There are a gazillion writing apps and programs out there in the digital world, some that cost money and some that are free. Of them all, I’ve tried a handful. However, after two years in grad school, chasing the dream of getting an MFA in creative writing, I’ve come to rely heavily on one in particular: Grammarly. Just to be clear, I’m not affiliated with Grammarly. I’m not getting paid to push the app. It’s definitely not perfect, but I like it enough to write a post about it.
What is Grammarly?
Grammarly.com is an online writing program with a free version and a premium version. The Chrome extension is free, or you can pay a monthly, quarterly, or yearly subscription fee to upgrade. As you probably guessed, the cheapest per month price comes with the annual subscription and works out to about $12/month.
I tried the free version when I was putting together my application materials for Lesley University’s Low Residency MFA in Creative Writing program. Everything I wrote (cover letter, personal essay, and my creative piece) got fed through the program and analyzed. The day I got the news that I’d been accepted into the program, I bought the yearly subscription because I knew I’d be using it often for the next two years.
What Does Grammarly Do?
In a nutshell, it makes your writing better. It is, for all intents and purposes, an editing algorithm. I’d even go so far as to say that it’s a pretty darned good one, too.
See that fancy infographic I screenshotted off their homepage up above? Well, after two years of using the software I can say with confidences that it does all of that.
You can either type directly in the program, or you can upload a file (google doc, word doc). I tend to cut and paste in my material.
The above claim sounds a little hoaky. I mean, if you write enough stuff, your writing skills are going to improve no matter what. It’s inevitable. That said, the detailed explanations that pop up when you hover over a flagged item is a mighty great feature. I like not having to dive out to dictionaries and thesauruses and my copy of The Everyday Writer to check whether a word is appropriate or a grammatical construct is valid. In that way, Grammarly will probably improve your skills faster than they otherwise would.
Free Versus Premium:
The free version of Grammarly is legitimately decent. Heck, I used it to clean up my application materials (successfully). I only upgraded from the free version to catch stuff I’m apparently blind to: spelling mistakes, homophone errors, repetitious used of certain crutch words, etc. I can read through a written piece ten times, and the thing will still look like it was written at 3AM by a sleep-deprived college kid.
For me, all the extra bells and whistles were worth the money. On one of my earliest submissions in my grad school program, I was up against a deadline and in my stressed-out frame of mind, I forgot to run my submission through Grammarly. I’d read it over multiple times, tweaking, correcting awkward sentence structure, finding typos, and punctuation errors, etc.
My professor sent the submission back to me. She wouldn’t read a piece with more than two mistakes per page. I was mortified. Since then, I’ve never forgotten to use Grammarly to check my work before sending it out to anyone.
When you start a new document in Grammarly, you can select which features are or aren’t active. You can also help the algorithm edit to your needs by telling it what type of document it’s analyzing.
I’ve let the program run an analysis of a document in its “General (default)” setting, made note of the number of “critical” and “Advanced” issues, and then selected “Novel” format and let it re-analyze the document. The number of “critical” issues rarely changes. The number of “advanced” issues almost always decreases in novel format. I guess that means the algorithm knows that creative writers play it a little fast and loose with grammar rules.
Professional Proofreading Services
Premium memberships give you access to a feature I have never used. Supposedly, a real person will read your document and give you feedback on it. I’m skeptical. I don’t know who’s putting eyes on my stuff on the other end. It could be someone with legit editing skills, or it could be someone for whom English is not their first language. For all I know, it could be a well-trained monkey. Maybe one day, I’ll submit a document for professional proofreading, just to see what happens. I probably should. I’m paying for the feature, after all.
Drawbacks and Downsides?
Of course there are drawbacks and downsides.
First, it costs money. That said, it rubs me the wrong way when folks gripe about having to pay for things they want. As if they’re entitled to get everything they want in life for free. Sorry, but someone took the time to write a pretty massive program and debug the thing. They deserve to get paid for their work.
Second, it misses errors. After two years of using the program, I’d estimate that Grammarly misses between 30% and 50% of all the errors that exist in a piece of writing. For some folks, that’s a deal breaker. Not for me. Why? Because the program gets me 50% to 70% of the way toward a mistake free document. That saves me time, and my time is valuable. Now, maybe utilizing that nifty professional proofreading feature would catch the rest of the errors. I don’t know. The point here is, expecting an algorithm to be perfect is dumb. Especially considering the fact that most of us humans can’t match Grammarly’s imperfect error-catch rate.
Third (and the biggest downside), Grammarly undoes certain formatting features in uploaded documents. When you import a piece of writing into the program, all your special fonts, italics, and bold-faced type get converted to plain text. When you export it back to Google Docs or MS Word or Scrivener or whatever, you’ll have to paw through the piece looking for the lost formatting and fix it. I find that step incredibly irritating. Invariably, I’ll miss multiple words or sentences that need to be re-italicized. Grrr.
So yeah, Grammarly is far from perfect, but it’s still pretty darned great for anyone doing a lot of writing.