How Reliable Are Writing Tools? ‘Trust, but Verify.’

You might remember President Ronald Reagan’s maxim, “Trust, but verify.” It comes from a Russian proverb, “Doveryai, no proveryai,” which is why he quoted it to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev during the signing of a nuclear treaty in 1987. “You repeat that every meeting,” Gorbachev said, winning laugher. “I like it,” Reagan replied, drawing even more.

It’s a good line for copywriters to keep in mind, too. We rely on writing tools that still aren’t totally reliable. You see this yourself every time your smartphone translates your spoken words into gibberish in your draft text message. Good craftsmen trust their tools, certainly. But we’re talking here about technology, not physical tools. Trust, but verify!

Tools to trust

You no doubt use a spell checker when preparing a document, either automatically while you’re writing or as a final step once you’ve finished. The problem is, a checker doesn’t know whether it’s checking the correct word. Did you mistakenly type there when you actually meant their, for example? You might have spelled the word correctly, bit it’s still wrong.

Your grammar checker doesn’t always not know the difference, either. The rules of English grammar are confusing and at times seemingly contradictory. Even experienced writers can pause and consult an editor or a style guide when composing a difficult passage. It’s no wonder, then, that the finest grammar checkers occasionally get things wrong, especially new words, idioms or colloquial language. And with text written by someone whose first language isn’t English, a spell checker can become positively befuddled.

So, consider it best practice to check both spelling and grammar yourself, independently. Print out the document and review it word by word, line by line. If you’re uncertain about something, ask someone else to take a look. The more eyes during final check, the better.

Why you should verify

There’s another tool you should use with caution—any transcript created from an audio or video file. This is not a criticism of professional transcription services. Unless they’ve worked with you a long times, transcriptionists don’t know all of your acronyms, jargon and buzzwords. This is true for any industry. The result is that transcriptionists inevitably get something wrong, without having any way of knowing it.

Our favorite example here at Wordsmithie is an interview we conducted about digital advertising. The industry phrase pay-per-click repeatedly came up as paperclip in the transcript, which was not the transcriptionist’s fault. We should have included the phrase in our instructions. Always review your transcript very carefully to correct any mistakes or misunderstandings.

Oh, by the way, my spell checker thinks transcriptionist above is a misspelling. It’s not.

Trust, but verify. Especially with software.

ABOUT Jim Leeke

Widely experienced in journalism, marketing communications and advertising, Jim has worked with top creative agencies to deliver print, Internet and interactive projects to Fortune 500 companies. His expertise ranges from technology and healthcare/pharmaceuticals to defense and veterans issues. Jim is also the author/editor of six books, writing extensively on the Civil War and baseball. In addition to his Wordsmithie role, Jim is Co-founder and Creative Director of Taillight Communications.