Tuesday, March 23, 2021

Writing Life#2 - it's a number game

My desk this evening

Every week there's an email arrives in my inbox from Grammarly, the digital writing assistant which checks for spelling, word choice and grammatical errors. I have a premium subscription because the computer is as essential a tool for my work (and my life) as a saw is to a carpenter. Mostly, I consider these mails marketing junk, but today the headline caught my eye and I clicked to find out how it was that I'd used more unique words than 98% of users. 

According to the statistics I'm more productive than 95% of them too, writing over 21,000 words last week. My vocabulary amounted to almost 3,000 terms and my typing accuracy (more of which later) has improved to the level of 41% of users, up from a low of 15% when I last bothered to check. The figures, like Grammarly itself, are generated from an artificial intelligence programme that scans as I type. This post will add to next week's totals, and judging by the number of corrections I've made, my accuracy will be down from its current heady high.

I come from the generation of children who were not taught grammar at school. My sons all had a fuller and more formal understanding of verbs and conjunctions when they were in primary classes and I was home-studying for a writing degree. I have mild dyslexia too, finding spelling especially frustrating. That I graduated with First Class Honours perhaps proves the point that neither is necessary to writing well.  

But necessary is not the same thing as desirable. 

An understanding of grammar is clearly a virtue, as is having a foundational vocabulary and a natural 'ear' for the words and their rhythm. Spelling I still have little time for—there's a minimum threshold which helps, but it's largely rote and illogical—learning the orthography of words may please teachers but it won't make you a better writer in a way that matters very much.  The good news is that spellcheckers are now ubiquitous.

The writer Stephen King claims that an extensive vocabulary is not necessary either. In his book On Writing, he advises us to place what we have on the top shelf of our toolbox and make no attempt to improve it. Dressing up our writing, he says—and especially finding fancy words to replace plainer alternatives—is one of the worst mistakes to make. I agree, with the exception of avoiding repetitions in the same or adjoining sentences—which explains why the thesaurus is my most go-to book! 

I mentioned earlier that my accuracy is poor; in part that's a consequence of wretched keyboard skills, but it's also because I deliberately type faster than I ought, accepting there'll be dozens of mistakes. The phrase you've just read originally came out as 'beacuse i delibrately yype fst acceptng the will be doznes of mistkes.'  That's a particularly bad example, but not entirely untypical, so you might imagine I'd want to improve it.

Well, you'd be wrong. Because I use the mistakes as a way of slowing down; they require me to reread every sentence and consider again the words I've chosen.  Nothing I ever write—save for the briefest of notes—is not revisited and read-aloud for potential improvement. I think this is why I dislike writing greeting cards so much—there's no second chance; no scope to alter what we've said and how it sounds. 

Which is an interesting word to use in this context. To talk of the 'sound' of what we write is almost an oxymoron, and yet it's critical.  Of the three virtues I listed earlier I'd chose a natural ear over vocab or grammar any day.  Grammarly claims it can check our writing's tone and style, but for anything other than formal correctness it invariably fails—and that's because its putative intelligence can't hear the rhythm and impact of the words we use.  According to the weekly report, my style is a good balance of friendly, neutral, optimistic, confident, formal, joyful and informal—what bollocks! 

Ha—that should put its algorithms in a spin. 

It takes confidence to use a word like bollocks at the end of a sentence—and a well-tuned ear to know the aside which followed would soften its tone. Ultimately, practice is the foundation of most decent writing, and blogging is no exception.  A love of what we do and the care which comes with it is essential too—and that's authentic, not artificial intelligence.

According to Grammarly, I've written 919,814 words since last September, and am on a 64-week streak—my next achievement 'badge' comes at 75 ( I'm assuming that's weeks not years) by which time I'll be a wordsmith millionaire. None of which matters one iota, but it's prompted me to add to my account this evening—and made me think, that I'm more of a sucker for their marketing than I thought.


  1. I am also from an education system that never taught English grammar, and know exactly what you mean by the sound of the written word. It should bounce round your bonce in just the right way; exercise brain cells in the right sequence, feel pleasurable. I did feel a little inferior about my lack of formal grammar until I read Bill Bryson's "Mother Tongue". Inferior no more. English is the successful, adaptable, and vibrant language that it is today precisely because it has no real formal grammar, and that imposed on it by scholars was borrowed from Latin. The key, I believe, is to love the language, love the words, love the cadences you can create with them. It shines through in your writing.

  2. Thank you - I rather liked 'bounce round your bonce..' and shall no doubt shamelessly steal that sometime!

  3. I also think humour is important in our writing. The writer should try to entertain their audience.

  4. You are welcome to it. I have no copyright on it and suspect its a Kiwi-ism.

  5. When I type, I also type fast. The words pour from my brain directly into my fingers and it is almost a mindless thing. I'm getting the essence of my thoughts down. I clean it up later, but the most important thing to me is to get the thoughts down before I lose them in the muddled mishmash of my active mind.