How to Best Use Writing and Proofreading Tools

Ever look at a paper you just turned in, having felt confident because you used a "writing tool" like Grammarly or Hemingway and suddenly notice a glaring typo or an inappropriate word usage? Cringe!

You've long known your word processor's spell and grammar checker offered only so much help. Likewise, the newer, heavily-hyped writing tools also remain inadequate to proofread your writing. No tool can completely "fix" your writing and none advertises perfection.

To be sure, as long proofreading algorithms remain blunt instruments, the essay editing service industry can hope to cash in on their weaknesses. But in the end, no matter which product you use, digital or human, nor how much you pay, you will still find errors or weak moments that should have been caught.

Here's the hard truth, whether you are a native speaker or an English Language Learner: No one is going to do a better job improving your writing than you. So, save your money and sharpen your own skills.

Writing tools, once you understand their limitations, can help you hone your proofreading abilities, especially when used in addition to peer reviews and visits your campus writing center.

Here, I'll comment on just two tools: Grammarly and Hemingway, describe some of their shortcomings and suggest ways to use them as supplements to your own eyes.

Grammarly advertises itself as "the world's most accurate grammar checker" and for its premium paid service, Grammarly scans "your text for proper use of more than 250 advanced grammar rules, spanning everything from subject-verb agreement to article use to modifier placement."

In January 2015, the company began transitioning away from the pricing model, but Grammarly for Microsoft Office only works online and on Windows. If you're working on a Mac, you still need to pay.

For emails and online communications you can use the free Chrome and Safari extensions and other browser extensions (e.g. Firefox) are in the works.

I tried these browser extensions with my emails and found they suffered the same difficulty with foreign words, names, and homophones as spellcheckers. Grammarly caught "their" and "there" and "you're" and "your," but surprisingly often failed to catch "it's" and "its" nor "seen" and "scene." Moreover, the algorithm failed to identify the difference between "which" used as a determiner and pronoun. For example, it suggested I change "no matter which writing tools you use..." to that. Grammarly also fails to catch simple cut and paste errors that arise from accidentally pasting in the same sentence or passage twice, nor does it consistently detect any missing or wrong words in a sentence.

The paid service was similar. Before canceling my $29.95 month's subscription, I tried fivve different types of documents on it.

1) A 1200 word freshman writing paper on rhetorical techniques in The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "Letter From the Birmingham Jail."
2) A 650-word common app essay written by a senior at a San Francisco public high school.
3) This blog piece I'm writing now.
4) A scholarly article I wrote.
5) The journal's editor's comments on that scholarly article.

The premium version found at least two passive voice constructions in each piece. For such "errors," you need to ask yourself, whether your audience views passive voice as a serious stylistic weakness, or not. I know many students and colleagues, who learned somewhere in their early education that passive voice is a vice only somewhat less pernicious than kleptomania. Meanwhile, there are many STEM writers, who need to use passive voice, simply because their algorithms don't (yet) have agency, and there are many cases where an active verb just wouldn't make much sense.

While the English language and its grammar rules are constantly evolving, Grammarly seems to read for old school audiences. Such precautions are good. Except that the algorithm produces an excessive amount of false positives for everyday vocabulary one would use in a blog such as this, or even in a college homework, and has iron-clad dislikes. It flags "own" in any usage regardless of context.

Its suggestions also seem calibrated to only the simplest sentences. Unfortunately, none of the genres of writing that I tested in the program was simple. Most of the sentences that the Grammarly algorithm flagged where marked as suffering from "wordiness," which it explains like this:

This sentence is very long. To improve readability, consider breaking this into multiple sentences.

On the Grammarly website there's also this description of wordiness:

If you can say it in five words instead of nine, do so.

Also look for:

Noun strings (more than two or three nouns used to describe one thing)
Unnecessarily long words (Do you need to use discombobulate, or could you use confused?)
Unnecessarily long sentences (A sentence with more than two or three clauses may be better separated into two sentences.)

No doubt a little concision goes a long way to make your writing shine. But Grammarly indiscriminately flags all complex sentences and conceptual thinking--the mainstay of college writing. Thus, one has to question every "critical issue" the program flags.

The best way to use these imperfect tools is to talk back to them, as you would to a robot chess program that you always second guess. Only, grammar programs can't assess language as well as chess programs can calculate possible future moves. In fact, you can find the answer much better if you just read your sentence out loud. Ask yourself: Does it sound right? Your guess is better than Grammarly's in most cases. Also don't be overly impressed by complicated sounding errors like "squinting modifiers." Usually, the program is flagging keywords that you might in fact be using correctly.

If you find yourself struggling to decide between a correctly flagged colloquialism like "I am taller than him," which should be "I am taller than he, and your own ear-- then look it up in a grammar guide-- Strunk and White's Elements of Style is the old standard, but there are many competitors.

Asking questions, talking back, cross-checking reference guides-- all these actions improve your writing and help you make the best use of proofreading programs.

Experiment with as many electronic as you can, especially if they are free-- the paid services aren't worth their weak and erroneous results most of the time, and remember an algorithm is not the last tool you should use before turning in a paper.

I used both Grammarly and Hemingway proofreading this blog but still found many errors.

Hemingway, at $9.99 for a desktop app, seems like a bargain compared to Grammarly. But it absolutely cannot be used to catch your grammar, typos, and other howlers. This is not at all a good proofreading tool for students, but can be a lot of fun use as a sparring partner. Hemingway is usually wrong, but the real trick is for you to understand why.

Hemingway only identifies sentences that are long and complex, passive voice, overly complicated phrasing and overuse of adverbs. The weakness of its algorithm has already been lampooned in a number of venues, most infamously in The New Yorker for giving the author Ernest Hemingway himself a low rating.

This blog produced these results:

- 7 of 136 sentences were hard to read.
- 17 of 136 sentences were very hard to read.
- 13 phrases have simpler alternatives.
- 39 adverbs. Aim for 29 or fewer.
- 5 uses of passive voice. Aim for 27 or fewer.

My student's paper received this assessment:

- 18 of 103 sentences were hard to read.
- 17 of 103 sentences were very hard to read.
- 13 phrases have simpler alternatives.
- 15 adverbs. Aim for 21 or fewer.
- 7 uses of passive voice. Aim for 7 or fewer.

The journal editor's report came back:
- 20 of 50 sentences were hard to read.
- 29 of 50 sentences were very hard to read.
- 19 phrases have simpler alternatives.
- 4 adverbs. Aim for 9 or fewer.
- 8 uses of passive voice. Aim for 11 or fewer.

Entering that same essay I'd submitted to a journal, I received these results:

- 209 of 653 sentences were hard to read.
- 389 of 653 sentences were very hard to read.
- 34 phrases have simpler alternatives.
- 25 adverbs. Aim for 168 or fewer.
- 11 uses of passive voice. Aim for 130 or fewer.

When using Hemingway try looking through its lists of errors and ask yourself if you could write a better sentence. In most cases you can, but not because Hemingway gives you any new insights. The program just prompts you to rethink; then you need to choose the stylistic changes that work best.

As a tech optimist, who witnesses the ever-growing improvement of Natural Language Processing technologies everywhere, I think there's hope for such proofreading algorithms. I also bet it's not hard to give the current tools on the market a run for their money. I'm quite impressed with the Longs' two brother operation at Hemingway--so far, but it has a long way to go to be truly useful. I'd really like to see more college students and grads build better, smarter, free or affordable programs. Nothing will replace proofreading by hand, but it's entirely possible for algorithms to understand better the nuances of individual writers and their audiences.

In the meantime, while we are waiting for algorithms to get smarter and more refined, here are some old school tricks that help you talk back to writing tools.

Put a dictionary, thesaurus and style guide on your desk. Online tools have far fewer choices. Use the hardcopy reference guides to cross-check suggestions and get better ideas. For the best formatting style, the stalwart online style guide is free: Purdue OWL No commercial product has matched it yet.

When you're proofreading with printed papers, try these time-honored techniques.

1) Edit your paper in sections and several short blocks of time. Your concentration may waver if you try to proofread the entire text at once.
2) Search for one kind of error, e.g. spelling, grammar at a time.
3) Read your paper aloud.
4) Point to one word at a time.
5) Cover the paper with a blank page so you can just see one line at a time.
6) Read from the bottom up.
7) Read something else to clear your mind before you do a final edit.

Some newer tricks with screens:

1) Remember to use that dictionary on your desk to cross check your spellchecker and algorithm, neither of which can be sure if you've picked the wrong word.
2) On the screen, highlight and check one sentence a time.
3) Alter the size, spacing, color, or style of the text. This may give you a new perspective.
4) Flip the screen 90 degrees and read at a different angle.
5) Paste paragraphs into Google Translate into a language you know and read it again--this will produce some laughs but also give you a new perspective. Any errors or typos will further confuse the translator and will stand out immediately!

Good luck, and always talk back to the machine--this way algorithms will improve and so will you!