Monday, 5 August 2013

Copy-Editing: A Second Pair of Eyes - Kathleen Jones on Grammarly

Copy-editing is the thing I hate most about being an Independent Author. It’s a grinding, methodical task that takes a lot of time and concentration and it has to be absolutely perfect, because one of the main criticisms of Indie published books is the standard of proof-reading and copy-editing.  I’m still being sent books for review that are littered with typos, punctuation and formatting errors. I don’t want mine to be one of them, but my books simply don’t earn enough to pay a professional - for a full-length book it can be as much as £750.  I can’t afford that as well as the advice of a good structural editor - and the latter, for me, is of the utmost importance.

I’ve been doing the copy-editing myself, reading and re-reading, but something always slips through and I hate it!  Your eyes see what they think should be there rather than what is actually there.  And then you die of shame as soon as it’s up there on Kindle and someone points out what you’ve missed.


But I’ve just discovered a cyber-friend.  A few weeks ago I was approached by the software company who market Grammarly and asked if I’d like a month’s free trial of  their product.  They hoped I might like it enough to buy it - the offer wasn’t conditional on writing a review.  I ignored their email at first, because most editing software I’ve tried has been very disappointing.  In the past I’ve had trial packages of several programmes and they were either too simplistic to be useful or so complicated I couldn’t fathom out how to use them successfully.  But I’m just reaching the editing stage of my latest biography - 85,000 words of close text with quotations and references and complex syntax and punctuation which is a nightmare to edit - and I thought, what have I got to lose?

So I downloaded my trial copy - which arrived promptly without any jiggery pokery.  It cleanly inserted itself into my Word programme and declared itself ready for use. You don’t have to have it embedded - you can use the web version which allows you to upload or paste text documents into it online.  I’ve tried both and I think the embedded version is best, but you need a recent version of Word. I’m using the Microsoft Office edition of Word 2007 and it works perfectly.  Apparently older packages of Microsoft Office have glitches.


The programme is very easy to use. I opened the first part of my book in Word and clicked on the Grammarly icon - it asks you what type of document it is - academic, creative, blog, essay or whatever.  I clicked on creative because I don’t write biographies in a strictly academic style, and then I sat back to see what the programme would do.

Grammarly opens a split screen with highlighted words, sentences and other issues on the right hand side, and your document, with the relevant text highlighted on the left.  It checks punctuation and grammar and combs through your prose for words, particularly qualifiers, that you might want to change.  I hadn’t realised how often I’d used the word ‘very’ until Grammarly pointed it out. It challenges my adverbs and adjectives and picks up all my passive verb constructions.  Do I want them?  Sometimes I do, so I just click ‘ignore’. But there are moments when I become aware that I’ve used the passive voice too much. Alerted by Grammarly, I can change it. 

One drawback is that the programme is American, so some of the suggestions it makes for replacements are in the US idiom, but you don’t have to accept any of them.  And some of the grammatical suggestions, though mostly correct, are clearly batty! It’s a bit like driving with a satnav - you need to look at the map occasionally and use your common sense. If in doubt on punctuation I use ‘Eats, Shoots and Leaves’, and for grammar conundrums and modern English usage I log into ‘GrammarMonster.com’.

The really good thing about Grammarly is that it makes you think about your text in an objective way.  It goes through it phrase by phrase, comma by comma and queries everything it doesn’t like.  I have to look at every paragraph, every word, with an editor’s eye - something I’ve always found very hard. It makes me a much more effective proof-reader of my own work. Another benefit is that it picks up plagiarism - accidental ‘borrowings’ are immediately highlighted.

The programme isn’t perfect and it doesn't live up to all it claims to do. It has had critical reviews in the Economist (though it’s a review I have serious issues with) and from the Alliance of Independent Authors, both of whom came to the conclusion that it couldn’t replace a professional copy-editor.  I agree in principle - if you can afford a copy-editor that’s definitely the best option.  But if you can’t, then Grammarly is a good alternative.  Used with caution it’s a ‘second pair of eyes’ that will help your own to focus.

You can buy a month’s subscription if you are only editing one book, but if, like me, you’ve got several in the pipeline I think it’s worth buying it for a year.  My month is just about to expire, and I’m definitely signing up for an annual subscription.  It works for me.

If you want to try it for yourself, I have three free trials to give away.  Just add ‘Yes, please’ to your comments below and then email your contact details to me at kathleenferberjones@gmail.com  I’ll put all the names in a hat and get Neil to draw out the three lucky winners!




Kathleen Jones is the author of 7 biographies, a novel and two collections of poetry.  She blogs at 'A Writer's Life'  Visit her website here to check out her books.

In  August Kathleen will be tutoring an on-line Life Writing course for the Edinburgh E-book Festival - creative writing tuition FREE.  Anyone can participate - but the first 12 people to sign up will also get feedback.

16 comments:

julia jones said...

Sounds a worthwhile programme. I don't have Word or might be putting my hand up for one of your free trials. (Current book subsisting on the goodwill of friends) Impressed you have so many in the pipeline!

Kathleen Jones said...

Don't be too impressed, Julia, most are backlist!!

Lydia Bennet said...

Yes please, Kathleen, I'll give it a go. I@m just formatting my book for kindle release on 24th. it is very hard to spot your own typos. my crime novel is very 'voicy' and has dialect in it, so it'll be interesting to see how it works on that!

Lydia Bennet said...

Kathleen, I emailed at the address you gave and it bounced back, mailerdaemon, I copied and pasted it so I don't know what the prob is. my email is valaws@yahoo.co.uk.

Lydia Bennet said...

it's bounced straight back twice now, sorry!

JO said...

Interesting post. I wonder if it works on a Mac?

In the past I've always invested in a real copy editor - and can't think what my work would be like without her. She even checks all my place names - and I've been horrified how many of those I get wrong (scribbled in my notebook, then the scribble copied) and the occasional sentence where I get carried away.

Chris Longmuir said...

Yes please,Kathleen. I'm resurrecting a previously finished novel which was spoiled by various editors! after I became involved with creme de la crime when I was one of the 20 winners of their international crime writing competition. You were not allowed to argue with the editors, and all 4 of them had different ideas. In the process I spoiled the novel and need to rewrite it, so a second pair of eyes, even virtual ones would help me to make a start.

Dennis Hamley said...

This sounds good, so yes please. I'm currently trying to finish the REAL ending to Out of the Mouths of Babes and also get my Ghost anthology ready for launching at the ebook fest and I haven't got time to send them out anywhere. I think the texts are clean, but what does an unobservant person like me know, who can't even send a simple email without three typos? I think this comment is free from mistakes, but, as I said before, what do I kow?

Debbie said...

You were involved with Creme de la Crime, Chris? So was I. Must talk to you about that at some point, as I was less than impressed by them. And yes, please, Kathleen - I'd be interested in a trial copy too!

Bob Newman said...

I'm very suspicious of anything like this. Virtually all such software is insidiously promoting American cultural imperialism. On MS Word, I have everything set for UK English, and it still e.g. insists that "any more" ought to be a single word (one of my pet hates). Snail books often have mistakes of this kind too. I think it's better to rely on your own knowledge of the language, otherwise its only a matter of time before the badstars have us all writing in American.

Nick Green said...

I still think the best way is to choose test readers whose command of English you know to be good, and just give it to them. I've picked up loads of stuff that way, and vice versa when it's time for their books.

BTW - as we're talking grammar usuage - I suppose it behooves me to mention that it's always 'program' not 'programme' when talking about a computer program! Only mention it because of the subject matter! ;-)

Jan Ruth said...

I tend to agree with Bob Newman.
I had an editor use the Grammarly programme and she made a total mess of all three of my books and I was back to square one! Expensive...
It is a pet hate of mine, this blending of US and UK. I've had non UK residents tell me that my spelling was awful (no mistakes at all, just the British version) so much so, that I've added a disclaimer now to all of my work, explaining that not only is the spelling British English but it follows grammatical conventions also, especially in dialogue. My settings are very much rooted in the landscape here (Wales, UK) and to reply on an American package seems a little too trusting.
My new editor uses his own eyes and discretion, and I'm more than happy to pay for that.

Kathleen Jones said...

Interesting mix of opinions. Yes, if I could afford it, I would use a human being. But I just can't. Jan, I can sympathise - Grammarly in the wrong hands could be quite deadly! But I once had a Penguin editor who did the same thing all on her own, so I guess it's down to the person in the end.
Nick - thanks for the tip re programme/program - I always think that program is US.
Bob, I sympathise with the cyber imperialism. I'm all for keeping English English English, if you get my meaning!
Lydian, Chris, Dennis and Debbie - I'll see what can be done with a trial - see how it works for you.

Kathleen Jones said...

Sorry everyone - I left the wrong email address on the blog - the right one is kathleenferberjones@gmail.com

Catherine Czerkawska said...

Now if there could be something that would highlight the spelling mistakes that are still real words, just those momentary lapses you spot a year later when you're rereading the eBook - that would be nice! I don't think I could use this though. If I write a passive, I mean to write a passive. (And that dislike of the passive seems to be a peculiarly American tic) I do a lot of reading aloud though, to see what things sound like.

liebjabberings said...

I tried it, based on your recommendation, but was immediately put off by noticing they have no 'fiction' category.

The trial was horrible - you can't apply business and journalism standards to fiction.

I hit ignore for EVERY single recommendation it made - 48 in a single scene from the WIP. A waste of time.

I tried it because something that catches punctuation errors would occasionally be handy. Especially things like unclosed quotation marks.

The only things it would be useful for in FICTION are caught much better by my subscription to Autocrit - I would never declare a scene finished until Autocrit and I both agreed, because I have a tendency to repeat phrases and words, and only sometimes is it intentional.

For fiction, I would unreservedly recommend Autocrit - so much cheaper, more available, and infinitely patient than a live editor - for the things it does well. I review AC on my blog, if anyone cares to look (http://liebjabberings.wordpress.com/2013/03/15/letting-computers-help-you-write-and-edit/).

Thanks for taking the time to post about Grammarly, but I would NOT recommend it for fiction.
ABE