Have you Tried Grammarly?

Putting Grammarly Creative to the Test

This week we were debating the pros and cons of using computerised grammar checking software when writing fiction, over on the Facebook page of ALLIA, The Alliance of Independent Authors.

One traditionally published (and award-winning) author put the first three paragraphs of her professionally proofed and copy edited novel to the test and was not impressed. So, curious to see how I would fare I did the same for the opening section of Revolution Earth.  Grammarly doesn’t like dialogue, apparently and the novelists who use it to check their work ignore anything the program suggests in relation to dialogue– unless it is to do with missed quotation marks.  The excerpt, which you’ll find at the end of this post  is purely descriptive, with no dialogue.

With the Grammarly setting on: ‘creative’ (there are five settings to choose, from ‘academic’ to ‘casual’ – whatever that is), Grammarly came up with 14 writing issues – including, wait for it, one of plagiarism!  There were three for spelling, nine for grammar and one for punctuation within a sentence. But more worringly were the 48 ‘enhancement suggestions.’

I forgot to tell you that although I may be guilty of wonky syntax and confusing modifiers, (I’m a visual thinker and that’s why I chose film to tell my first published stories), my co-writer, with 10 non-fiction academic titles published by the likes of Macmillan and MIT Press, ought to know a thing or two about how to construct a decent sentence.  And so too does our copy editor, the very thorough Mary McLaughlin of Little Red Pen who gave the first half of our manuscript a line edit.

Annoyingly, you can’t follow up Grammarly, unless you sign up to a free trial.  And so, in the interests of finding out whether or not we had indeed been guilty of stealing another writer’s work, I signed up.  Incidentally, this is rather a bold accusation – and not one to be taken lightly – but presumably, a computerised program that accuses you of copying another writer’s work can’t be challenged in court?

As far as fiction is concerned we were evenly split, with one group a fan of using Grammarly to check their work first, before it was sent off to a professional copy editor or proof reader.  One novelist in the ‘pro’ camp remarked that she had been praised by her copy editor for her ‘clean copy’ and that she had been able to off-set the annual fee of US$149 /£94 (mid-market exchange rate today) for Grammarly in return for a reduced professional copy editing fee.

For those of us, rather more circumspect about using a computer to check grammar and spelling (and a US one at that) for our fiction, we did see that Grammarly could be useful for students in their academic writing, particularly if English is not their first language or if they are dyslexic. 

Writing fiction is a painstaking business – it’s easy to do but difficult to do well and the hard bit, for me at least is the number of re-writes and the endless polishing of the prose, to make it shine.  And this is where I do question the use of grammar checking software because, surely, the final polish stage is where you eliminate all the grammar nits?  Despite the 14 issues, Revolution Earth did score 75 out of 100, which is a bit of a relief! But seriously, though, is Grammarly worth the £94 annual fee? What do you think?

Because I do a bit of proof-reading and copy editing, as well as write a blog, I am going to make the most of that free trial and test out Grammarly for non-fiction and will let you know how I go and will report back here.

The excerpt that was analysed by Grammarly:

Revolution Earth

Prelude

Kakadu, Northern Territory, Australia

The sky is immense tungsten blue. It is his ocean and he floats like a diver in its depths. He feels this land where his people have stood for four hundred centuries, the winding of the river, the rising of the cliffs, the spirits that made it, the men who inherited it, the ancestors whose bones are the dust at his feet. Stamp. He makes his mark in the sand and knows that, like every other human artefact, it will disappear in the winds of time, the endless friction of world and air, evanescent as the sound of foot on ground. Stamp. But there is something new here. An unseasonable moisture. He looks down at the sudden mud under his feet. Carefully wiping the damp from his sole on a gnarly patch of grey-green grass, he moves away with long strides that roll his hips, a man who has walked many miles in his life and knows he has many more to travel.

Chapter 1 Love Lies Bleeding

Soho, London, Tuesday, 2.45pm

There’s a cadence to riding at speed that whirs with a logic that’s half human, half clockwork. A rhythm that comes from travelling the city hour upon hour, day upon day — over broken paving, potholes, and storm drains, the trainers pushing firm in the toe-straps, a wary familiarity with every venerable cobble that bumps its way up through the tarmac into the grimy sunshine of Soho. Up from the pitted streets stir physical memories of jarring and jouncing. You know how they say you never forget how to ride a bicycle? There’s more. Things you never realised you knew, like the best route to swing across from this loose paving stone to avoid that broken drain. Your body never forgets. When those feet press down one two one two, tendon-taut memories steer the bike. Hands on the handlebars, flick of the gears, the momentary judder of chain on cogs, skitter of speed, woman, bike, world.

She is at one with herself, the exhilaration of her blood and muscle, yet intensely aware of the ever-present danger of traffic and crowds. Bone, steel, and rubber, wrapped in the punch of music that hits the same beats as the pump of blood and the jab of the down thrust, a kind of meditation undertaken at 25 miles an hour down the cluttered streets. Between the parked cars and the randomly braking vans, with oblivious citizens stepping into the road, Jonie weaves through traffic like a movie extra threads through the jungle. To ride is to be, there in the moment, alert as a bird, a still point in a turning world.

Jonie hurtles through the chaos of Soho two blocks north of Shaftesbury Avenue with the poise of a bodhisattva raised on adrenalin and rock ’n’ roll. Sinuous tracks she makes in the permanently greasy surface of London roads disappear in her wake. Her eyes are sharp to what’s coming, to the Volkswagen rocking on its clutch on the corner, the midday hen party drunks teetering on white heels, the bald guy in the parked Mazda checking his wing mirror before he throws his door open, London caught for microseconds in perfect detail in the perfect here and now. What she doesn’t see is the black Mercedes-Benz GL500 SUV that rams into her hipbone and upper thigh, throws her to the ground, splits her plastic and polystyrene helmet open, flattens the side of her head on the grey tar.

The last of her energy spins the back wheel, slower and slower. The buckled front forks have jammed the front wheel against the brake pads she had been meaning to change at lunchtime. Deeper red than wine, sticky and heavy, her blood spreads a ruby pool into the colourless oily dust, gluing her tawny hair to the ground of which, scant seconds ago, she was the speeding queen.

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8 thoughts on “Have you Tried Grammarly?

  1. Catherine Czerkawska

    Excellent piece of analysis and I think I may be that ‘traditionally published author’ 🙂 I remember seeing Grammarly or something very like it a few years ago when I was working for the Royal Literary Fund, helping students with their academic writing. Somebody had put extracts from various classics into it and all had been found to be littered with supposed ‘faults’. I remember feeling, back then, that it might be helpful for some students, especially those who were moving from college where they had done little essay writing, to third year university, where they were ‘in at the deep end’ with 3000 word academic essays. Some of them were struggling. Just maybe running a piece of writing through the academic version of Grammarly and correcting accordingly might be helpful – although I still think, as I thought then, that there is really no substitute for the kind of personal interaction and tuition they were getting from me. It was a lovely job in so many ways, especially when you saw the change and progression in the work – and the gradual increase in confidence. And they were learning all the time, so that after a year or two, they were perfectly capable of writing a decent academic essay without recourse to expensive software.
    Sadly, Facebook is no place to have this kind of involved discussion, but I remain to be persuaded that there is any place at all for this in creative writing. You’re absolutely right. You draft and then you rewrite and hone. You polish the prose and make it shine. And if you don’t have the confidence to do this, the only way you’re going to learn how to do it is to do a lot more reading and a lot more writing. I honestly don’t think there are any shortcuts. What you achieve, after all this, is your own voice – which is clearly demonstrable from your fine extracts above. Why would you ever trust a piece of software to tell you to change that? But you wouldn’t, of course. All that would happen is that everything would begin to have a deadly, stodgy similarity about it whereas you have work that sings off the page!

    Reply
  2. Lambert Nagle Post author

    Catherine, yes, you are that writer mentioned and I can’t wait to get my hands on your books now!
    I suppose what I am shocked about Grammarly is the enormous market share the company seems to have – there’s a boast on the website that there are some 3,000,000 users and that ‘leading’ universities use it. So at $149 a user that sounds like enormous profits to me. I asked if anyone over on Authonomy had used it and one writer said that she uses a free program called
    Pro Writing Aid – http://prowritingaid.com/Index.aspx. I put the same section of text into their program and it pointed out that we used the word ‘that’ ten times. That kind of info was far useful than Grammarly’s was. Their ‘pro’ grammar checker on Pro Writing Aid only costs $30 or £19 – a considerable saving compared with Grammarly. I agree with you that Facebook isn’t the right place for an involved discussion on this, or any other topic for that matter that warrants more thorough investigation.

    Reply
  3. edwyncrabtree

    I have used pro-writing aid and found it useful for highlighting overused words, however, one suggestion I have for judging the value of such programs is to upload a bit of text from an acknowledged literary great or three, lets say, Joyce, Atwood, and Tolkien (great meaning whatever I want it to mean) and see what it does to their text.

    Reply
    1. Lambert Nagle Post author

      That’s a really sensible suggestion, Edwyn and will, no doubt provide some entertainment along with it. I’m looking forward to giving that a go!

      Reply
  4. Lambert Nagle Post author

    Just ran the first page of Pride and Prejudice, up to the line that ends “and some of his servants are to be in the house by the end of next week” through Grammarly and Pro Writing Aid. Sorry, Miss Austen but Grammarly only scored you 80%! There were three writing issues – one with punctuation within a sentence, one of vocabularly use and one of spelling. Pro Writing Aid had 28 issues, yes 28! Three overused words, one redundancy, two long sentences, six issues with diction and six vague and abstract words. Then there were the four sticky sentences. Sticky sentences slow the reader down, allegedly….

    Reply
  5. edwyncrabtree

    Most likely pro-writing aid is geared toward contemporary English usage and would flag up a number of issues with Austen. The spelling may also be an archaism.
    That said, a great many people like Austen exactly because she isn’t contemporary!

    It would be interesting to try it with a bit of Joyce. I’ve recently been reading Ulysses (well, trying to it is extremely good in small parts but a little wearing after a while) and it is a brilliant example of literary style and not at all dated. My suspicion with these programs is that while they may be able to make poor prose inoffensively average, they will also make good prose average as well since they have no regard for literary style. What we must strive for in our prose is a distinctive voice, or what I would term imperfect perfection.
    Pro-writing aid may help you to achieve the effect you want with your prose, but you have to know what the effect is in order to decide if its suggestions are helpful.

    If, instead of settings like academic, casual and creative, it had Hemingway, Dickens, Mitchener, Mantel, Rushdie etcetera then it might have real promise.

    Colin. (Edwyn Crabtree is a pen name)

    Reply
    1. Lambert Nagle Post author

      The Nagle half of LN is a major fan of Joyce, particularly Ulysses. I like his short story, The Dead. But I think you’ve nailed it, Colin, with your point about literary style. My worry is that an emerging writer is not going to be able to know what good style is if they are putting their work through these programs…..And you are right – if only those bland settings did have some personality, then as you say, that would be a breakthrough.

      Reply
  6. Catherine Czerkawska

    I agree too. Was discussing this with a poet the other day and she was of the same mind. (Not that she would ever consider putting poetry through it!) But she’s writing prose and she hones it like poetry, and there’s a quirky but wonderful quality to it. I tend to be in the Stephen King ‘read a lot/write a lot/don’t worry’ camp on these matters. When I was starting to write, I would read everything I could get my hands on by whatever writer was my particular favourite, and my own writing would take on those qualities, but it seemed to be all part of the process because I would inevitably move on. Eventually, my own style emerged. I’m not averse to Creative Writing courses, have even taught on them myself, but it still worries me when I go to readings and realise sometimes that I can pick out the products of these classes because they are ‘right but dull.’ And then along will come somebody who is raw and not always right, but full of energy and originality, and you find yourself hoping against hope that nobody knocks that out of them. I remember being asked to judge a script competition for a particular university. My ‘winner’ was met with a certain incredulity because the student in question hadn’t done well academically, but that script was optioned by the BBC. It may not have been ‘correct’ – but it was brilliant. I do like the idea of settings having a personality!

    Reply

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