It was a brisk winter evening.
While editing a Copyblogger article written by Brian Clark, the sound of my fingers tapping on my keyboard harmoniously blended with the rain pattering on the window next to my desk, as the light from the full moon illuminated my computer monitor.
Then, as the clock struck midnight, something strange happened. My teeth sharpened, my rational mind diminished, and my hands turned into claws hell-bent on changing multiple instances of “who” in Brian’s post to “whom.”
Like many editors before me, I became a Grammar Werewolf.
The next day, I woke up groggy, with little memory of what happened … until I got a message from Brian via carrier pigeon:
“The whom is grammatically correct, but it’s bad copy.”
My heart sank into my stomach. Of course it’s bad copy.
Luckily, we work with digital content that can be updated even after it’s published.
No harm, no foul. But a great lesson. Especially for anyone who takes comfort in using grammar-checking software to review their writing.
Now, broken grammar is not the goal. Clear, coherent, focused writing that is easy to understand typically uses proper grammar and spelling.
As an editor, I shouldn’t be picky about how someone achieves that goal. If there are free digital tools that help someone who writes clarify their message, that’s a good thing.
But as a writer, grammar checkers irk me when they are regarded as tools that will improve your content.
And that’s why I chose the words “someone who writes” above.
Are you someone who writes or are you a writer?
You may scoff at me seemingly splitting hairs, but the difference is significant for professional writers who want to make a living as content marketing strategists.
Using proper grammar doesn’t make you a good editor
There’s a line in an ad for a popular grammar checker that says, “It’s like having your own personal proofreader.”
Actually, it’s not. Your own personal proofreader would be a human being, not computer software.
A piece of computer software doesn’t know your company and your brand.
Editors help content marketers produce engaging and entertaining experiences for their audiences. They’re trained professionals who continually spend time honing their skills. They know grammar, yes, but they also know how nuanced good writing is.
Getting writing suggestions from computer software isn’t equivalent to content editing and proofreading a draft.
So, when someone uses a grammar checker as their “editing process,” it’s almost an insult to the craft of writing.
Using proper grammar doesn’t make you a good writer
This is the crux of the matter.
You have to know the rules to break the rules and push yourself creatively.
Good writers have learned grammar and usage; they don’t need to rely on a piece of software. And if they write something that isn’t quite grammatically sound, their writing doesn’t look sloppy. It’s not unicorn vomit.
For example, Brian’s article made perfect sense with the word “who” instead of “whom.” And using “whom” actually weakened his text. A good writer recognizes the difference and trusts his instincts over “the rules.”
Checking your grammar is about the bare minimum you can do, and proper grammar doesn’t necessarily communicate a distinct voice or strengthen weaknesses in your writing.
Using proper grammar doesn’t make you a good content marketer
When immediately publishing content after running a draft through a grammar checker is an acceptable practice, we end up with an avalanche of mediocre content online.
A good portion of that mediocre content is so, so boring. Does it have exquisite grammar? Perhaps. But no one pays attention to it because it’s boring.
Proper grammar alone doesn’t persuade anyone to care about your social media update, email newsletter, or blog post.
It doesn’t convince someone to choose your company.
There’s a reason grammar checkers are free …
Proper grammar is cheap.
But your connection with your audience through sophisticated content is priceless.
If you rely on a grammar checker to “fix” your writing — without learning those language rules to become a better editor, writer, and content marketer — you’re just going through the motions of content marketing.
And going through the motions will lead to disappointing results.
It’s superficial. It’s not strategic.
Reader Comments (7)
My memory of using a grammar checker is kind of vague. I probably have used one in the past and I think it was the “Hemingway app”. After I tried it, I thought I was going crazy with half my content getting marked as grammatically incorrect.
But I wasn’t one that will take things without finding out more. So I hit the net and saw many people (mostly editors like you) dissing the app. After that event, I never think about them when it’s time to edit new content.
Thank you for making it even clearer now!
Ryan Biddulph says
Writing millions of words helped me become a clearer writer Stefanie, and the clearer I became with my own writing style the more I attracted readers who vibed with my style. Poor grammar and all 🙂 If you are ESL, grammar tools provide you with a valued service. Native speakers should practice writing like the dickens. Then as you get clearer on your writing style, either go the grammatically correct route or the informal route. Either way, your clarity allows your audience to find you.
Stefanie Flaxman says
My vote would be for informal/conversational and (mostly) grammatically correct. 😉
If English isn’t your first language, I think grammar tools could be useful … if someone takes the time to reflect on the suggestions and use them as a way to learn the rules — so they don’t make the same mistakes in the future.
It goes back to taking the time to learn, rather than mindlessly relying on suggestions from software.
I totally agree! I like using grammar checkers just to catch any double spaces, repeat words or unnecessary commas that may have snuck in there. These programs can’t always understand context or best practices for blogging. I end up ignoring a lot of the suggested fixes.
Stefanie Flaxman says
“I end up ignoring a lot of the suggested fixes.”
Great addition, Shannon! 🙂
Ron Miller says
Okay, this is all true of course. But I make a thousand errors typing that Grammarly is fantastic in helping me eliminate. I cannot, for example, write the word “your” without typing “you”.
I’m not knocking the article but it is a little bit of a straw man arguing that anyone thinking Grammarly and its progeny is the elixir to get to great content.
Candid Writer says
This is a powerful article on grammar and I have to agree that there’s no substitute for “writing” sophisticated content that reflects a good connection with others.
Grammar alone can’t fix that.
Grammar checkers won’t fix it either and focusing on grammar doesn’t deepen or enhance the benefits of truly investing in developing the “craft” of writing as there truly are no shortcuts.
While I think it goes without saying that grammar checkers and similar tools are purposeful almost as a clean up crew or maybe just part of that clean up team, the real business of writing is in paying attention to development of your own voice, your writing style and connection to those you’re trying to connect with.
I don’t think that you can focus on one thing.
A singular focus just kills other aspects of the connection(s) that you’re trying to make.
Additionally, I couldn’t agree more in the statement that “sophisticated content is priceless”.
Writing is sophisticated and there are many moving pieces and parts to it in order to get it right. While grammar is just one part of it, there are too many examples of content where you can tell the sophistication, enjoyment and effort isn’t there.
I feel this is applicable whether you blog casually or professionally or you’re in the business of content generation or marketing, I believe this remains true.
Nevertheless, I cross my fingers and hope with all good intentions that more writers or those who develop content will come to understand this and put it into practice if they haven’t already.
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