Cleaning Up My Act

I use Grammarly for free proofreading because I want my beta-readers and workshoppers to think I’m a better craftsmen than I actually am.

Presentation matters. Grammar matters. Spelling matters.

This is one of those no-brainers, like not showing up late for a job interview reeking of peppermint schnapps and opium. The fact that it’s a no brainer, though, doesn’t mean that people with brains don’t regularly submit typo-riddled work. As a first reader for a national SF magazine in the 90s, I saw a lot of sad manuscripts.

The magazine is  gone. My editor, Charlie Ryan, disliked people making fun of slush in public forums; he never wanted anyone to feel like a sincere effort was being met with scorn, or ridicule.

I figure talking about it now can’t hurt.

At the bottom of the barrel was the typewritten stuff. There wasn’t much of it in the 90s, but at that point, not having a word processor meant that you weren’t serious about writing. I’m sure there were, and still are, some serious established writers eschewing word processing, though none comes to mind. But at that time and in that place, the typewritten stuff, the translucent paper all braille like, embossed and crinkly, with patches of white out, was the most uniformly awful material we saw.

Word processing and spell checking doesn’t catch every mistake, obviously. It does, however, make too many of them on a page unforgivable. Why? Because it’s easy to key in an edit. It’s not like you have to retype the page (yes, people did that) and if you can’t be bothered, or won’t clean up your content, well, what does that say about you and it?

We saw all the things writers are told not to do, manuscript preparation wise. Otherworldly, cthulian fonts. Unreadable ink colors. Three hole punched manuscripts fashioned together with yarn, or brass bolts, or something other than a paperclip; badly xeroxed copies of typewritten manuscripts; odd smelling manuscripts; angry harassing cover letters.

You know what we didn’t see a lot of?

Properly formatted, carefully copyedited stories that totally sucked.

I passed on a lot of decent stories of course, or was part of that process, but it was hard not to notice, a correlation between the quality of craft and content.

Here’s where peer based workshopping becomes a time saver; it is easier to see someone else’s typos than your own. Even if your own sense of grammar is imperfect, your spelling rusty, your grasp of punctuation workmanlike, you will still find things to fix in someone else’s manuscript, even when that other person is a better writer than you are.

And studying someone else’s unpublished prose, looking for little ways to improve it, is an education in and of itself. Your detachment, from other people’s work, will frequently help you spot problems with your own.

I once sold a story to a magazine called Mindsparks, edited by Catherine Asaro. The magazine folded before the story got very far, but it was one of those early sales that gets you thinking more seriously about your work. She sent back the manuscript, dripping with red, edits to be keyed in.

A friend in my workshop saw the manuscript and said, “Wow. It’s amazing she bought it at all.”

I burned with shame.

Because every mistake you see in a manuscript pops you a little bit out of the story; it just does. Like watching William Shatner’s toupee slip in a fight scene in an old Star Trek Episode, or a styrofoam rock ricochet off of Deforest Kelly’s head; like the boom mike swinging into view in a low budget movie.

So why use tools like Gammarly? You have your workshop, right?

Marking up low level errors can make a reader miss higher level ones; you’re going to burn the attention, burn the insight that could have been yours, if you’d given your reader something cleaner.

DISCLOSURE: I’m trying out the service at Grammarly now in a seven day free trial; one of those where you give them the credit card info and you have to remember to shut it off to avoid a charge if you don’t end up using it; standard free trial kinda thing. So far, having used the service twice, I see that it catches stuff that I have been forcing humans in my workflow to help me with; it may end up being worth 12 bucks a month to me.

I know these blog posts have been sloppy, too. If they’re worth sharing I guess they’re worth copyediting, and again, I don’t want to give people a shitty impression; I’d like for readers of the blog to one day buy a novel or mine. So.

Here’s to new tools and processes that make us better.

I’ll keep you posted on Grammarly.


Posted in Making a Writing Life

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