5 Things I Learned About Creative Writing from Using Grammarly
Martin Cavannagh is a writer and member of the Reedsy team. When he's not writing blog posts about publishing, he can be found scrawling short stories and writing screenplays in his free time.
Spelling and grammar checkers have come a long way since the early days of Microsoft Word. Back then, we would learn to hate the green squiggly line that appeared under sentences — along with cryptic suggestions for improving your document — to the point where we’d turn off the grammar check to preserve our sanity.
One of the most prominent online writing services emerging in recent years is Grammarly. It’s an app that integrates into your browser, allowing it to scrutinize the spelling and grammar in your tweets, Facebook updates, and emails. You can tweak the software to what you’re writing, tailoring it for US or UK English, for example. It will also vary its suggestions depending on whether you’re writing a blog, an essay, or a medical journal.
Full disclosure: Reedy has recently become an affiliate of Grammarly — however, that has given us a chance to test drive it for the past month. In fact, this post is currently being checked using their service. And while I doubt automated grammar checkers can replace the job of a proofreader anytime soon — it has had the unexpected benefit of allowing me to examine my writing tics and improve my natural writing style.
So, based on my everyday use of the app, this is what I’ve learned in the past month:
1. Don’t rely on passive voice
That's one of the most common ‘complaints‘ I get from Grammarly. And while it isn’t necessary to eradicate all instances of passive voice, it can often improve your writing.
Grammar Girl, the internet’s final authority on the written word, suggests that passive sentences “often aren't the best way to phrase your thoughts. Sometimes passive voice is awkward, and other times it’s vague. Also, passive voice is usually wordy, so you can tighten your writing if you replace passive sentences with active sentences.”
2. American writing and the Oxford Comma
On top of our different spellings of color, vigor, and enrollment, there are more subtle variations in British and American writing — such as the use of an Oxford comma in lists. Apparently, the Oxford comma is more common stateside, but writers on either side of the Atlantic will have differing opinions. The one thing Grammarly flags up is how useful it can be to clarify your statements.
Previously, I used a comma before the final conjunction unless I thought more clarity was needed, but now I’ve made a habit of always including one.
3. Remove the word 'very' from your writing
It's a reliable rule of thumb unless you're writing a speech for Donald Trump ("My tax plan is very, very good. Everybody says it's the best"). Most editors will tell you that using 'very' before an adjective suggest there's a better option you're leaving on the table.
In a recent online seminar on re-writing fiction, Reedsy editor Andrew Lowe cited a scene from Dead Poets Society. Here, an English professor played by Robin Williams rails against the use of ‘very’:
Along the same lines, Grammarly often suggests removing 'really' from sentences, as in, "writing a page a day is something you should really strive for."
4. "Preposition at the end of a sentence!"
There’s always that one person who INSISTS that a sentence should never end with a preposition. The grammar checker considers this an 'advanced issue' — unlike their 'critical issues,' it can be down to a matter of preference.
Like most people in the 21st Century, having prepositions at the end of a sentence is something we're accustomed to (or, something to which we're accustomed). I still end plenty of my sentences with ‘on’ or ‘in’ but I’ve certainly become more aware of my prepositions.
5. Wordiness is next to shoddiness
One of the most useful things I find with using Grammarly is its constant reminder to get to the point and not get bogged down by wordiness.
Long sentences are not necessarily a bad thing, and sometimes entirely required. But as the Grammarly app points out, “the average number of words per sentence should range somewhere from eight (very easy) to twenty (somewhat difficult) words per sentence. Sentences longer than thirty words are often very difficult to follow.”
So unless you’re the ghost of David Foster Wallace, you may wish to break long sentences into a series of shorter ones. Also, by varying their lengths, you can create a much more satisfying reading experience. We’ve heard it said that you should ‘write music’ — meaning that the rhythms and changing pace should be as important as what the words mean.
It’s worth noting that Grammarly is incredibly helpful for writing emails and letters. I would go so far as to say it can even aid you in polishing a draft of the book you’re writing. I would not, however, recommend using it to write your first draft. Editing-as-you-go can often hamper your productivity and break up the flow of ideas, which is crucial when you’re in the process of “creating.”
And while writing software has become incredibly sophisticated — it has yet to reach the point of being able to replace a professional proofreader. And until we get to that point, it’s always worth considering getting a qualified pair of eyes to look through your manuscript before publication.
Do you use a program to help you sharpen your prose? If so, we’d love to find out about it and hear about your experience. Share your thoughts, comments, and questions in the box below.