colored-pencils Use your tools, but write like you

Automated tools help us in our writing, but don't let tools replace the "you" in what and how you write.

We live in a time when we’re awash in tools (often free) that aid writing. This is great; it means you can get feedback on what you write before you ever share it with a person. You miss out when you don’t take advantage of these tools.

Basic tools

The simplest and most ubiquitous tool is the spell checker. Just about every web browser and text editor you come across has a spell checker, often with support for multiple languages. That squiggly red line lets you know that what you think is a word is, in fact, not.

Of course, spelling is only the first step. In fact, poor spelling is often less damaging to your reader’s comprehension than poor construction. Many text editors these days can catch basic grammatical errors. Did you accidentally type “and and” instead of “and”? There might be a squiggly blue line underneath it!

Some errors will still fall through the cracks. For example, in seventh grade I volunteered to type and print the poems my classmates and I wrote for health class. Over 25 years later, I still remember that I typed “…tell her and Aunt Sally” instead of “…tell her Aunt Sally.” Both are correct, but they convey a different meaning. No automated tool will catch a mistake like that.

Advanced tools

Once you have your words spelled correctly and structured like actual sentences, you can move on to more advanced tools. For example, I use the Yoast SEO plugin on all of my WordPress instances. In addition to providing guidance for search engine optimization, the plugin provides feedback on readability. Not only will Yoast SEO tell you that you need to break up the text with some headings, but it can indicate when your sentences or paragraphs are too long, when you’re using too much passive voice, and when you’re repeating the start of sentences.

Online services like Grammarly perform similar functions. With a paid plan, it can also give feedback on and make suggestions about the tone of your writing. Tone can be particularly hard to get right, since there’s so much cultural influence on how you write and how others interpret your words.

Generative AI

I can't write about writing in 2023 and not mention generative AI. Tools like ChatGPT can do the writing for you, right? For a variety of reasons, I say “no.”

However, I find generative AI to be useful for solving the “blank page problem.” Sometimes the hardest part of writing is starting. So I’ll use generative AI to write a few paragraphs for me. I end up throwing it all away, but it at least gives me something to work against when I’m stuck.

Write like you

When you use these tools on a regular basis, you get better at making them happy. I used to generally get yellow or red results from Yoast SEO’s readability gauge when I wrote a first draft. These days, I almost always end up in the green without trying. I’ve internalized the feedback.

That’s great, but you don’t want to let it strip humanity from what you write. Ultimately, the tools offer suggestions and guidance. You, the writer, get to decide whether or not to accept it.

Writing like you also means you shouldn’t try to be overly formal. Clarity is good, yes, but not everything needs to be written like it’s a legal contract. It’s okay to let your voice come through in your writing.

This article is adapted from Use your tools, but write like you and is republished with permission from Ben Cotton.