Can Spelling and Grammar Checkers Replace Technical Writers and Editors?

No.

I could end this article right there, but some of you might want to know why…

Spelling and grammar checkers are not a replacement for good editing

  1. Most people, even experienced writers and editors, are notoriously bad at editing their own work. We see what we think we wrote, rather than what we actually wrote. A “second set of eyes” on a document, even if they aren’t stellar editors, is better than your eyes alone.
  2. Grammar checker programs aren’t human. It is a program with a list of rules to match and it cannot waiver from its list of rules. For example, in the sentence “The managers of the organization meet each morning,” Word’s grammar checker suggested I should use meets instead of meet. However, meet applies to managers, not organization, so “the managers meet” is correct, not “the managers meets.”
  3. Spelling checker programs don’t know which word you meant to use, only if the word you used is spelled correctly. Many words are confused by even the most seasoned writers (their, there, they’re; your, you’re; accept, except; advice, advise) and you need a seasoned editor to catch those errors. As always, a careful reading of your own work can’t hurt, but then refer to #1 in this list.
  4. A grammar checker program is not going to tell you if a bulleted list isn’t parallel. It’s not going to notice if you used the same tired phrase 3 times in the same newsletter. It’s not going to know if the wording or tone is appropriate for a given situation (e.g., a news article about a company’s new/improved product offering versus the death of the company president).
  5. Many writers struggle over proper punctuation, such as using too many commas or not using them at all. A seasoned editor is going to notice if something isn’t punctuated correctly. A common punctuation error I see is in compound modifiers. For example, “ad hoc reports” needs no hyphen (ad hoc is never hyphenated), “sixty-five-year-old runners” is hyphenated (to make it clear that the runners are 65 years old, rather than there being 60 five-year-old runners), but “illegally parked bus” does not need a hyphen.

Can spelling and grammar checkers still be useful?

Yes.

I leave Word’s Spelling and Grammar check feature turned on to check spelling as I type and to mark what it thinks are grammar errors as I type. (In Word 2010, click File > Options > Proofing.) Leaving these features turned on causes Word to underline what it thinks are errors. Then I can examine its suggestions to determine if I want to change what I’ve written or right-click it and then click “Ignore” or, if it’s a spelling correction, maybe I want to add it to the dictionary, which I often do for work-related words.

If you don’t have an editor available, try not to compose and publish a work in the same hour. Prepare it at least a day or two (or more) before you have to turn it in/publish it, and then let it sit for a day or two or at least overnight. The next time you look at the document, you’ll likely find errors that you didn’t notice the first few times you read it over, or perhaps find a better way to word a sentence. (For example, an hour ago I typed “at lease overnight” and grammar checker didn’t notice.)

Ernest Hemingway said, “The first draft of anything is shit” and “Write drunk. Edit sober.” While I certainly wouldn’t recommend being drunk at work, putting yourself in a more creative mood before you write can be helpful to the creative process.

Articles that agree with me regarding grammar checking programs:

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