The Secret Writing Coach Inside Your PC
By Paul Krantz

One of the best writing teachers may be sitting on your lap right now – if you have Microsoft Word (and a laptop). Yes, I’m referring Word’s much-maligned Spelling and Grammar Checker. (Cue eye rolls among professional writers.)

Like many of my colleagues, I long despised the Spelling and Grammar Checker. A couple of years ago finally gave it a fair trial, and I fell in love. The key to making it work, I found, is know which advice to follow and which advice to ignore.

First: Set it up right

Picking the right options is critical to a good experience. (Note: My examples are all from Word 2007 for PCs. Other versions have similar options.) Here’s what to CHECK on the Word Options menu:

Proofing >

  • Ignore words in UPPERCASE
  • Ignore words that contain numbers
  • Ignore Internet and file addresses
  • Flag repeated words
  • Check grammar with spelling
  • Show readability statistics

If you are writing for PRINT, check the options below. If you are writing for the WEB, uncheck the options below.

Proofing > Autocorrect Options > Autoformat As You Type >
  • Straight Quotes with Smart Quotes -- but uncheck for web articles
  • Fractions (1/2) with fraction character (½) -- but uncheck for web articles
  • Ordinals (1st) with superscript -- but uncheck for web articles
  • Hyphens ( -- ) with dash (—) -- but uncheck for web articles

Advice to follow, usually

  • Not in Dictionary.  If it flags a word you know is correct, add it to the dictionary.
  • Extra Space between Words or Repeated Word. Fix ‘em both.
  • Compound Word. Spots errors like “bed time” instead of “bedtime”.
  • Sentence structure or Wordiness. Your convoluted sentence might be improved by removing unneeded words or splitting it into two shorter sentences.
  • Beginning of sentence. Grammar checker flags sentences that start with a conjunction (And, But, Or). Pro tip: Start with a conjunction only if the sentence (or phase) is five words or fewer. (“But you’d be wrong, sucka!”)
  • Fragment. Use this to fix “sentences” that could benefit from a verb
  • Jargon. Ignore this flag only if your readers would use the same term.
Advice to ignore, often

  • Contraction use. Grammar checker hates hates hates contractions. You can usually ignore this flag. Pro tip: DO fix contractions beyond the familiar -- you’re, don’t, I’m, we’ll and so on. Fix “made-up” contractions: “The girls’ll see us at the meet-up.”
  • Passive Voice. Passive sentences areconsidered weaker than active sentences (see examples below). You’re probably OK to ignore this flag, but see section on Readability Statistics below.
    Passive voice (actor is not named): “The dog was fed.”
    Active voice (actor is named): The boy fed the dog.
  • Subject-Verb Agreement. I find Grammar Checker often gets this wrong.
  • Comma use. Another flag that doesn’t seem to work well.
  • Capitalization. Ignore unless it’s right.
  • Hyphen Use. Log onto Merriam-Webster http://www.m-w.com before accepting advice to join two words with a hyphen.
Pro tip: I always choose “ignore once” to by-pass flags. That way I’m reminded to double-check unusual spellings and reconsider advice on grammar issues.

Readability Statistics

When you are done with the Spelling and Grammar Check, you’ll see some basic information about your article (assuming you checked “Show Readability Statistics” under Proofing Options, above). Here are the warning signs to watch for:

  • Words per Sentence: The lower the better. Anything over 15 is worrisome
  • Characters per Word: 5 or fewer is ideal. More than 8 is hard reading.
  • Passive Sentences: Ideally, less than 15%
  • Flesch Reading Ease: Should be greater than 60
  • Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level: 8 or below is best. Above 12 or above is hard to read.
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