This is my first blog: the first time I've ever blogged.   Having decided to give it a try, the first question that came to mind was: what do I want to blog about?

I want to blog about writing.  About comments I've received from reviewers and peers wihin the online "writing community" across a wide spectrum of websites.  But I don't mean for this to be a listing of rants, gripes, and grievances against individuals.  Rather, I wish to address one issue in particular.  The issue of proofing your text.

By "proofing" I mean of course proofreading; editing, and using automated spelling and grammar checkers.  Trying to make one's manuscript flawless with no egregious errors.

Sounds like the right thing to do, doesn't it?  After all, who doesn't want to create a perfect piece of work:?  A perfect story, novel, poem, essay, libretto.  In today's computerized and digitized and mesmerized world, we expect no less than perfection!  After all, what we may lack in learning we can compensate for with technology.  We, the authors, don't have to be great spellers or "grammar-smart".  That's what computers are for!  And everybody knows that computers never  make mistakes.  Right?  Wright? Write?

I think we all know better than that.  People forget, or may be unaware, of an early maxim that is still relevant when working with computers and other advanced technology: GIGO -- "Garbage In, Garbage Out".  Or to put it another way: spell- and grammar-checking software is only as good as the people who create it.  If a programmer makes an error, or uses limited definitions and vocabulary, the programs just will not work properly.

I won't mention any trade names, but I have worked with at least two relatively-sophisticated programs designed to "catch" any spelling or grammar mistakes I've made in my writing.  And both software programs have major flaws in them.

For example, a sentence I wrote goes thus:  "For this was a roundly concave vale through which cold, fresh water passed down from the snowy peaks surrounding them."  Now, does the word vale look  odd to you?  It may but it shouldn't.  In Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary (Eleventh Edition), "vale" is defined as follows: "1: Valley, Dale    2: World <this ~ of tears>".  Here I have used the first definition of the term.  I could have written "valley" or "dale" but I chose "vale" and felt perfectly justified in doing so.

But my most recent, 'sophisticated' and expensive ($29.95/mo.) proofing software got hung up on my choice of "vale" and gave me the following 'recommendation': vale [Commonly confused words] (suggest veil).

Excuse me? "For this was a roundly concave veil through which cold, fresh water passed down from the snowy peaks surrounding them."  Does the revised sentence make any sense?  Of course not!  So why did the software flag this as a possible error?  Because veil and vale are homophones: words that have the same sound, the same pronunciation, but totally different meanings.  I'd bet that most schoolchildren could tell you this; but a 2013 computer program can't?  Something is very wrong here.

Just to challenge this grammar and spelling program, I had it review the first chapter of the classic Jack London tale The Call of the Wild.  The program analyzed it and spit back a report of 72 issues with the text: 10 Contextual Spelling Check issues; 39 issues of Grammar; 12 Punctuation issues; and 11 issues of Style and Word Choice.  Yet this is classic literature we have here!  I'll bet you could perform this same experiment on any literature, from the Bible to Shakespeare to Mark Twain, and get similar results. 

But flawed software is only part of the picture.  It begs the question of whether or not such "issues" or "errors" should even be considered when writing.  Because an over-emphasis on the mechanics of writing detracts from writing as art: so I believeAfter all, it is a small percentage of the population who can spell anything correctly without using a program to check it.  Just as school curricula no longer include learning cursive writing, I wonder if they continue to emphasize correct spelling and grammar?

Does anyone care about such things any longer?  Isn't the content and flow of a narrative more important than its technical excellence?  Or have we become a nation of grammarians?  I would have thought otherwise until I read the following excerpts from reviews of my latest book:

"The story is intriguing, but I only gave it 3 stars because of the many, many, many grammar typos ..."

"Now if someone would help him edit the story, get all the word usage issues out of it that spell checker said were okay..."

I have to admit that some people, some of my readers, do in fact care about typos and poor grammar and incorrect word issues.  Being something of a frustrated perfectionist, I am currently searching out and correcting many (but not all) such errors in my already-published works, with the idea of reissuing corrected versions later.  But it is laborious.  For I not only must check my writing but check my software for its own errors, rather than blindly trusting it to "fix" any problems.

But I am in a quandary.  For I desire to improve the technical quality of my writing, while at the same time wondering if it is worth the effort.  Wondering if it will make a difference to my readers, and to my book sales.  Because after all, if modern readers were turned away from reading Jack London because they disliked his spelling and/or grammar while they nit-picked to death the structure of his literaure and ignored the story, that would be a tragedy indeed.

No, I'm not comparing myself to Jack London, or to any other author great or mediocre  But I am reminded of what one so-called 'expert' on an online writer's group once wrote in a forum: "Agathie Christie couldn't get published today."  Meaning, I suppose, that her style of writing and perhaps her technical prowess would be dismissed in the modern publishing world.  Or that her stories take too long to develop action or reach a climax, compared with those of modern authors.  But I quote, from Wikipedia, in response to that remark: "According to the Guinness Book of World Records, Christie is the best-selling novelist of all time. Her novels have sold roughly 4 billion copies, and her estate claims that her works rank third, after those of William Shakespeare and the Bible, as the world's most widely published books. According to Index Translationum, Christie is the most translated individual author, and her books have been translated into at least 103 languages.

Until a modern author or member or 'expert' on some writer's group can make this same claim, I think they had better keep such inane opinions to themselves.

One other related issue I wish to bring up is this: our modern society's perception of perfection.  Or perhaps I should say our obsession with perfection.  For example:  a professional author of fiction drafts a manuscript, edited and proofed to the limits of his knowledge and his spell-checker's, and submits it through his agent to a publisher.  The publisher reviews it and responds to the author that the manuscript has "problems" and was not a flawless piece of work.  Here, it is less important to ask what flaws the publisher found, than to focus on the publisher's expectation of perfection.

With all our modern resources, our sophisticated technology and software, I believe that our society has reached a point where it expects perfection in all things: in writing, in products, in services, and even in our bodies.  It seems to me that this unrealistic expectation (for what, if anything, or whom, if anyone, is truly perfect and without flaws?) is hurtful to us all.  Why?  Because it contributes to the disdaining of anything less than perfection, where "good enough"  never is.




About Me

Mark Patrick Cotter (1957) was born in southern California and has lived in several states. His favorite place is Maine where he hopes to retire. He pursued several career paths before becoming a professional writer: mortgage banker,geologist,environmental scientist,and content editor for standardized student tests. He holds an Executive MBA in Business; a BS in Earth Sciences; and an MS degree in Geological Sciences from the University of Maine. His interests include history, psychology, science and mathematics; as well as classic and speculative literary fiction. His favorite authors are Jack London, J.R.R. Tolkien, Harlan Ellison and Stephen King. He currently divides his time between writing novels, playing chess, and caring for his Maine Coon cat.
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