I am a trained writer. Sort of. In truth, I’m a trained journalist who writes what sounds good. In other words, I use my ear and if I can say the sentence out loud — if the prose sings — it’s good. If it doesn’t sound conversational and smooth, it’s not.
I know grammar or at least part of it, but my raw writing reveals significant gaps in spelling, sentence, and paragraph structure.
A Medium Editor suggested, perhaps out of kindness but more likely to ease her pain, that I try Grammarly. I’ve been vaguely aware of the decade-plus-old company but, perhaps out of pride, assumed I didn’t want or need it. It was a surprising decision considering how much I rely on spell and grammar checking in Microsoft Word.
Now that I’m writing almost daily for this Medium blog and sometimes publishing without a single editor taking the first pass, I thought a digital safety net might not be a bad idea.
Grammarly is both a free, standalone web app and a browser plug-in and uses a combination of artificial intelligence and natural-language processing to read your content and spot spelling errors, grammatical mistakes, and even tone (how your writing sounds to others).
Good writing is not just about clarity and grammatical quality, you must know your audience. Grammarly allows writers like me to set goals to ensure that my writing is tailored to my desired audience. I’ve left mine on the default which assumes, for instance, my audience is “Knowledgeable” (instead of, say, “Expert”), the formality is “Neutral” (I would never go “Formal”), and the domain is “General” (as opposed to, say, “Creative” or “Academic”). Wherever you use it, Grammarly is a font of constant writing feedback. I especially enjoy the little smiley face I get when it deems that my writing tone will sound friendly to my readers.
I can open the Grammarly web app and drop in a complete piece of text for analysis. I use the free version which offers a lot of guidance, but I could get a lot more help (it can even check for plagiarism) for $139.95 a year (their “best value”), but I don’t think I need that much writing help. Do I?
The web app shows me the number of errors and provides an overall score (out of 100) that tallies grammatical correctness, clarity, engagement, and delivery. The first draft of this document had nine grammar alerts, was measured as “clear,” but “a bit bland” and, for Delivery, “slightly off.” That last grade means Grammarly gets me.
As a Web extension, Grammarly is watching almost everything I write online, from lengthy emails in Gmail to pithy tweets (it does not work inside Medium on Microsoft Edge). There’s now a little green dot in my compose windows, though I can turn Grammarly off on a web service-by-service basis. Inside the dot is a semi-circle with an arrow, spinning and waiting for me to type my first grammatical error. As I do, the circle turns an angry red. When I stop there’s a tally of my errors. I can click on the circle for a pop-up window guiding me through corrections.
My preference, though, is to hover over the red-underlined word and wait for Grammarly to show me the correct word or usage. These suggestions aren’t like Gmail smart compose, the know-it-all mail AI that likes to finish your sentences for you (if you hit tab on a ghostly suggestion). Grammarly generally sticks to spelling, grammar, usage, and tone.
Unlike most spell checkers, including the one built into Microsoft Edge, I don’t have to right-click to see these corrections, which is awesome until the pop-up collides with another web page or web service popup. Grammarly isn’t perfect. It can miss the context of a sentence and let a word slip by because it’s spelled properly, even though it doesn’t fit in the sentence.
In general, Grammarly has made me painfully aware of my worst writing tics and bad habits, ones faithful readers have probably been aware of for decades. I’m doing my best to scrub them out.
Would I pay to potentially become an even better writer? In one recently analyzed document, Grammarly told me I could access an additional 67 suggestions if I went “Premium.” What Grammarly’s analyzer doesn’t seem to realize is that most writers like me are living story-to-story and must balance the benefits of being a marginally better writer with making a living.
P.S. Yes, Grammarly favors the Oxford comma.