People who want to write better ask me whether the new computer software programs that purport to teach writing can help them.
If you write poorly, if your work is pompous, inflated, long-winded, ungrammatical and littered with misspellings, cliches, sexist words, jargon and other careless usages, they can help.
If you write well, they cannot only ruin your day, they can ruin your style.
Writing software simply analyzes something you have written, checking it against its own rigid rules of construction, diction and syntax.
It does not understand what you have written. It does not know whether your work makes sense, or is engaging or dull. It has no idea whether it is artful, persuasive, banal or inane. The program prints out your piece and under every line in which it finds something bad, according to its rules, it goes bingo, inserting a line that spells out your error.
The program has no ear for style; it has no common sense; it is unmoved by poetry, unconvinced by logic, unamused by humor.
You cannot make it laugh; you cannot make it cry; you cannot make it angry. You cannot even bore it.
I have just subjected an essay of mine to the scrutiny of a program called RIGHTWRITER. Its purpose and method is described in the manual: "RIGHTWRITER is a writing aid to help you create strong clear documents. The program uses advanced artificial intelligence techniques to analyze a document. . . ."
It admits its limitations: "RIGHTWRITER does not understand the meaning of words, nor does it understand the exercise of literary license."
RIGHTWRITER summarized that I had a readability index of 8.4 (readers would need an eighth-grade level of education to understand me); a Strength Index of 0.41 (on a scale of 0.0 to 1.0); a Descriptive Index (the use of adjectives and adverbs) of 0.54 (within the normal range). Its recommendations: "The writing can be made more direct by using the active voice. . . ." (Does writing use the active voice? Or does the writer ?) "Try to use more simple sentences. . . ."
Evidently it wants me to get my work down to the fourth-grade level.
Here's an example of one of my worst sentences:
"The personalized number is seen as a blessing for single people, who can give it to people they hope to hear from, and since the number theoretically will be easier to remember, perhaps they will get more calls."
Not only is that sentence too long (having 38 words in it) but it is also too complex, having three commas; it contains a passive verb ("is seen") and an uncommon word ( theoretically ) . Here's another:
"But if all you can find out is the number the call came from, it won't help you much, unless you know whose number that is. Of course, if the call was from a member of your family, or a close friend, or your employer, you will know the number, and you can call back."
I wonder what RIGHTWRITER would say about Thomas Jefferson's Declaration of Independence. This great document, from which our blessed freedom springs, begins with a sentence of 71 words, and the sixth sentence begins with But !
(That last sentence of mine, by the way, not only has an interior clause but also ends with an exclamation point--both of which RIGHTWRITER frowns on.
What would RIGHTWRITER say of Jefferson's uncommon words, such as unalienable , transient , usurpations , evinces , constrains , inestimable , annihilation , perfidy , magnanimity and others?
I have been rereading John Steinbeck's "Cannery Row," and I find that the first sentence is 25 words long and the second is 42.
Of course RIGHTWRITER is not designed to analyze historic documents or works of genius. It is meant only to improve the writing of ordinary contemporaries.
I don't mean to compare myself with Jefferson or Steinbeck, but I think they prove that a sentence need not be short to be clear, and that a long sentence, if its structure is good, can convey more than a series of short sentences of the kind that RIGHTWRITER evidently approves of, it being more forceful to use a long word that says exactly what one means to say than a short word that everyone knows but which is less precise, because if you write constantly for readers at the fourth-grade level you are not likely to be engaging the interest of more educated readers, and if we cannot entertain the educated, what is the point of writing, since the object of the written word is to convey information and express ideas and to extend the limits of our understanding?
But that, it must be confessed, is only my opinion.