Sam Holstein

3 Writing Tools Every Writer Needs

Photo by Jeff Sheldon on Unsplash

Writing is hard work. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. It’s easy to put words on paper, but it’s hard to draw a reader in and spin them a story.

“A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.”
Thomas Mann, Essays of Three Decades

Non-writers usually don’t realize how difficult writing is. When non-writers write emails (or Reddit posts), they aren’t honing a craft. They aren’t taking it seriously. They aren’t worried about…

We who write professionally are worried about these things. But, there’s good news. There exists software that can make our jobs a lot easier. Software I use every time I write. Software that has saved my butt countless times and prevented me from making embarrassing mistakes.

Hemingway

Hemingway is a great piece of software for writers. It’s not your usual spell-check grammar-check. Hemingway assesses your work for readability. It identifies run on sentences, use of the passive voice, adverb disasters, and anything else that makes your writing less tight. And yes, it’s named after the writer. Hemingway was known for his ‘economical, understated style.’

But the real value of Hemingway isn’t that it tells you which sentences are too complicated. Long sentences, adverbs, and other language errors usually indicate unclear writing. When Hemingway highlights a lot of these, the chances are that the writing itself needs work.

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This happens to me every time I use Hemingway. I think my writing is tight — and then I run it through Hemingway and find out its unintelligible word salad. Nine times out of ten, the first thing I have to do is remove almost all the adverbs. Cue spending another hour rewriting all that which makes no sense.

Hemingway has a free and a paid version. The paid version is merely an offline desktop version of the free website. There’s no difference in how they work at all. Unless you want offline functionality, the free browser version of Hemingway is all you need.

Grammarly

Microsoft Word will tell you when you misspelled something, or maybe they’ll give you the blue squiggle line when you used a homophone. It certainly won’t save you from making errors that would make Strunk & White roll in their graves.

Grammarly will.

Grammarly is like your middle school English teacher. It’s unrelenting in its identification of grammatical errors. It identifies misspelled words, misused homophones, and misplaced commas. But it doesn’t stop there. It also identifies unclear antecedents, overused words in the entire document, prepositions at the end of sentences, and dangling modifiers. Before getting Grammarly, I didn’t even know what most of these things were.

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After running my work through Hemingway, I’ll usually think it’s great. I will be so proud of myself for the excellent writing I’ve produced.

Grammarly sets me straight. It reveals so many errors to me that it looks like a drunken monkey composed my work. Grammarly even suggests corrections for me, to keep me from making more silly mistakes while I fix it.

Grammarly has a free and paid version. The paid version has a steep price for what seems like a souped up spell checker — but it is worth every penny and more. The paid version identifies ‘advanced errors.’ True, these errors are the kind that nobody but an English teacher would be able to identify. But when you look at an article with these errors and one without, side by side, the difference is staggering. The one with errors seems like an all-right article — the one without seems clear, incisive and expertly composed. I’m always astonished at how much better my writing seems after using it.

An Honest Friend

There are some things we writers can’t identify on our own. We’re the writers; we’re wrapped up in the story of what we’re writing. We’re trying to tell our readers something. While we write, our motivations and our experiences are all floating around in our head.

Readers get none of that. When readers read, they get the words. Nothing else.

An honest friend can tell you when your words aren’t communicating what you want them to. They can tell you when your message is limp, flat, or trite. They can tell you when the flow is such a wreck that they can’t follow what you’re trying to say. These are the sorts of things that computers aren’t able to do (until the AI take over, of course).

This isn’t to say you should run every single article by the honest friend. Most work doesn’t need this level of scrutiny. Take this article — it’s an article about writing tools. I don’t need an honest friend to assess the ‘message’ of this article.

But when you’re writing about sensitive topics, the feedback is invaluable. Anything political, philosophical, or spiritual in particular can benefit from you running it by the honest friend.

(Bonus points if the honest friend disagrees with you about a sensitive issue. An honest friend who disagrees with you can tell you when you’re falling back on stereotypes or poor reasoning when you’re trying to make a well-reasoned point).


Whenever I make my writing public before using these tools to whip it into shape, I always regret it. I will read my writing much later and see all the embarrassing problems I let escape. Hemingway and Grammarly can take even the most troubled article and give you the tools to turn it into something great. Don’t publish another article without giving these things a try.


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