Sunday, April 21, 2024

Guest Post: Coping with the Curse of Proofreading by Kim Hays

Kim Hays' Swiss detectives  Giuliana Linder and Renzo Donatelli are back with a new mystery set in Bern. In the new book, A Fondness for Truth, a woman, Andi, is killed in a hit-and-run while riding her bicycle home on an icy winter night. Her devastated partner is convinced the death was no accident. Andi had been receiving homophobic hate mail for several years, and the letters grew uglier after the couple’s baby was born.

As both detectives dig into Andi’s life, one thing becomes clear: Andi’s friends and family may have loved her for her honesty, but her outspoken integrity threatened others, including, perhaps, her killer. 

Kim Hays is a citizen of Switzerland and the United States who has made her home in Bern for thirty-six years. Before that, she lived in San Juan, Vancouver, and Stockholm, as well as around the US. Pesticide, the first book in her Polizei Bern series was published by Seventh Street Books in 2022 and was a finalist for the Crime Writers’ Association Debut Dagger Award and the Falchion Award for Best Mystery. The second book in the series, Sons and Brothers, came out in last year, and A Fondness for Truth was released this month.

In today's guest blog, Kim offers a solution, or at least an aid, to one of the most trying jobs in writing...

Any fluent English speaker who lives where English isn’t spoken knows the pattern. A friend—sometimes a superficial acquaintance—approaches you at a party or phones you out of the blue and says, “I’ve written a letter/business proposal/academic article in English. It’s finished, and I’m sure it’s in great shape, but could you give it a quick look to check the commas and fix any typos? I can email it to you right away. Okay?”  “Sure,” you say with a sinking heart, resigning yourself to hard work and indecision. The writing will probably be full of mistakes, not just in spelling and punctuation but in clarity; there will be sentences so convoluted that you’ll struggle to understand what they mean. How much correcting are you obliged to do, knowing that comments in the margins like “This paragraph doesn’t make sense. What are you trying to say?” will offend the writer and probably generate a defensive conversation?

It was to help these non-native speakers whose studies or professions demand that they write complicated texts in English that “Grammarly” was invented. First released in 2009 by three Ukrainians and now used by over thirty million people, the software application edits any piece of writing on your screen that you let it read and suggests grammar, spelling, and punctuation changes. It also corrects for increased clarity and what it calls “engagement” (using more lively words and phrases) and “delivery” (removing qualifiers and making your writing more authoritative.)

Within a few years of its release, the app wasn’t only being used by the foreign speakers it was created for but also by us native English speakers. There’s a free version with a limited correction service; there’s also one for 144 euros ($155) a year that offers the whole package. Just before I hunkered down to proof the final manuscript of A Fondness for Truth, the third book in my Polizei Bern series, I bought it.

Like everyone who has taught English as a foreign language to high school students and adults, I’ve had to answer many questions about English grammar. My copies of Oxford University Press’s Practical English Usage and the Oxford Guide to English Grammar are dog-eared with use. The idea that I needed an app to correct my English began to dawn on me when I received the copyedited version of Sons and Brothers, my second manuscript, back from my publisher. I opened the file to see if I agreed with the countless corrections the press’s copyeditor had made and found—pristine pages! Some red typeface was scattered in the first few chapters; after that, the corrections and suggestions dwindled to almost nothing!

Far from rejoicing, I was horrified. The book had a schedule, and there was no time to send it back and ask for a more diligent copyeditor, so I would have to be that person. What followed were endless readings and re-readings of the copyedited manuscript and later its page proofs by me and three ever-to-be-praised friends who pitched in to help. We caught plenty of spelling, grammar, and clarity mistakes, not to mention missing and repeated words.

Did I buy Grammarly at that point to help us cope? Sadly, no. But about a week before I had to send in my most recent MS for final approval and copyediting, I remembered the panic of the previous year and had an epiphany. In case of another copywriting disaster, I’d buy Grammarly and be forearmed. As it turned out, there was a new person on the job, and she did much better work. Nevertheless, I was grateful to have used Grammarly, as well.

Screenshot showing how it works

The app’s detractors complain about its mistakes, and I’d agree that perhaps 10% of its suggested corrections are wrong—either because it doesn’t appreciate my deliberately chosen word order or misinterprets what I’ve written. When Grammarly suggests a nonsensical correction, I double-check to make sure the mistake isn’t mine and then dismiss it without incorporating it. This is no big deal—it still leaves the app with a 90% success rate of catching genuine errors.

Another criticism of Grammarly is that it “reduces writers’ freedom of expression.” I laughed when I read that. I’m the writer. If a piece of software suggests replacing my words with a phrase or a sentence to make my writing clearer or punchier, and I don’t like it, I don’t use it. If I like it, I take it up and am grateful for a helpful editing suggestion, as any writer is.

I would never dismiss authors’ fears of AI out of hand. But Grammarly reminds me that helpful suggestions from a machine can be terrific—as long as they remain only suggestions.

If any of you use this app or others like it, let me know what you think.


  1. I don't, but it's worth a try. I presume you can set it for different languages i.e. US English and UK English?

  2. Definitely. I just checked, and the website assured me that you can "select between British English, American English, Canadian English, Australian English, and Indian English." They're missing South African and a few others, but I guess that's pretty good.

  3. Hi Kim, I have to say as a former English teacher and current screenwriting teacher, I've avoided Grammerly, mostly because of the ads they pummel me with on YouTube, but you've convinced me it might be worth a try. Congratulations on the new books!

    1. Hello again, Wendall, and thanks for the congratulations on FONDNESS. I guess living in Bern, I'm spared many of those Grammarly ads, but I know what you mean about pushing back when you're being bombarded like that. I should add to this comment that I never did much research before buying this correction tool. There may be much better ones out there. No one should take this piece as an endorsement, just a description of my personal experience. I'll take anything to help me with proofreading, which (like most of us, I assume) I HATE!

  4. Hi Kim, I shared the Grammarly wariness but after this I might give it a try too, thank you. I'm hopeless at proofreading--I tend to see what I Expect to read which is no help at all. Thanks for this!

  5. I think I would like it, Kim. but I am wary. Sometimes I like to break the rules. Or I am writing dialog that is supposed to be the speech in English of people who hardly know the language. I am afraid Grammarly would have a fit.
    Once my English main character had had enough of the precious pastries of a Belgian inn's hostess. My guy was delighted that "madame was ready lay on a full English breakfast." Word insisted I should say "lie on a full English Breakfast." I laughed out loud, picturing her then standing up and dripping beans, sunny-side up eggs, and grilled tomatoes!