use. I don’t. Still, I must take the time to address each occurrence and it slows me down. I haven’t found the “ignore all” option that exists in Word.  

“Event” is another troublesome word. In Swim Season there are 18 meets, each with 12 events, so the word “event" comes up many times. Grammarly does not know this and at every occurrence alerts me that the word is “overused.” It’s not. It’s an essential plot element. Yet, I examine each use to make sure I can’t use another word. Most times I can’t and wouldn’t want to.  

When I use the word “taper,” I get this message: “Did you mean paper? The word taper doesn't seem to fit the context. Consider replacing it with a different one.” Taper, in swimming, as in most sports, refers to the practice of reducing exercise in the days before an important competition to prepare for optimal performance. My team tapers. Ignore, and move on.   

Here’s another example: One of my characters is called “Coach.” Grammarly stops on this word at every appearance and advises me to change it to “The coach.” It does not recognize “Coach” as the name of a character. I ignore this advice and move on.  

Grammarly doesn’t evaluate for the passive tense in its creative writing/novel mode. To perform this check I need to work in another writing style, i.e. essay or business. I find this odd. Why would it not check for the passive voice in a novel? Isn’t passive voice a major issue in most novels?  

Yet, I am amazed at Grammarly's ability to find typos, misspellings, and other grammar messes after three previous editing passes.

Use of Word’s grammar and spelling checker poses its own set of unique problems. Swim Season is written in the first person. Every time the checker comes upon “I,” “me,” or “myself” it suggests I change the pronoun. How many times do you think these pronouns appear in a 150,000-word novel in the first person? How aggravated do you think I get each time I’m told to address this issue? Needless time is spent “ignoring” this suggestion.   
Another Word problem is that it does not allow me to use contractions. It flags "I can't" and suggests I change it to "I cannot." I won't. And I don't. But weeding through all of these notifications is exhausting.

These otherwise excellent editing tools are worth every cent I paid for them, but it’s imperative I remember they don’t do all the work. I can’t depend on them to capture all of my spelling, grammar, and other problems. While both have caught many errors in my WIP that I’ve gratefully cleaned up, I know the most valuable tools I possess as a writer are my own eyes, knowledge, and experience. After all the high-tech, fancy tools have worked their magic, I still have to examine each word, its use, and its placement in my manuscript, and revise and edit as needed to make my book the best I possibly can. 

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