Writing Quote

"Don't write merely to be understood.
Write so that you can't possibly be misunderstood."
-Robert Louis Stevenson

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Spell Check: NOT a writer's best friend

Like many writers, I've been using the spell check button at every opportunity- in MS Word, in e-mail, blogging, even Facebook has a limited spell check feature now. And I've been loving it! But if you think spell check is your friend, think again. We all know what the advantages of spell check are. They are all the reasons we use it before hitting the print button, or sending our thoughts into the world wide web. But have you ever considered the disadvantages?

There are two general disadvantages that were obvious once I thought about it. The first is that a lot of words we misspell, are the correct spelling of a different word. How many times have you spelled 'of' when you meant to spell 'off,' or made some similar typo? Even if your spell checker includes a grammar function, this type of error doesn't always get caught by the computer. Which leads us to the second disadvantage: complacency. It's so convenient to click a few buttons, give our writing a last quick glance and call the end product our final draft. It promotes a laziness that ill-becomes any writer. If I want to improve my writing, I cannot fall into this trap.

For myself, spell check is bad because I am naturally a horrible speller. You'd think spell check would be great for me then, right? Wrong. If I rely on spell check, I will always be a horrible speller. Spell check doesn't teach me anything, it only enables me to continue being sub-par. Then what do I do when I don't have spell check available to me? My options are to go ahead and expose myself as a horrible speller or limit myself to using only the words I am confident I can spell correctly. Neither option is appealing to a writer.

Does this mean I'm planning to boycott spell check from now on? I may be mad, but I'm not stupid. My plan is to temper modern convenience with old fashion common sense. I run my spell check, which has a grammar checking feature as well. The words I've misspelled- and they're usually the same words over and over again- I'll practice writing correctly a few times before moving on to the next mistake. The grammatical errors sometimes come with an "explain" button in the options. Making the effort to learn why the grammar check program flagged a particular word or phrase can help prevent future mistakes. Of course, even computer programs aren't infallible, so having a reputable and current grammar book in your desk reference collection is wise- as long as you use it.

Improving my spelling and my understanding of grammar may not be a huge boost to my writing skills, but lacking these things can be a horrible hindrance to a writer. If nothing else, I can remove some obstacles from my path to good writing by putting forth just a little extra effort each time I hit the spell check button.

A Novel Idea

I recently read a book on legal writing- Garner on Language and Writing by Bryan A. Garner. Why I was reading it is a whole other story, which I won't get into here. What I learned is that even a topic as dry as legal writing can be made not only readable, but just plain fascinating if it's well written. I would recommend this book to anyone wishing to improve their writing skills. It's true, I skipped over probably half the book- the strictly legal half. But at least 500 pages of this huge book on legal writing, I was able to apply to noveling.

A concept Garner introduced me to that I particularly loved was the Flowers Paradigm. Betty S. Flowers came up with a way to describe the writing process that really got me excited about the writing process. Each step (pre-writing, outline, rough draft, edit) has a distinct personality. Each personality has a job. And no personality should interfere with any of the other personality's job. Just remember: madman (pre-writing)- architect (outline)- carpenter (rough draft)- judge (edit).

The madman's job is the most fun, but also the most difficult in my case. He comes up with a flurry of ideas. He just spits them out, not worrying about rhyme, reason, continuity, connectivity or flow. He is every errant thought you have throughout the day, written down so they don't get lost.

The architect, I can identify with a little more. He picks through the madman's ramblings. He identifies the ideas that can go together to create a piece of work that will stand strong. He tosses out anything that doesn't fit or will make the end product weak. Then he messes with the structure of everything until he gets the blueprints just right. Then he sends it out to the carpenter.

The carpenter is my strongest writing personality. Unfortunately, my carpenter has been trying for years to do the work of the madman and the architect as well. My poor carpenter has been overworked and under appreciated. His job- and his only job- is to take the architect's blueprints, and build. He fleshes out the outline into an actual story. Not a polished, beautiful, ready-for-the-grand-opening story, but fairly complete and ready for close scrutiny.

The judge is also a strong character for me. So strong that I've had to bind and gag him at times so the carpenter could get his work done. The judge reviews the work, finds the mistakes, the holes, the flaws, the weaknesses and figures out how to fix them. The judge would like to think he's the most important part of the process, but if he tries to get involved too soon, he could ruin the entire project.

So now you know the Flower's Paradigm. I'm going to make a conscious effort to distinctly separate my writing stages. Doing this with my blog posts will give me practice for the bigger projects- school papers, and bigger still- my novels. Wish me luck.