By Katie Trauth Taylor and Corinne Stanforth
At Untold Content, we’ve studied hundreds of books and articles on how to be great writers. So let’s compare our research and expertise with advice readily available on the internet to see which tips are worth following and which should raise your eyebrows and make you run.
Worst Writing Advice on the Web #1: Grammarly and spell checkers will solve all our writing problems.
Since writing is nearly all electronic now, won’t we always have machines to make us better writers? What, after all, is the value of investing in professional development for writing skills?
With rapidly autocorrecting smartphones and new software like Grammarly, it’s easy to adopt a passive belief that we no longer need to proactively improve our writing skills. It might feel time-efficient and relieving to think that, “If spell-check will catch my mistakes, why bother honing my writing skills or taking a professional writing course?” Today’s supportive writing tech is pretty sweet (we enjoy seeing how Grammarly can do more advanced editing work than traditional spell checkers, like spotting passive voice or pointing out comma splices). But… relying only on computers to strengthen our writing is downright bad advice.
Cloud-based English-language writing-enhancement platforms like Grammarly are pretty cool safety nets for catching grammar mistakes. We recommend them for just that purpose-as safety nets that help us avoid simple errors. The danger lies in relying on machine writing as the only resources we need to write effectively, clearly, and with impact for our ideas.
One of the longest writing studies in history reveals how spell-check has not resolved our writing challenges, but merely changed them. In 1988, Andrea Lunsford, a renowned professor of writing at Stanford University, studied student papers in order to identify the twenty most common mistakes in college papers. At that time, using the wrong word was the 4th most common mistake. Misspelling did not even make the top 20 list of common errors. In 2008, Lunsford repeated the experiment and found that, ironically, despite widespread use of spell check, using the wrong word had become even more profuse: the #1 most common mistake. And super ironically, incorrect spelling jumped up to become the 5th most common mistake when 20 years earlier, it hadn’t even made the list! Despite spell-check, our number of misspellings has increased and our ability to insert the right word for our intended meaning has decreased. In other words, we write less correctly and clearly-despite all our fancy spell-check tech.
The underlying problem is that reliance on machine writing puts us at risk of becoming apathetic about our writing skills. We are increasingly in danger of losing touch with the technical skills of the art form. It’s all about perception: Those of us who grew up without spell checkers are more likely to see the software as a safety net rather than a solution. For younger generations that have only ever known a world of spell-check, it’s important to remember its limitations and continue to invest in improving our writing skills. It’s for this reason that we created Wordsmith: A Grammar & Writing Course for Busy Professionals—because writing is essential to professional development.
Worst Writing Advice on the Web #2: I can just Google everything I need to know about being a better writer.
When we are unsure about whether to use a comma or semicolon, it’s easy to pull up a new tab and get an answer from Google in a matter of seconds. So what is the value of taking the time to strengthen our writing skills through intentional, professional development when the internet can provide the immediate solution much quicker?
Relying on Google is a slippery slope: Being unsure about which punctuation mark to use one time can easily become twice. Two times becomes three times. On it goes. If we don’t commit to growing as writers and making sure we have the basics mastered, we won’t see long-term growth in our writing skills. We will always be doubting ourselves, stopping to double check our grammatical and spelling choices. In essence, we will be inefficient writers prone to wasting time and feeling anxious about our writing.
Confident writing is impressive. Writers who do not trust themselves with the technical aspects of writing have a much more difficult time exemplifying confidence in their writing than those who have taken the time to hit “refresh” on the grammar rules. Writing training courses like Wordsmith ingrain the basics back into writers, creating the confidence individuals need to communicate their ideas impactfully throughout their professional lives.
Strong writers are able to clearly communicate their insights with style while considering their audience. On top of that, their writing is free of grammatical errors. Truly impactful writers can balance multiple layers in their writing, paying as much attention to grammar as they do to culture and their reader’s context. Writers lose credibility and face decreased confidence when they are constantly stopping to check their punctuation and usage through internet searches. Google doesn’t always promote writing advice that is research-backed or even remotely legitimate.
Similar to the challenges of spell-check, Googling writing tips takes an immense amount of searching, studying, and vetting. You may very well be able to find all the best advice out there, but unless you’ve studied professional writing for years and years, it might be difficult to know what advice is right or wrong, relevant or dated. The most efficient and effective path to becoming a confident, informed, and empowered writer is to learn from and with the top professionals in the field. Save yourself the agony of going it alone.
Worst Writing Advice on the Web #3: Hire writers as freelancers and offer them little pay so that they can be more productive for your content marketing efforts.
Don’t get us wrong: We love us some hard-hitting Neil Patel wisdom. Neil’s in-your-face YouTube videos are downright entertaining to watch, and most of his advice on digital marketing points viewers in the right direction (even if that advice is sometimes overly simplistic). Well, his video about how to hire writers to create killer content for your blog is pretty chock-full of bad advice.
First, Patel argues that writers should only be hired as sporadic freelancers and not as employees because they won’t be as productive. Second, hiring writers for pennies on the word, he insists that good writing is prolific writing. Period. There’s logic to his argument, and to be fair, with a strategy to publish 7 blog posts per week, it may be his only way to survive.
The major problem with this writing advice is that it spreads the equivalent of online content vomit—the corporate equivalent of an academic paper mill that promises to write your term paper for you at the lowest price on the internet! Outsourced content that provides little to no compensation for writers and that expects writers to pop in and out of the content strategy with very little context and shared understanding typically results in generic, bad writing.
It’s not the way to ensure that your organization or brand is represented by actual, contextualized knowledge-that it joins in your industry’s larger conversations and does so with understanding and clarity. The internet is full of poorly written word vomit. Let’s please respect writers more than this, remembering that context and collaboration are key to high quality content that actually does more good than harm.
Did this article get you down? Now read our Best Writing Advice on the Web, where we promote research-backed wisdom on how to hire great writers, write consistently for greatest impact, and beware the future of computer-generated content! It should cheer you up after this reading piece.
Hungry for some of the best professional writing advice out there? We thought you might be. Consider signing up for our online course Wordsmith: A Grammar and Style Refresher!