February 6, 2018 / 1 Comment

Help From the Internet

A random thought…

Well, not that random.

The other day I made a smart-ass response to a friend’s Twitter comment about different online writing aids and apps. There’s a bunch of them out there these days. Some of them highly publicized. My comment was… snarkily negative. Let’s leave it at that.

I know. Snarkiness with friends. What has the internet come to? It’s all downhill from here.

Anyway, it did get me thinking about these different sites a bit. I mean, a good writer wants to use all the tools available, right? Is this just me inching ever-closer to cranky old manhood?

I don’t think so.

Okay, first off, let’s not even talk about the information side of this. If someone wants to hand over a bunch of their intellectual property to a random website and feels completely confident they’ve read and understood every single line of the terms of service… that’s up to them. We’ll leave that discussion for others.

I want to blather on about how useful these sites are, both short-term and long-term.

So… let’s talk machines.

(I feel hundreds of fingers poised over keyboards, ready to lunge at the comments section…)

The most common computer tool we’re going to encounter is a spellchecker. Pretty much every word processor has one.  Lots of websites do, too. Blog sites like this one, Twitter, Facebook—they’ve all got some basic spellcheck capacity.

That’s the important bit. Basic. The absolute best spellcheckers are, if I had to put a number to it, correct maybe 97-98% of the time. Don’t quote figures at me—I’m saying right up front that’s just based off my own experience. These are the spellcheckers we usually find in the word processors. The online ones… I’d drop it down into the 88-90% range. Maybe even a tiny bit lower.

What does this mean? Well, there are words that have accepted alternate spellings, but a spellchecker will say they’re wrong. There are also lots of common words—especially for genre writers—that won’t be included. I was surprised to discover cyborg wasn’t included in my spellchecker’s vocabulary. Or Cthulhu. Okay, not  quite as surprised on that one, but still…

Keep in mind, spelling is a basic, quantfiable aspect of writing. We can say, no question, whether or not I’ve spelled quantifiable correctly in that last sentence (I didn’t). That’s a hard fact (and, credit where credit is due, the spellchecker kept insisting we needed to change it).

Also—a spellchecker doesn’t know what word I meant to use.  It can only tell me about the word on the page. Or the closest correctly-spelled word to that word on the page.  Maybe it’s the one I wanted, maybe not. At this point it’s up to me to know if that’s the right word or not. And if I don’t know… well, things aren’t looking good for my manuscript.

Consider all the things I just said. The gaps. The problems.  The rate of accuracy. And this is with the easiest aspect of writing. Spelling is a yes or no thing.  It’s right or it isn’t.  This is something a computer should excel at… and the online ones are getting a B+ at best.

How accurate do you think an online grammar program is?

Grammar’s a lot more complex than spelling. Spelling’s just a basic yes or no, but grammar has a ton of conditionals. Plus, in fiction, we bend and break the rules of grammar a lot. I tend to use a lot of sentence fragments because I like the punch they give. A friend of mine uses long, complex sentences that can border on being run-ons. I know a few people who remove or add commas to help the dramatic flow of a sentence.

And hell… dialogue?  Dialogue’s a mess when it comes to grammar. A big, organic mess. Fragments, mismatched tenses, mismatched numbers, so many dangly bits…  And it needs to be. That’s how we talk. Like I’ve mentioned in the past, dialogue that uses perfect grammar sounds flat and unnatural.

Think about this. I’ve talked before about Watson, the massive supercomputer that was specifically designed by MIT to understand human speech… and still had a pretty iffy success rate. Around 72% if my math is right. And it might not be–I’m not a mathematician, after all.

D’you think the people who made that grammar website put in the time and work that was put into Watson?

So, again… how accurate is that online grammar program going to be?

More to the point, how useful is it going to be as a tool? Would you pay for a DVR that only records 3/4 of the shows you tell it to? Do you want a phone that drops one out of every four calls?

Now, I’d never say there’s no use for these tools or sites. But it’s very important to understand they’re not going to do the job for me. They’re the idiot writing partner who’d really good at one thing, so I kinda need to keep both eyes on them when they’re set loose to do… well, that thing. I need to know how to spell words and what they mean. I still need to know the rules of grammar—even moreso if I plan on breaking them.

See, that’s the long-term problem. Assuming this professional writing thing is my long-term goal, at some point I need to learn spelling and grammar. If I’m going to keep depending on someone (or something) else to do the work for me… when am I going to learn how to do the work?

Y’see, Timmy, these programs and apps are kinda like alcohol. They won’t make up for a lack of knowledge. They’ll just emphasize it. I definitely don’t want to be dependent on them. At best, if I know what I’m doing and I’m careful (and use them in moderation), they might make things a little more smooth and painless.

Next, a quick screenwriting tip.

Until then, go write.

You go write.  Not your computer.

Go on…  go write.

October 3, 2013 / 3 Comments

Do You Need Mechanical Assistance?

Your minds always go there first, don’t they.  You bunch of perverts…

Some of you may remember Watson, the supercomputer that played against two Jeopardy champions and beat them. Watson was specifically built to understand human language. That was the sole point of its appearance on Jeopardy—to show that a machine could be programmed to understand subtext and clues and irony well enough that it could compete against humans using their rules.

Why am I talking about a supercomputer—a fantastic and kick-ass supercomputer, granted—when I keep insisting this place is about writing?

Do you know how big Watson is? Or how long it took to build? How many people were involved? Watson was a six year project for a team of more than twenty engineers and programmers (plus a ton of students interning with IBM). It’s a collection of processors and drives as big as my first apartment in Los Angeles (which means it’s probably the size of your kitchen).

And you know what? Even with all that computing power and information, Watson still got things wrong. Several times in warm up games and even during the main event, Watson would miss obvious clues and give the most bizarre answers. If you run the numbers, Watson didn’t know how to answer a given question almost twenty percent of the time. When it did answer, it still got one out of every ten questions wrong.

Now, again, please remember what I just said how long all those people worked on this machine. A machine that was built for the specific purpose of understanding human language. That’s going to be important when I ask my next question.

How much work do you think went into your computer’s word processor?

For that matter, how much went into just its spellchecker? Or into that automated proofreader? Do you think the people programming it were IBM-level experts in their field? And in the field of writing?

I’m not going to be a hypocrite and say these things are useless tools.  I use my spellchecker.  I usually make a pass with it during my third draft.  There’s nothing wrong with using it as a tool to help me check spelling.  But I have no illusions about the fact that I still need to be the one checking the spelling.

See, I don’t blindly accept every “correction” it offers me.  And this isn’t my entire third draft.  I still go through the whole manuscript line by line, sentence by sentence.  It can take me four or five days.  Because I know the  machine can’t be trusted to do it for me.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll keep saying it until people listen.  A computer cannot write for me.  It doesn’t matter how cool someone’s system is, it won’t do the job.  That’s why, whenever you ask a real writer for advice, they’ll usually say to hire a good editor, not to upgrade your software.

If I want to be a writer—a working, paid writer–I need to know how to spell and how to use words and what those words mean.

These words, for example.

fair and fare –one of these is how you get through an experience

dual and duel—one of these refers to citizenship

vain and vein – one of these refers to similar things

tics and ticks – one of these is a twitch

mute and moot –one of these is irrelevant

reckless and wreckless—one of these means rash

vain and vane – one of these makes you think this song is about you

desert and dessert—one of these has whipped cream

shudder and shutter – one of these means to shake

soar and sore—one of these relates to diseases

vane and vein—one of these shows the flow of air or liquid

wreck and wreak—one of these means to inflict

wait and weight – seriously, it’s embarrassing I have to ask.

As in the past, these are all mistakes I’ve seen in articles or books over the past few months.  When I come across one and it makes me shudder (not shutter), I know I have to add it to the list.  Yeah, I keep a list.  You don’t think I just come up with all this stuff from scratch once a week, do you?

In the interest of fairness… Two of these are mistakes I’ve made in the recent past.  One of them even slipped past me, my proofreaders, my editor, the copyeditor, and then me again while I looked over copyedits and layouts.

Did you know all of the answers?  Did you know what the other word meant, too?  If I don’t know them both (know—not sort of recognize) there’s a good chance I’ll make a mistake at some point.  And, granted, we all make mistakes sometimes.

But some people make a lot of mistakes.  And they don’t catch any of them.  Because they’re depending on their computer to do it for them.

Next time, I want to…

Actually, before I talk about next time, I’d like to break my rule about no self-promotion and guide you to the Kaiju Rising Kickstarter.  It’s a giant monster anthology featuring stories from folks like Peter Stenson, Timothy Long, Larry Correia, and a bunch of others (including me).  It’s already fully funded (even stretch goals), but there’s still a day or two left to snag a copy for yourself, and possibly a pile of add-ons.

Anyway, that being said…

Next time, I want to talk about exceptions.

Until then, go write.