You can’t trust your spell checker.
Generally speaking, a spell checking feature on a word processing program will do a fair job in finding words that are misspelled.
That’s all it’s capable of doing. If you think that an automatic spell check will do enough work to make you a good writer, then you are mistaken. Your spell check is a hack — in that, it only does what it is programmed to do. And I’d even go as far to say that it’s shifty-eyed (if it had eyes) because good writers know not to trust automatic editing tools completely.
You’re going to need a bigger and better self-editing tools, or a human helper if you want to really get all the mistakes.
Editing is far more than spellchecking.
Written communication doesn’t just need excellent spelling. It needs consistent grammar, active voice, clear nouns and adverbs, logical thought and your unique voice. If you are only using your built-in checkers to guide you in your writing, it’s like you’ve asked the cashier at Walgreen’s to diagnose your aquagenic urticaria.
Your spell checker knows nothing about purple prose.
The words, they come, they dance along the barre of your mind, pirouetting here and there, leaping and landing in a performance of grace and goodness in which every reader watches in amazement. There’s not a spell checker in the world that can keep you from over-writing, over-comparing, or over-describing. This is a shame. The world could stand a bit less nonsense and more straight talk. Does your self-important work get a little carried away with it its own verbosity? Find a good, honest friend and have them sit down with you and have a little intervention. You may want some of this.
Your spell checker knows nothing about verb tenses.
You may have a verb tense problem when some sentences have past tense and some have present. It happens to the best of us. The solution? Read your piece out loud. You’ll probably hear where you messed up and can fix it easily. Or, if you’re a little nervous about someone overhearing you, read through the entire composition and circle the verbs. From there change the passive ones to active one, the weak to strong and the vague to clear. And if you can, avoid the “be” verbs. They really aren’t your friends. Also check out Grammarly’s help here. I know that when I start thinking Grammar is like math, I feel a lot better about tenses.
Your spell checker knows nothing about punctuation.
Few of us have trouble with periods, question marks and exclamation marks. Our trouble comes with commas, colons, semi-colons, and possessives. A way to beat these issues it just to review the rules about them on great websites like this one. Or you could invest in Grammarly, which points out your errors for everything web-based that you write, like blog posts about punctuation. Or you could keep your sentences so short and boring that you have no need for commas. And really, people who use semicolons are just pretentious, aren’t they?
Your spell checker nose nothing about homophones.
Do you see what I did there? Homophones are the wurst. If we get all excited about putting our thoughts down, we may go so fast that we put down one word when we really mean another. A spellcheck won’t help you here, because it’s not a spelling error you made, it’s a usage one. One way to combat this is to read your work aloud, but even then that’s iffy because your mistake may sound right. Get another set of eyes to review your work. And if you’re really diligent about this, do a little find/replace of common homophones. This is time-consuming, but anything that helps you correct mistakes before your readers laugh at you is worth doing.
Your spell checker knows nothing about filter words.
Filter words are sneaky little devils. They are the words that you may use habitually even though they add little value to your prose. In fiction, the worst filter words are those that do more telling than showing. Your characters may think, realize, feel, decide, look, start doing something, or believe. While all of these can be grammatically correct, spelled correctly and used correctly, they make your story weak and flabby. Your spellcheck can do nothing for you here. How to get rid of them? Do a find/replace. Or read you manuscript for the ten millionth time. Determine how necessary they are. Omit if you can. Substitute in vibrant verbs. Your story will be more interesting, I promise.
Passive voice is also one thing that your spell checker knows nothing about.
Do you see what I did there? Passive voice means that you have designed a sentence in such a way that the subject is not active. Rather, the subject is having something done to it. Simplified, the cat chased the mouse is active. The mouse was chased by the cat is passive. But I’ve learned with great apps like Hemingway, that I can write some might fancy-schmancy passive sentences. How do you get rid of them? Hire a pro editor to help you spot them, use apps like Hemingway to highlight them. And practice writing. I’m so much better than I used to be at avoiding passivity.
Your spell checker knows nothing about your personal quirks and foibles.
These are the little writing habits that only you do. And as confident as you’d like to be, they probably shouldn’t be categorized as “personal style.” Instead, hunt down those repeated words or phrases — I often said my characters “sighed” — and get rid of them. Your spellcheck can’t find these, of course. The best way to minimize your personal quirks and foibles is to read your work out loud. You may be surprised what you discover. And paying a good, reputable editor is always recommended.
In my WordPress app that I use for blogging I downloaded Yoast and found it to be very helpful in making my prose better. You get a little dot at the top of your draft — red, yellow, or green — and if you get green, you’re good!
Now I’d like to think that I was a strong writer anyway, but with these tools, reading aloud, and my editing buddies, I’m far more likely to spot my mistakes and learn from them.
That spellchecker of mine is a shifty-eyed hack.
I don’t need him and neither do you.
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Katharine Grubb is a homeschooling mother of five, a novelist, a baker of bread, a comedian wannabe, a former running coward and the author of Write A Novel In 10 Minutes A Day. Besides pursuing her own fiction and nonfiction writing dreams, she also leads 10 Minute Novelists on Facebook, an international group for time-crunched writers that focuses on tips, encouragement, and community.