Tuesday, August 27, 2019

The Futility of Relying Upon AI Grammar Checkers

As American schools have done a poorer and poorer job of educating students about the finer points of speaking, reading and writing the English language properly, correct grammar and spelling have gone the way of the dinosaurs. It’s relatively rare to meet a member of one of the younger generations who feels any assurance in their mastery of basic English.

Of course, texting comes in for its share of the blame as well. If you can convey your meaning by typing the single character, “U,” why waste the time or energy required to tap out “you” on the tiny keys of your cell phone?

However, what is tolerated or even welcomed in the world of texts, live chats, and gaming is still not acceptable in the hallowed halls of advanced academia. If you want to earn a college degree or have a prayer of achieving a Master’s or a Ph.D., you need to get your grammar and spelling on point. But is it practical to believe that students who’ve spent their lives misspelling words, using emojis instead of words to express themselves, can suddenly become proficient in such skills just because they’ve started college? My contention is that is not realistic.

We’re talking about two or three entire generations of people who cannot correctly pair a single subject with a single verb or explain exactly what subject-verb agreement is. They cannot identify a dangling participle or misplaced modifier and furthermore, they don’t care that they can’t. They simply don’t think it’s important.

At least, not until they have to leave school for the real world and go find a job to support themselves. If they thought their professors were tough on bad grammar and spelling, they’re stunned when they discover the white-collar workplace is absolutely unforgiving. Poor language skills are so crippling in the boardroom that they can keep someone from getting a promotion, or even get them fired.

Enter the digital grammar correction tool based upon artificial intelligence or AI. Microsoft Word had an early iteration of a grammar checker that was laughably bad. We all hoped it would improve but it never did. Even the most recent versions are pretty wretched and regularly claim writers have made mistakes when they have not, or suggest changes so ludicrous they’d make great skits on any comedy show.

I installed Grammarly on my computer mainly to catch my typos. I didn’t know the app would send me breathless weekly reports praising me for using more unique words than 99 percent of its users and being more productive than the other 95 percent, but telling me, a professional editor, that about 75 percent of Americans understand grammar better than I do. Really?

This is because when Grammarly tells me I should change my subject-verb agreement so that I have a singular noun paired with a plural verb, I ignore it. In fact, Grammarly’s suggestions for “improvements” in my writing have become the single biggest source of amusement in my daily life. Sorry, Stephen Colbert.

So why is this so? Why are grammar checkers based upon AI so bad? We can go to Bill Gates himself for the answer. Of all the tasks computers can be programmed to do, Mr. Gates says it is still impossible to program them with human judgment. And in many cases, human judgment based upon deep knowledge and extensive experience is exactly what is needed to make language flow correctly and seamlessly. And no AI can do that job for us.

What is the solution? I believe we need to go a bit backward here. Our primary schools should be teaching students how to diagram sentences, and drilling them on the nuances of proper grammar, spelling and language usage. It’s going to take us a few generations to recover from the level of general language ignorance now afflicting our younger generations, but in the meantime, please don’t believe anything any grammar checker tells you. If you’re not sure of a particular construction, just type the entire sentence into the Google search bar and you’ll find dozens of links to truly solid blogs run by professional grammarians who will quickly help you get your words in order.

Here are a few more screenshots showing some typical grammatical "corrections" suggested to me by Grammarly and Microsoft Word.

Patricia B. Smith is a journalist who is the author of 11 published books, including Idiot’s Guide: Flipping Houses, Alzheimer's For Dummies and Sleep Disorders for Dummies.

Pat is also an experienced professional developmental editor who serves as an Editorial Evaluation and Developmental Coordinator for Five Star Publishing. She works with private clients as well and has helped many authors land their first publishing contracts. Many of her clients have achieved notable success, including two winners of the Missouri Writers’ Guild Show-me Best Book of the Year Award.

Connect with Pat on Facebook, Twitter, or Linked In.

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Do Writers Know Too Much To Enjoy Reading?

How many times do you stop and mentally edit another’s work while reading his or her books? I’ve concluded that knowing too much about the technical aspects of writing has diminished my enjoyment of the books I read. I’m not a grammar queen, but when I see a mistake or typo, I SEE IT, especially in someone else’s writing. I miss quite a few of my own.

One thing I’ve noticed lately is head-hopping. POV switches are making a comeback―or maybe they’ve never gone away―but it’s driving me crazy. (Do not confuse head-hopping with omniscient POV.) This is happening with writers I’ve read before, both well-known and lesser-known. The writers of two books I’ve been reading lately have been guilty of head-hopping.

Female comments, then she has an internal thought.
Male comments, then he has an internal thought.

There is no scene break to acknowledge the POV switch. It’s equivalent to watching (reading) a ping pong match.
Photo: Pixabay

When I first started writing, I knew nothing except the idea for my story. Everything else I had learned was from a bunch of books I bought on writing and whatever I could glean from online articles. I knew I needed help, found an editor online, and sent him my first finished book. At least I thought it was finished. The editor was great. He trimmed my sentences, cutting out extraneous verbiage, making my experience with him more like a college writing course. In all, I sent him three books, and each book received three edits for the same price. The one thing he didn’t know, and I didn’t know he didn’t know because I didn’t know it myself, was point of view. He wrote non fiction, so POV wasn’t on his radar.

When I joined the Upstate South Carolina Chapter of Sisters in Crime, two writers asked if I’d like to critique with them. I remember the lunch the two writers and I had when, over Mexican food, they explained POV to me. They used the analogy of a camera, and everything that character saw or thought was in his/her head, and to keep it all in one scene. Shifting POVs meant shifting scenes with ◊◊◊ or ### or *** to separate them. It was a lesson learned and I’ve kept to it, though my critique partner finds a subtle goof every now and then.

There is one very famous writer in particular who head hops, but she does it seamlessly, so readers don’t notice. Let me clarify. I notice, and that makes reading her less enjoyable for me.

There have been many rules over the years. Here are a few:
*Never start a sentence with And or But.
*No fragment sentences.
*Don’t end a sentence with a preposition.

But rules change over time (see what I did there?), and some no-nos become acceptable. Here’s an example from the book I’m writing: “She remembered Christmas night and the cold ground, remembered the life she ran from.” Word gymnastics: “She remembered Christmas night and the cold ground, remembered the life from which she ran.” Sure, there are other ways of constructing that sentence without the preposition at the end, but the way I wrote it seems more natural. Elmore Leonard: “If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.” Obviously, Leonard didn’t mind ending a sentence with a preposition either.

Enough books have been written about writing to know that grammar is fluid, rules are broken all the time. New words are added to the dictionary every year; others become anachronisms. Genres cross, Romance can have a Happy For Now ending without a wedding, and mysteries can have a romance. But please, no head-hopping without a scene break.

Polly Iyer is the author of nine novels: standalones Hooked, InSight, Murder Déjà Vu, Threads, and Indiscretion, and four books in the Diana Racine Psychic Suspense series, Mind Games, Goddess of the Moon, Backlash and The Scent of Murder. A Massachusetts native, she makes her home in the beautiful Piedmont region of South Carolina. You can visit her website for more on Polly and connect with her on Facebook and Twitter.

Thursday, August 15, 2019

Four Mistakes New Writers Make

In keeping with this month's theme of "new tricks" for writers, I decided I'd write a bit about how the Internet has changed things for those of us who ply our trade with words. Not that it is all that new for young writers who've grown up with the internet, but there are a few dinosaurs around, as Linda Lane mentioned in her post on August 12. And there are writers in between the dinosaur stage and those who perhaps learned how to get on the Web before they learned to walk.

More and more I've come to appreciate the fact that there are so many online resources for writers - from help with research, to help with craft, to help with marketing. When looking for some inspiration, as well as good advice, there are three websites and blogs that I visit often: Kristen Lamb's blog, Writer Unboxed, and The Writer. Each offers new information to help writers and most of the folks there are very generous about allowing other bloggers, like me today, to reuse some of the material.

A recent article - Nine mistakes first time writers make and how to fix them - by Toni Fitzgerald in The Writer has some good tips, and the entire article is well worth the time to read. I'm only sharing a few of the tips, along with my take on the topics, so after you finish here you might want to check out her full article.

The first mistake Toni points out is that dreaded over-writing. Our Style Maven's snarky cousin touched on that in a recent post here at BRP, and I second that motion. Toni writes, "Writers toil under the illusion “more is more” when it comes to words. You can address this easily through pruning. Repeat after me: One adjective is enough."

Hear! Hear! Those pesky compound adjectives and rambling adverbs and details of description and backstory that make the reader nod off. They can all end up on the cutting-room floor.

Toni supported her advice with quotes from others, including this from Betty Kelly Sargent, a veteran editor and CEO/founder of BookWorks, “Effusive writing, heavily laden with adjectives and adverbs, is the hallmark of unseasoned writers and, if not corrected in the editing, will result in an amateurish book.”

Don't take too long to get to the story. As Toni says in the article, having a lot of set up before the actual story starts can be tiresome for the reader. Jump into the drama and slip backstory in small doses along the way.

Another mistake is inconsistency in the writing, and the fix entails more than just ensuring the character's name remains the same through the whole story. It's making sure that motivation is plausible and fits the character. It's making sure that things that happen along the plot line are set up in such a way as to make them believable.

“New authors often assume revision is all about commas and grammar, when getting a solid story onto the page should be the very first priority,” says Lisa Poisso, a book editor and writing coach.

Too many new writers think that they only have to write one draft of a story. I've often said, "A good book isn't written, it's rewritten," and I'm pleased to see that I am not alone. We need to let our work settle, to age, to become new to us so we can see the things that need to be fixed. Toni mentioned that she let her article, which is only 1,200 words, sit for four weeks before looking at it again. How long is long enough for a novel? There's no magic number, but I let mine sit for a couple of months before starting the second draft. Which doesn't mean we finish a novel and then relax and do no writing for a few months.

Some writers I know have several projects in the works. They'll finish a rough draft of one story, set it aside and do research for the next one, while working on the second draft of a story they finished earlier. That approach allows for a lot of productivity. I tend to bounce between my latest fiction story, a non-fiction project, and editing, which keeps me busy most days and feeling productive.

Another mistake is writing that is passive. Toni used an extreme example in her article, but it sure  illustrates the point: "The ball was thrown by the three-legged duck. The coffee they were selling was infused with lizard appendix. The adult book store was owned by Dick Cheney. Not even the shock of the second half of those sentences can save the dull first halves."

It's so easy to see how dull and awkward those sentences are, and the point is to let the subject do the acting, even if it's hard to imagine a three-legged duck throwing a ball. Although the adult book store one... Oops, no politics here.

And one final caveat - Don't rely on Spellcheck. It's not going to catch your misuse of a word. I recently visited a very professional-looking writer website, and a glaring mistake jumped off the page like a bug. One does not take a "sneak peak" one takes a "sneak peek". If you don't have an in-house editor to catch those pesky mistakes, or your own eyes don't catch them, it behooves you to hire an editor.

In closing, I urge you to visit the three blogs I mentioned here. Kristen Lamb has an eye-opening post about Amazon and what the signing of Dean Koonz to Amazon Publishing means. On Writer Unboxed, Elizabeth A. Harvey has an insightful post about Toni Morrison, whom we all in the writing world mourn.

Posted by Maryann Miller who struggles with craft as much as anyone. That's why there's a second and third and maybe fourth draft before a book is finished.  You can find out more about Maryann, her books, and her editing services on her Website and her Amazon Author Pageread her Blogand follow her on Facebook and TwitterHer online workshop on self-editing, part of a series of online writing workshops from Short And Helpful, can be found HERE
Clip Art Image courtesy of PinClipArt.com

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

New #Writing Tricks & Tools — Or Old Ones Revisited

Ideally, we should all be computer-savvy, ready to conquer the newest app or upgrade or whatever with great gusto. Realistically, we aren't all computer whizzes. Some of us old folks (and a few younger ones) shudder at the prospect of interacting with yet another digital innovation that threatens to drive us back to the old, trusty Smith Corona.

Yes, the manual typewriter was a pain in the backside because corrections and changes required retyping—sometimes many pages of retyping—but it was what it was, and we knew what to expect. What we could not expect was upgrades (except perhaps to the electrified version); nor could we expect internet access. Hmm. Progress has at least one pro to offset its cons for this senior citizen.

Fast forward to today. Speaking only about myself, I am often overwhelmed by the constantly changing landscape of technology. About the time I think I understand something, it's updated to a bigger and better version, and I'm back to square one. What's a damsel in digital distress to do?

Think outside the box. What box? The writer's toolbox, of course. Remember that not all its contents are digitally based; some have been around for years. Can old tools become new tricks?

Dialogue: Each generation has its own lingo. Conversations that would have worked well and been easily understood in the twenties, forties, seventies, or even nineties can fly right over the heads of today's readers. One exception is historical fiction, and even this should be written with modern readers in mind. If your story is based on characters and incidents many years past, make sure it rings true for present generation fans of the genre. This applies not only to dialogue, but also to narrative. One warning: beware of slang. For a book to have multi-generational appeal, it must not spew forth a proliferation of nonstandard vocabulary that won't be understood. The following poem demonstrates major changes in slang (as well as references) over the last century.

Generation Gap

We are the flappers of the evil city;
Capone reigns here with a rat-a-tat ditty;
Our sheiks carry ukes and a flask on the hip;
Hollow canes camouflage the hooch that we sip;
Gatecrashing is one of our favorite sports,
And we like our hot numbers with rapid retorts;
Garbo and Fitzgerald are really big cheese—
Valentino and Banke, oh, the bee's knees.
Struggle buggies for necking are copacetic; 
Flat Tires and Dumb Doras are really pathetic;
This is the Jazz Age with the Charleston step;
Make no mistake, our generation is hep.

We are love children, the now generation;
We rap and we riot across the nation;
Peace is our bag; Vietnam's not our thing;
At sit-ins and love-ins, our joyful hearts sing;
Acid and grass and speed free our minds,
Like Hendrix and Joplin, free for all times.
Dylan and Baez tell the world who we are; 
Woodstock promotes our ideal to end war.
We stand out in a crowd in hippie attire,
But we've yet to be tested in trial by fire.
The Age of Aquarius, the time of the trip,
Make no mistake, our generation is hip.

We're the latch-key kids—we stay home alone,
But Mom is as close as her cellular phone.
We live under bridges; we live in the park;
We scrounge in the day and hide in the dark.
Our boom cars are awesome, and we're really chillin';
Jacko and Madonna replace KISS and Dylan;
Arrested Development sings out our woes;
Rap says it all, though our parents don't know.
Magic's our hero; we no longer fear AIDS;
Brew and coke at our keggers—we've got it made.
We risk it all,  and we put fate to the test;
Make no mistake, our generation's the best.

Perspective: This is a biggie. Old stories, old words, old ideas, and old clichés can be made fresh and new by adjusting your perspective, putting on your thinking cap, and reworking them with a modern twist. Unpublished manuscripts stuffed away in a drawer or languishing on a hard drive can march into the present on the heels of a new angle, a different protagonist, another point of view. Step back. Open your mind. Take another look. Close your eyes and ask, "What if?"

Grammar and punctuation: This is a fun one because unpunctuated sentences can mean a variety of different things. While I believe punctuation should not vary significantly from one generation to another, I yield to the expertise of The Chicago Manual of Style as a valid resource on this topic. Interestingly, it makes some changes in each new edition. The current one (17th edition) even addresses communications in the digital world. CMOS keeps up with new writing tricks and tools.

As a final example of the power of punctuation, I borrowed something I found on Facebook. Despite my effort to attribute it to its author, I was unable to determine who that was.

An English professor wrote this sentence on the blackboard and asked his students to punctuate it:
A woman without her man is nothing
The male students wrote, "A woman, without her man, is nothing."
The female students wrote, "A woman: without her, man is nothing."

My takeaway on this: Proper punctuation is an old tool that deserves to be viewed as a new trick. While taking that to heart, be flexible as is the CMOS. Then you can be sure your sentences will be clear, understandable, without ambiguity, and current.

What do you think?

Editor Linda Lane has returned to her first love—writing—while maintaining her editing work. Her novels fall into the literary category because they are character driven rather than plot driven, but their quick pace reminds the reader of genre fiction. They also contain elements of romance, mystery, and romance. You can contact her at websites: LSLaneBooks.com and DenverEditor.com.

Thursday, August 8, 2019

New (and Old) #Writing Tricks and Tools from PSWA

This month's theme is perfectly timed since I recently returned from the Public Safety Writers Association Conference (PSWA) in Las Vegas. In addition to meeting and hearing from police officers, PIs, firefighters, 9-1-1 dispatchers, hazmat responders, military personnel, a postal inspector, SWAT members, and more about their jobs and experiences, I participated in a panel titled "Perfecting Your Writing. " Thanks to my fellow panelists, I am able to provide a selection of #writing tricks and tools for your perusal. Below, you'll probably find something old, something new, definitely a lot borrowed, and a bit of blue.

Without further ado...

From Thonie Hevron
  • SmartEdit is wonderful free software that takes some of the pain out of culling those oft-repeated words. You can pre-set your own filters. I always use this.
  • Hemingway is a fee-based (free online and app is one-time $19.99 and well worth it) program that identifies confusing and complicated sentences. This is also a must use before I send anything off.

From Camille Minichino
  • I write out a vocabulary list for my setting and theme—random words or phrases that will enhance the manuscript. I refer to the list for a descriptor or to construct a metaphor.
  • I check the opening sentence of every chapter to be sure there’s a sense of place and continuity. Readers usually stop at ends of chapters. Who knows when they’ll return? A little subtle summary will help. 
  • At the end, or sometimes during the process, I check every scene for a) all five senses and b) the dramatic elements of dialogue, action, setting, character descriptors, internal thoughts, internal physiological sensations.

From Kathy McIntosh
Sites I like:

From Susan Tuttle
  • Read dialogue aloud and listen for times when you unconsciously use contractions instead of the individual words as written. Record yourself reading, or better yet have someone else read the dialogue to you. Change anything that doesn't sound normal and natural.
  • Keep a "cheat sheet" nearby of the names and basic descriptions of the main characters and check it as you edit for their height, eye color, hair color and length, etc., to make sure blue eyes don't become green, blond hair doesn't become brown, and Tim doesn't become Tom.
  • Check for consistency in POV, and for any subtle shifts that may have snuck in. (ex: The dog sat up and wagged its tail, eager to join in the adventure.) Rewrite to eliminate any inadvertent shifts.

And one final trick from me (Ann Parker)
  • For Microsoft Word users: When I have more than one version of my manuscript open on my desktop (for instance, one with tracked changes and a second "master" file), I change the color of the background of the master file to light blue or green. This way, I can easily tell which file is which. On a Mac, you can find that option under the Design tab (see photo below for the promised blue).

Ann Parker authors the award-winning Silver Rush historical mystery series published by Poisoned Pen Press. During the day, she wrangles words for a living as a science editor/writer and marketing communications specialist (which is basically a fancy term for "editor/writer"). Her midnight hours are devoted to scribbling fiction. Visit AnnParker.net for more information.

Tuesday, August 6, 2019

New #Writing Tricks & Tools: Masterclasses with Writing Blueprints

In September of 2018, I wrote a post for this blog about Write for Kids and Writing Blueprints, a system of tutorials and worksheets to assist writers in mastering the various aspects of writing, editing, and getting published. That Resources for Writers post needs updating, because site master Laura Backes and her husband Jon have new blueprints by a variety of instructors. Visit the 2018 post for more information about how the program began and the manuscript revision/editing blueprint I explored.

To bring you up to date, I was given access to a few of the newer offerings for review. First up is Mary Kole’s Manuscript Submission Blueprint. Her bio from the website:

Mary Kole has served as literary agent for Andrea Brown Literary Agency and as senior literary manager for Movable Type in New York. She is now a full-time book editor.

She is the creator of Kidlit.com and author of Writing Irresistible Kidlit from Writer’s Digest Books. She has an MFA in creative writing from the University of San Francisco and is the Instructor for Manuscript Submission Blueprint.

This blueprint consists of ten units including an explanation of submission options and help with developing a submission strategy. There are bonus packets on synopsis writing and query letter samples. Detailed instructions on how to use the blueprint head up the program.

Mary Kole also offers a separate blueprint on Submission Research: Mastering the Top Three Resources.

A video conversation with Literary Agent John Cusick offers his Best Advice for Writers (about 28 minutes).

And Laura Backes presents a program called 3 Authors, 3 Paths to Publication (about 41 minutes).

This group can be purchased as one power bundle. You’ll find more information about the bundle and its components at the Writing Blueprints website.

Finally, just this month, author Teresa Funke announced her new blueprint coming soon called Mastering Historical Fiction. Teresa is known for her children’s series set during World War II as well as her Bursts of Brilliance blog on creativity. Here’s what her announcement said about the Historical Fiction course:

Whether it's a flashback set in a current-day novel, or an entire work of fiction set in another time and place, Mastering Historical Fiction will be all you'll need to embark on some seriously exciting time travel!

You'll learn:

 • The current market opportunities for historical fiction.
 • The types of historical events that lend themselves to good storytelling.
 • How to avoid major pitfalls like info dumps and imbalances between fact and fiction.
 • Whether you should ever take liberties with history.
 • How to conduct your research and organize your drafts.
 • Whether you should outline or not.
 • How to create believable, engaging characters for your story.
 • How to write dialogue that truly fits your time period.
 • How to choose historical details that make us feel like we’re right there.
 • How to write a children’s book or picture book using historical settings. 

This new masterclass will be available soon at Writing Blueprints. Watch for it at Teresa Funke's class page, and in the meantime, check out Teresa’s other courses.

Note that all courses include an introductory page telling you about the instructor and the course so you know what you’re signing up for.

Pat (Patricia) Stoltey is the author of four novels published by Five Star/Cengage: two amateur sleuth, one thriller that was a finalist for a Colorado Book Award in 2015, and the historical mystery Wishing Caswell Dead (December 20, 2017), a finalist for the 2018 Colorado Book Awards. This novel is also now available in a large print edition. Her short story, “Good Work for a Girl,” will appear in the Five Star Anthology, The Spoilt Quilt and Other Frontier Stories: Pioneering Women of the West, scheduled to be released in November 2019.

Pat lives in Northern Colorado with her husband Bill, Scottish Terrier Sassy (aka Doggity), and brown tabby Katie (aka Kitty Cat).

You can learn more about Pat at her website/blog, on Facebook, and Twitter. She was recently interviewed for the Colorado Sun’s SunLit feature that you can find at the Colorado Sun website.

Thursday, August 1, 2019

New #Writing Tricks & Tools: The Kindle Quality Dashboard

In addition to reviews, KDP and readers can also flag your book for typos and "quality issues." Kindle is now cracking down on poor quality ebooks, which can be both a gift and a curse. It can identify plagiarists, scammers, and cut and paste thieves. But I've read posts on forums where writers complain that readers have unfairly flagged their books. The concern, of course, is trolls targeting authors with this new tool.

Whatever the cause, if you find your book flagged you have the opportunity to fix it and to appeal.

You should receive an email from KDP stating there are issues with a link to their eBook Quality Dashboard which will list the problems. You can also access the dashboard through your KDP bookshelf. Problems such as formatting errors, blurry images, duplicate content, typos, etc. are listed with hints on how to fix them.

The book can also be flagged for "disappointing content" which KDP defines as: 

Content that is either marketed as a subscription or redirects readers to an external source to obtain the full content
Content that is freely available on the web (unless you are the copyright owner of that content or the content is in the public domain). For more information, you can refer to the sections titled "Illegal and Infringing Content" and "Public Domain and Other Non-Exclusive Content" in the Content Guidelines
Content whose primary purpose is to solicit or advertise
Content that is not significantly different from content in another book available in the Kindle Store
Content that is too short
Content that is poorly translated
Content that does not provide an enjoyable reading experience
Bonus content that appears before a book's primary content
Content that is excessively reused, recycled, or repeated within or across books

You have three replies for each flagged item:

1. You will fix it.

2. You can't fix it.

3. Not an issue (meaning you intend for the content to appear that way).

You are given the opportunity to upload a new file with the changes. KDP can take up to a couple of days to review the file and either okay it or determine if further action is required. You will receive reminders until you resolve the issue.  If you don't, they can remove the book from sale.

Related Topics:

Kindle Launches New Ebook Quality Dashboard  
Amazon Kindle Crackdown on Ebook Quality
Guide to Kindle content quality  
Content Guidelines 
Ebook metadata guidelines 

Diana Hurwitz is the author of Story Building Blocks: The Four Layers of Conflict, Story Building Blocks II: Crafting Believable Conflict, Story Building Blocks III: The Revision Layers, and the YA adventure series Mythikas Island. Her weekly blog, Game On: Crafting Believable Conflict explores how characters behave and misbehave. Visit DianaHurwitz.com for more information and free writing tools. You can follow her on Facebook and Twitter.