A few years back, at a meeting of my local writing club, a man came up to me and said, “I don’t believe you have to know all that grammar crap to be a writer. That’s what editors are for, right?”
He grinned at me, expecting me to agree with him I think, but after I shut my mouth which had hung agape for a moment, I told him that if that’s what he thought, then he was not a writer. (Yes, I was that direct.) If what he liked to do was tell stories, then perhaps he could call himself a storyteller, but a writer needs to know the tools of his trade, and one of those tools is grammar.
“Would you trust a man who called himself a carpenter, but who said he didn’t think it was necessary to know how to work a hammer or a saw?” I asked.
Since that encounter, I’ve observed the proliferation of new technology tools for writers. From book editing tools to grammar checkers, they all claim to do one thing: make you a better writer.
But do they?
It’s my opinion that though these tools can be helpful — and here, I must divulge that I use quite a few of these programs myself — they can only help you to improve what you already know how to do.
Take grammar and spelling checkers for example, including those native to word processing applications like Microsoft Word. Word processing features and add-ons such as Grammarly assist us by highlighting grammar and spelling errors. They are not perfect, however, because they are not human. They work strictly by following a set of rigid rules and can only point out suspected problems.
You, the writer, must already know and understand grammar in order to make the correct choices for your particular piece. Language is flexible, varied, and changes over time. And because of this, grammar checkers are always outdated. If you blindly accept the apps’ suggestions, your writing will be stiff and formal and empty of voice.
What about more comprehensive tools, such as Pro Writing Aid, which touts itself as your “writing coach”? I acknowledge that it’s a good tool. I’ve used it for pointing out stylistic problems such as passive voice, overuse of adverbs, echoes, etc. In other words, it’s a copyediting tool. But again, if you blindly comply with its suggestions, you will not necessarily be a better writer.
Maybe you want that passive verb construction because it fits with the situation or the character’s point of view. Maybe that particular adverb gives an ironic twist to the word it is modifying. The point is, the writer — YOU — must choose what is right for your work and your voice.
In my experience, these applications can also entice you down the rabbit hole of endless analyzation and overthinking, when you could be revising for more meaningful content. Also, Pro Writing Aid, as comprehensive as it is, inevitably messes up my paragraph and font formatting, so I end up taking time to reformat. Not how I really want to spend my time.
So how does one become a better writer?
By reading and then rereading with an eye to understanding the choices the author has made. By writing and writing and writing — a lot of bad writing — followed by hours and hours of revising. By getting constructive feedback from beta readers, critique groups, editors, and/or writing coaches (keeping in mind that you, alone, are the ultimate critic of your work). And by never giving up, continuing to read and write and revise and putting your work out into the world over and over and over again.
That said, technology can be a boon to writers. I’m a terrible writer using longhand on paper, and I don’t know what I would do without the ability to cut and copy and paste and move words around at will. I love thesauri of all kinds and enjoy the easy searchability and quick results with digital and online versions. My online dictionary gets used constantly to verify the precision of my word choices.
Educational sites such as OneStopForWriters provide character and emotion and color thesauri, along with tutorials and tools to help you structure your novel. Reedsy is another educational resource you may want to consider.
Scrivener is indispensable to me. In fact, I use Scrivener for all my writing projects, from blog posts to poetry collections to freewriting to books. (About the only thing I don’t use it for is journaling, though it would work fine for that too.) The only thing I use Word for anymore is business writing and sharing my work with others.
But the REAL substance of my writing is embedded in the knowledge and love of language. Words are the raw material with which a writer works. Vocabulary, grammar, syntax, and structure are the tools. Our craft, our creative artistic expression is to shape words into a coherent story or message that has an intellectual and emotional impact on others.
All the technology and all the tools in the world won’t make you or me better writers (or better carpenters, for that matter) if we don’t learn how to use them creatively to design and shape our work for its specific purpose.