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Writer’s Toolkit: Grammarly®

Remember that Grammarly quiz I shared last month in celebration of Grammar Day? Well, around the same time, the good people over at Grammarly offered me a free trial of their grammar checker as a gift for the occasion! Naturally, it was the perfect opportunity to try it out and write a review on it for my Writer’s Toolkit segment. After all, even the best writers need a little help checking their spelling and grammar, right?

So without further ado, here is my review of the Grammarly grammar checker. Enjoy!

About Grammarly

Grammarly, or the Grammarly®Editor, is a spelling and grammar checker that automatically proofreads text in English. According to the site’s product page, Grammarly “corrects contextual spelling mistakes, checks for more than 250 common grammar errors, enhances vocabulary usage, and suggests citations”. Aside from its primary function as a proofreader, the editor also features a thesaurus that suggests improvements on word choice and a plagiarism checker that compares text with over 8 billion pages on the Web.

Grammarly offers a few features for free, such as the quick grammar checker on their home page and the Google Chrome plugin that automatically checks any text you type in your browser. The full version can be accessed via premium subscriptions of $29.95/month, $59.95/quarter ($19.98/month), or $139.95/year ($11.66/month).

My free trial of Grammarly lasted for one month, during which time I used it to proofread my stories and blog posts. I also installed the Grammarly plugin on my Google Chrome browser, which for the purposes of this review is considered an extension of the full proofreader on the Grammarly website. Since I work on a Mac, I was not able to test the Microsoft Office add-in.

Pros

The first thing I noticed when I started using the Grammarly proofreader is that it doubles as a teacher. When the editor catches an error, it doesn’t just tell you that it’s wrong; it tells you why it’s wrong. This is immensely useful for learning about mistakes you didn’t even know you were making so you can avoid making them again. I’ve already learned a couple of grammar rules myself! Explanations include examples of correct and incorrect uses, and a fun little bonus is the score in the bottom right corner that evaluates how grammatically correct your text is overall. It’s like having your own private grammar tutor!

Another handy feature is the vocabulary enhancement thesaurus. The editor flags words it finds too common or repetitive and suggests replacements that may improve the quality of the text. It can also check a document against pages across the Internet to identify possible plagiarism, and while I confess that I only tested this a few times, it seems to work fairly well. Both of these features can be toggled on and off, which makes them optional additions to an already powerful proofreading tool. And yet another bonus is the preset configuration list for types of documents ranging from formal to creative writing, so you can actually teach the editor what sorts of errors you want it to focus on when proofreading your text!

The Google Chrome plugin also deserves an honorable mention, as it brings all of Grammarly’s features to any web page on which you write. When you type into a text box, an icon appears in the corner and automatically updates a number to indicate how many errors are being detected as you type. Hovering over this icon will open a small tab that shows you how many advanced and critical errors are in your text at the moment, and clicking in this tab or on the explanations that appear when you hover over underlined errors will open the Grammarly editor directly on the page, so you can edit your text without having to navigate away. It even seems to learn your writing style the longer you use it. That’s pretty neat!

The Grammarly®Editor, online version

Cons

It’s worth noting at this point that the gentleman who set me up with my free trial of Grammarly mentioned its usefulness as more of a “second set of eyes” as opposed to a replacement for a professional proofreader. After trying it out a few times, I quickly realized what he meant. The proofreader points out whatever it believes may be an error, but it can’t always take the full context of the document into account. Sometimes it incorrectly marks an alternative grammar choice as an error, and other times it misreads the context and lets a mistake slide. This issue was already thoroughly covered in a review by Grammarist, so I won’t go into detail here. In all fairness, that article was written over three years ago, during which time Grammarly does seem to have improved on its shortcomings, but it still can’t fully compensate for the judgment of a human being. Grammarly is good for catching errors you missed yourself, but if you need to proofread a whole book, your best bet is to hire an editor.

Perhaps the biggest drawback I noticed while testing Grammarly is that it isn’t entirely relevant to my style of writing. This isn’t necessarily a con, per se; more of an observation of how the editor seems to be specifically geared toward strictly formal composition. Most of the documents I pasted into Grammarly were short stories, and while the proofreader was right to catch many of my supposed errors (even when set to “Creative – Short Story”), over 90% of them were left untouched due to being creative choices on my part as opposed to actual mistakes (e.g. character dialogue or first-person narrative intended to sound “real”). Perhaps this is more of a testament to the perfectionist editor in me than to Grammarly’s limited usefulness, but I still think it’s worth mentioning for the benefit of writers as meticulous about grammar as me. If you know exactly what mistakes you’re making, you don’t need to pay for an automatic proofreader to tell you the same thing.

I should also mention that I do much of my writing on an iPad, and though I was able to use Grammarly well on my laptop, I couldn’t access it at all through my mobile device due to incompatibility issues. I can’t say if the editor works on non-iOS devices because I don’t own one, so this is mostly a note of caution to Apple users, but it may apply to anyone who frequently writes on a smartphone or tablet. Until Grammarly comes out with a mobile app, you’ll have to make due with your device’s built-in spell checker.

Summary

Pros

  • Grammatical error corrections with explanations
  • More thorough than standard word processor spelling and grammar checkers
  • Built-in thesaurus for vocabulary enhancement
  • Plagiarism checker
  • Settings for different types of documents
  • Google Chrome plugin for universal use

Cons

  • More useful for formal writing than creative writing
  • Misses some grammatical errors
  • Incorrectly marks some alternative grammar choices as mistakes
  • Incompatible with mobile devices

Conclusion

Is Grammarly worth your money? I’d say that depends on three factors: what you write, how often you write, and how proficient you are at editing on your own. If you’re constantly typing up formal documents, articles and emails that require impeccable spelling and grammar, a premium subscription to Grammarly may be just what you need. If, however, most of your writing consists of poetry or stories that experiment heavily with form and style, then a standard free grammar checker may suffice. Use your discretion when deciding how much help you really need to edit your work.

Based on my brief experience with it, Grammarly certainly seems to warrant the respect it gets, and though I may not need it now while my writing is concentrated in the experimental short story format, I may consider attaining a full subscription for future proofreading of my novels and academic papers (both of which are included in the aforementioned preset list). In any case, Grammarly has certainly gained this writer’s attention, and I believe it deserves the attention of any writer looking for a better automated editor than what the standard word processor has to offer. To paraphrase the famous proverb, your grammar is only as strong as your weakest misplaced comma.

Bonus: I used Grammarly to proofread the first draft of this blog post. Before editing and after including vocabulary and plagiarism checking, it came out to 35 critical issues and a score of 91 out of 100. Thanks, Grammarly!

Today’s creative writing post is brought to you by Grammarly, the World’s Best Grammar Checker. I was not compensated for this review. All opinions expressed here are my own. For more information on Grammarly, visit http://www.grammarly.com/grammar-check. Thanks for reading! Happy writing!

Writer’s Toolkit: Index Cards

I’ve already used my Writer’s Toolkit segment to talk about the advantages of keeping a journal and a pocket notebook. Now to complete the trio of handy note-taking tools, today’s topic covers a utility that every prolific writer (especially novelists) should have under their belt: index cards.

Index cards

Oxford Ruled Index Cards

There probably isn’t much else I can add about the usefulness of index cards that hasn’t already been covered by the journal and the pocket notebook, so instead I’ll briefly cover the advantages they have over both of these. Like the aforementioned items, index cards are great for taking notes, and while they aren’t quite as convenient to carry around as a pocket-size book, they do have a significant feature that makes up for that: separability.

Notebooks are useful for keeping track of ideas as they come to you; the challenge is sorting through those ideas later. Cutting up pages and sticking pieces together doesn’t seem like a very productive way to go about it (unless you’re into scrapbooking, in which case it may actually be fun). A good alternative, therefore, is to scan through the highlights and note those on separate cards. You can categorize your ideas by topic and sort through them anytime to find the most relevant ones for your current project. Essentially, notebooks are for taking with you to jot down ideas on the go, while index cards are for organizing those ideas in your private workspace. How convenient is that?

While every writer can benefit from using index cards this way, novelists get the most use out of them with an additional purpose. If you’ve ever owned a cork board, you may already be familiar with the concept of pinning notes and pictures in an orderly fashion (if you’re like me, though, they’re probably all pinned haphazardly with no discernible pattern whatsoever). In a similar manner, writers planning out a novel can pin index cards to keep track of character profiles, settings and important plot points, so as to get a clear vision of the story as a whole. For writers who are total scatterbrains, this is an excellent habit to pick up!

Summary

Advantages of Using Index Cards

  • Easy to sort ideas
  • Categorize topics for quick reference
  • Keep track of important plot details
  • Visualize novel storyline

Index cards are a great option for many writers, but almost a necessity for novelists. Whether you like to set aside the occasional note for future reference or lay out the entire detailed storyline of an upcoming novel, index cards are a useful tool to help you keep your creativity in order!

Writer’s Toolkit: Pocket Notebook

So I figured it was time for another Writer’s Toolkit post, as it’s been a while since I’ve shared one. While trying to decide which tool to write about next, I realized I haven’t yet mentioned an essential one that’s been especially useful in my experience as a writer. So to name another indispensable item for the serious artist, here’s a brief review of one of my personal favorites: the pocket notebook.

Moleskine Classic Pocket Notebook

Moleskine Classic Pocket Notebook

The pocket notebook I use was a Christmas present from my cousin, one of several people in my family who know of my passion for creative writing. She told me it was for carrying around in my pocket or backpack so I could jot down ideas as they came to me. So that’s what I did, and ever since, it’s been a handy tool for taking notes while on the go. I use it to keep track of random thoughts, lists of blog post ideas, possible story titles, etc. It’s always great to have with me whenever I go out!

One of my favorite places to take my notebook is the airport. While sitting in the café waiting for arrivals, I like to observe people around me and try to imagine what their stories might be, and these thoughts sometimes become notes that I could use later on. Another fun use for my notebook is keeping track of the observations I make about nature when I sit outside, as these often become inspiration for poetry. Being naturally forgetful, keeping a written record of my observations has been immensely helpful for my fictional works.

Much like the journal I’ve written about before, my notebook serves a useful purpose as a collection of the scraps of ideas that come out of my head. This gives me a clear vision of my thought processes, especially the more random and incomplete ones that don’t appear in my journal. This also makes my notebook a great source of inspiration whenever I hit a creative block. Sometimes notes that seemed like simple observations at the time of writing turn out to be good ideas for fiction. So don’t neglect to record your thoughts while you’re out and about. You may discover something in your notes later on that you never even realized was there!


Summary

Advantages of Carrying a Pocket Notebook

  • Always be prepared when new ideas strike
  • Write down observations as they happen
  • Keep scraps in one collection
  • Maintain source of possible inspiration for future writing

A pocket notebook is a great tool for any writer, especially fiction writers who are constantly seeking new ideas for stories. If you find that inspiration often strikes at unpredictable and even inconvenient moments, you should definitely consider keeping a small notebook with you at all times. The writer in your mind will thank you!

 

Writer’s Toolkit: The Hodges Harbrace Handbook

Who among us writers hasn’t found themselves doubting at one time or another whether the grammar in our writing was correct? I myself have at least three doubts regarding the previous sentence in this paragraph! We’ve probably all been in this situation before, getting stuck during the editing process over a comma we weren’t sure was correctly placed or the appropriate formatting for a citation. That’s why today’s Writer’s Toolkit review features a nifty handbook designed to aid writers through the trials of editing and revision: The Hodges Harbrace Handbook by Cheryl Glenn and Loretta Gray.

Hodges Harbrace Handbook - 17th Edition Hodges Harbrace Handbook - 18th Edition

Book Summary

This handbook was one of the required materials for the online creative writing course I took through UC Berkeley. I currently own the 17th edition, published in 2009 with an MLA update, though at the time of writing this review, an 18th edition has already been released (and you can be sure that more will follow).

Originally published in 1941 by English professor John Hodges as the Harbrace Handbook of English, this book has since evolved into one of the richest English writing resources available today. The contents are organized into seven parts:

  1. Grammar
  2. Mechanics
  3. Punctuation
  4. Spelling and Diction
  5. Effective Sentences
  6. Writing
  7. Research and Documentation

Parts are subdivided into chapters and color-coded for your convenience (sorry, I couldn’t resist). Also included are a preface by the authors outlining new features and revisions for the current edition, a glossary of usage, a glossary of frequently used terms, and an index.

Pros

The first thing one might notice upon opening The Hodges Harbrace Handbook is the table of contents printed right into the back of the front cover and the first pages. At a glance, it’s clear how thorough this manual is, covering as many topics as possible from grammar and mechanics to proper usage of English in college-level writing. The table provides a quick guide to different sections and chapters, which are colored and numbered for easy reference.

As for the actual content, I find the explanations easy to understand, bearing in mind that the book is geared toward college students and above. To add to the educational experience, practice exercises are included within chapters, as are checklists for certain cases that come up in the editing process. Other notable features are the special boxes interspersed throughout the book: “Thinking Rhetorically” invites writers to consider the impact of their writing choices on their target audience; “Multilingual Writers” notes common areas of confusion for English learners, especially those for whom English is not a first language; and “Tech Savvy” provides helpful tips for using word-processing software, a useful feature for writers of the digital age. The last pages of the handbook include indexes for “Multilingual Writers” boxes, checklists and revision symbols.

One of my favorite details about the most recent editions of The Hodges Harbrace Handbook is the update for writers of modern times. As of the 17th edition, a new chapter titled “Online Writing” is included in the “Writing” part of the guide, and revisions reflect updates to MLA and APA guidelines and an expansion to a chapter on using writing software for business. Because of these updates, I would strongly advise against purchasing any edition of this handbook earlier than the 17th, published in 2009.

Cons

Honestly, this list is pretty short. In fact, the first issue I found with this handbook may have been due to error on my part. There were a couple of questions for which I couldn’t find answers in the handbook, either because I was searching for them in the wrong chapters or because they simply weren’t there. Also, the preface mentions some supplemental materials that are only available when bundled with the handbook at an additional cost. Not exactly a downside, but just a point to keep in mind if you’re looking for a complete learning experience to go with this guide.

Oh, and of course there’s the matter of price. A new latest-edition hard copy goes for over $80 on Amazon, which may seem steep to a student who only plans on using it for a semester. On the other hand, a prolific writer who needs to constantly edit and revise their work would probably find any price under $100 quite reasonable. As with any product, it’s all a matter of whether or not you feel you’d be able to get your money’s worth out of it.

Summary

Pros

  • Versatile and thorough guide to the English language
  • Well-organized contents
  • Easy to understand
  • In-chapter practice exercises
  • Special boxes for “Thinking Rhetorically”, “Multilingual Writers” and “Tech Savvy” tips
  • Extra indexes for “Multilingual Writers”, checklists and revision symbols
  • Updated edition for writing in the modern age

Cons

  • Possible missing information
  • Supplemental materials available at additional cost
  • Price ($80+ new on Amazon)

Conclusion

I highly recommend this handbook to any writer who puts as much effort into editing as into writing, if not more. Though I purchased my copy as a requirement for a class two years ago, I have since found it quite helpful when revising my work, and continue to use it today. Whether you’re looking for a complete guide to basic grammar or a full learning experience in the English language, The Hodges Harbrace Handbook is a great resource to keep handy, as much for the student writing for college as for the creative individual writing for life.

Writer’s Toolkit: Journal

I realize I haven’t written a Writer’s Toolkit piece since my review of What If? Writing Exercises for Fiction Writers. For my second post in this topic, instead of a specific book, I’ve decided to write a brief review of the importance of a more general tool that every serious writer should have at their disposal: a personal journal.

Writer's Journal

Writer’s Journal

I’m sure we all remember the innocent grade school days when the most trustworthy friend we had was that little book sitting in our bedroom, whose sole purpose was to guard our deepest thoughts and feelings. Many of us at one time or another have owned a notebook of some sort that we kept as a diary or journal (I myself kept quite a few during my childhood and adolescence). It was our outlet for the private ideas we couldn’t share with anyone else, an emotional release that left us with the satisfaction of knowing our secrets were still safe from the rest of the world. But for the budding writers among the countless young people pouring their hearts out in secret, that book was so much more. While all the other children and teenagers would keep their journals and diaries as a vent, we writers would keep them as a net to catch the little seeds dispersed throughout our lives that could eventually grow into our stories.

A journal is an important tool for any writer mostly because it serves as a log of the potential story ideas that might otherwise elude us. To give a personal example, during my college years, I kept a journal in my backpack in which I would write the thoughts and emotions I experienced while at my university. The book was a record of my college life, and several of its entries – about which I might otherwise have forgotten – later became inspiration for my fiction writing. Without that journal, I likely would have missed a lot of opportunities to find relatable traits for my characters or interesting scenarios for stories.

But my journals have helped me in an even greater capacity. Writing down my thoughts and being able to read them back objectively has allowed me to gain a better understanding of how I tend to see the world around me, and consequently, learn how I can best channel my ideas into my writing. On top of that, while my fiction pieces are for showcasing my refined writer’s voice, my private journals are for unleashing the raw voice fresh out of my mind that has yet to be shaped into the stories I want to tell. As I’ve come to realize, even creative writing comes with basic rules when intended for other readers, but when writing just for yourself, there are absolutely no limitations except you.


Summary

Advantages of Keeping a Journal

  • Intellectual and emotional release
  • Keep a record of possible ideas for future stories
  • Objectively observe and understand the voice(s) in your head
  • Unleash your raw creativity without inhibitions

Based on my experience (as well as similar accounts from other more established writers, including authors to be mentioned in future Writer’s Toolkit posts), I highly recommend keeping a personal journal as a good exercise for any writer. Sure, many of us probably don’t have the time to fill half a dozen journal pages (or even one) every day, especially in these modern times of ultra-busy lives filled with a hundred daily tasks that leave us exhausted by the time we get a chance to crawl into bed. Still, it’s good practice to set aside at least a few minutes every day to jot down some key observations of recent events, no matter how simple. Remember, even if your thoughts don’t seem particularly interesting at the time of writing, you never know if they could prove useful in the future!

Thanks for reading! Now, if you haven’t already done so, go and start your journal! Happy writing!

Writer’s Toolkit: What If? Writing Exercises for Fiction Writers

Every writer who is serious about their craft needs to have a well-stocked writing toolkit at their disposal. Of course, the exact tools may vary among the different artists who choose to use them: a poet may use only small notebooks for jotting down his thoughts, while a short story writer may also choose to keep index cards for organizing her ideas, while a novelist may have a whole bulletin board (or even a room full of them) for keeping track of elaborate plots. Some tools can be seen as universal necessities to all creative writers (such as journals and the aforementioned notebooks), and others seem to be more of a personal preference (such as index cards and exercise books).

In the interest of exploring this array of choices, I’ll be telling about my experience with the instruments in my own writer’s toolkit, starting with a fantastic book of fiction exercises that has proven to be a valuable asset to me: What If? Writing Exercises for Fiction Writers, by Anne Bernays and Pamela Painter.

What If? Writing Exercises for Fiction Writers, by Anne Bernays and Pamela Painter

What If? Writing Exercises for Fiction Writers, by Anne Bernays and Pamela Painter

About the Book

I bought this book for the online creative writing class I took through UC Berkeley back in 2011. The copy I own is the third edition, also called the college edition, which was released in 2009. It holds 109 exercises covering 13 different topics, plus 11 short short stories and 14 short stories provided at the end of the book. Also included with every exercise description is an explanation of the objective behind it, as well as the occasional example courtesy of the authors’ students.

The topics (or parts) covered in the book are:

  1. Beginnings;
  2. Characterization;
  3. Point of View, Perspective, Distance;
  4. Dialogue;
  5. The Interior Landscape of Your Characters;
  6. Plot;
  7. The Elements of Style;
  8. A Writer’s Toolbox;
  9. Invention and a Bit of Inspiration;
  10. Revision: Rewriting is Writing;
  11. Sudden, Flash, Micro, Nano: Writing the Short Short Story;
  12. Learning from the Greats; and
  13. Notebooks, Journals, and Memory.

So what can I tell you about the book? Here are a few key points I’ve learned from my experience.

Pros

The diversity of topics in the book allows you to “custom improve” your writing in the areas you feel need the most work. The explanations are easy to understand, and the student examples are excellent models of the techniques taught through the exercises. For a truly well-rounded experience, a friendly introduction by Bernays and Painter encourages all readers to explore the potential of their writer’s voice and explains the separate definitions of writing like a writer and thinking like one, while the last two sections provide 25 excellent stories to better illustrate the points made throughout the book. Needless to say (oops, Exercise 51: “Word Packages are Not Gifts”),What If? covers a wide enough spread to make it an excellent resource for any fiction writer, as much for the beginner in need of good practice as for the seasoned writer looking to rekindle the fire of inspiration.

But nothing is perfect, right? Now for the downsides…

Cons

The main obvious drawback about using What If? is that it practically requires sharing of completed exercises and subsequent receiving of critique in order for its readers to get the full intended benefits of the book, making it a more popular choice for creative writing workshops and courses as opposed to individual study. Aside from this, readers might find a couple of topics to be lacking in sufficient exercises (Part Seven, for instance, only contains four), which might put off those hoping for a more diverse selection within a certain module. Also, not every written exercise comes with an example, leaving it solely up to the practicing writer to determine the intended approach to the exercise. This is fine for the more independent readers, but for those often looking for extra guidance (like me), it might prove to be a bit of a disappointment.

Still, I honestly don’t think these minor cons do much to outweigh the stronger pros. Yes, What If? is not without its flaws, but overall, I feel it’s a worthwhile read that warrants a place on any writer’s bookshelf.

Summary

Pros

  • Wide diversity of topics (13 total)
  • Exercise descriptions that are easy to understand
  • Excellent student examples
  • Friendly and comprehensive introduction
  • 25 short stories

Cons

  • Requires feedback for full experience
  • Limited selection of exercises in some topics
  • Lack of examples in some exercises

Conclusion

Why have I chosen to open my Writer’s Toolkit posts with this book? It wasn’t a matter of random choice, but rather one of relevance to my own writing. Many of the pieces I’ve written (and others which I’m currently writing) blossomed from the exercises contained in this book, and because of the enlightenment and fun I’ve had with them so far, as well as my need for critique from other writers, I decided to make a habit of sharing some of my own examples of attempts to complete them.

So whenever a certain piece I share in the future has been inspired by a What If? exercise, I’ll be sure to provide a brief explanation of that exercise for easier reference. However, if you’re a writer and you don’t have this book, I highly recommend that if you have the time (and the funds), you grab yourself a copy of What If? as soon as you can! You won’t be disappointed.

There you have it: the top creative writing book on my shelf, and one of the most useful resources in my writer’s toolkit. I hope you’ll enjoy the pieces I produce from these exercises, and I also invite you as aspiring writers to try them out for yourselves. In fact, if you have writing blogs of your own, by all means, please share links to your own pieces in the comment sections. I would love to read them! In the meantime, please feel free to offer your feedback on my work; I look forward to receiving constructive opinions that would help me to further improve my writing.

Thanks for reading! Happy writing!

About J.C. Wolfe

J.C. Wolfe is a fiction writer, biologist, and aspiring novelist of science fantasy and romance. A natural-born American and graduate in Marine Ecology from a university in Brazil, J.C. now writes for a living in California while spending free time blogging and penning stories and poetry.

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