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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Light the Night Walk Annual Fundraiser

Each year, the company that I work for, Globalscape, hosts numerous fund-raising events in San Antonio, TX. Again this year, they are one of the sponsors of the “Light The Night Walk” for The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society.

The walk, an annual fundraising walk to pay tribute and bring hope to people battling cancer, is held in downtown San Antonio, starting and ending in Hemisfair Park. It is definitely a walk, not a run! There are so many people, you couldn’t run if you wanted to. Last year, I took my dog, Louie, a miniature poodle, with me. My husband and I took turns carrying him, because he was a bit freaked out by all of the people—and we didn’t want him tripping someone!

Some of the walkers carry a lighted balloon (a small flashlight is inserted, and then the balloon is filled with helium). It would be a cool sight to see from above, I think! All of the streets are closed, of course, and police are at the barricades, so it’s a very safe walk—aside from the fear of small dogs getting stepped on!

Even though The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society was created to help fight blood cancers (e.g., leukemia), their research has also benefited people with solid tumors and autoimmune diseases. In the past 10 years, nearly 50% of cancer drugs approved by the FDA were originally approved for blood cancer patients. I’m sure you know someone who has battled cancer or have a loved one who has battled cancer. My mom died of cancer that started in her lungs and moved to her liver. I’ve also had two dogs who have died of cancer.

Please take a moment to visit my donation page to learn more about the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society and, if you can, make a donation. Any amount is very much appreciated, but a donation of $100 helps supply laboratory researchers with supplies and materials critical to carrying out their search for cures, which I think is where your money would do the most good.

Please join our team’s effort today by making a donation. Your participation in the Light the Night Walk will help save lives. If you can’t afford to make a donation yourself, register to walk with us, if you’re in San Antonio. Or visit http://www.lightthenight.org/ and click local walk sites to find a walk in your area. (It can be slow to load the page; type in your zip code, then click Submit.)

Be sure to check our team Web site to see our progress—our goal is $10,000. Thanks for your support!