Posted by on February 20, 2017

The following is a guest post by Devon Noel Lee. 

Since I was a little girl, I’ve struggled in one skill set. Written Communication. Handwriting marks on my report card rarely rose above “Needs Improvement.” I argued with my mother of the correct way to spell Sesquicentennial (I was the loser). And to this day I confuse loose with lose and choose with chose. How on earth can I ever dream of writing the stories of my ancestors without causing a huge ‘cringe factor’ by a reader or be imprisoned by the grammar police?

Three words: Practice and Study.

Raise your hand if you have heard, “Practice makes perfect.”

Guess what. That adage is wrong. It’s missing some qualifiers. Perfect practice makes perfect. Poor practice makes more poor performance. So, I love this quote from the mentor, a gruff but fierce fighter named Halt, in John Flanagan’s young adult novel series called The Rangers Apprentice.

“Don’t practice until you get it right. Practice until you never get it wrong.”

What the youth is learning from his mentor is that you have to be striving for improvement as you practice. For this apprentice, he needed to be able to throw saxe knives and shoot the longbow so that he didn’t have to think to survive when facing a deadly situation. With grammar, we aren’t facing life or death situations. But, there is wisdom in knowing that you have to practice the skill of writing with the intent of improving.

 

So, how do I practice with the intent of improving?

The first hurdle to writing is editing while thoughts flow and formulate. Knowing my grammar is a weakness, I often correct words as I type them onscreen. What happens is I focus on the look of words rather than expressing my ideas. Does it matter where you place the comma when writing a rough draft about your ancestor who lived in Baden during the 1848 Revolution? No. The key word is that you’re writing a ROUGH DRAFT! You will edit during the revision stage, not the idea stage.

To turn off the English Teacher with a red pen, I do two things to focus on pulling the ideas out of my head without criticism.

  1. Write with ‘spell check; turned off
  2. Using voice-to-text without looking

Since I publish most of my family histories, I rarely write by hand and instead utilize a word processing program. However, I turn off the spell check feature so I can focus on dumping thoughts out of my brain.

Additionally, I love to use voice-to-text software when the ideas are flowing faster than my fingers can type. However, watching the computer process my words is frustrating. Many voice-to-text programs require time to recognize your voice patterns. In the beginning, the programs make a lot of mistakes. As I watch the mistakes hit the screen, I stop talking and start editing. If I persist in this way, then I should have stuck to typing rather than speaking.

To utilize the voice-to-text feature, I turn my laptop around when I talk. I speak slowly and strive to enunciate my words as clearly as possible. In so doing, I improve the chances the program will succeed in translating my speech. After I’ve finished speaking, then I’ll work on fixing the mistakes.

Once I have written stories about my ancestors and have no further ideas to consider, my rough draft is complete. Then, I’ll switch to the revision stage of writing. Now it’s time to tackle my grammatical problems. I turn to resources that will help me study grammar so I can improve my writing while I’m correcting mistakes.

When writing my books From Metal to Rhinestones: A Quest for the Crown and A Recipe for Writing Family History. I consulted two invaluable resources. They are wonderful because they help you study grammar so that you can practice with the intent to improve.

 

Grammarly.com

Grammarly is like having a personal English teacher hack apart your writing and then tell you why they flagged the mistakes, and what to do to improve them. I cringed after receiving 25 critical errors and 90 advanced errors on my first chapter’s draft. Eek!  The critical errors report, available through the free version of the website, include punctuation, spelling structure, and contextual errors.  The premium service from Grammarly will check word usage, passive voice, plagiarism checking, and repeating word usage. I love that Grammarly just doesn’t offer corrections but teaches the reasons behind the recommendations. In so doing, as I write more, I can practice and improve.

There are three ways to access the editor.

  1. Visit Grammarly.com and use the online editor by uploading or copying and pasting your writing samples.
  2. Download and install Grammarly to use with Microsoft Word.
  3. Add the Grammarly Chrome extension and use the service on most websites (including Blogger). At the time of this post, the extension does not work on Google Drive documents.

I use the website to edit my book chapters and the Chrome extension to improve comments I write on Facebook, Twitter and Blogs! So, the premium version not only helps me write my family history but also improves my communication in social media. Hooray!

 

Student Resource Notebook – IEW

I homeschool my five superheroes and have worked with various language arts and writing resources. The Institute for Excellence in Writing has revolutionized the way I’ve taught writing to my children and improve my writing in the process.

You could purchase a Theme-Based Writing program such as the US History Vol 1 (Explorers to Gold Rush) or Ancient History.  These courses might be more instruction that you’re seeking. Instead, I would suggest purchasing the Student Resource Notebook. The best sections in this notebook are the banned words, quality adjectives, and strong verb pages. I will search my writings looking for banned words such as ‘good’ or ‘interesting’ and replace those words with the suggestions from the resource notebook. I’ll consider using at least one quality adjective and two strong verbs, from lists in the book, in each paragraph. The notebook is full of other suggestions for improved written communication.

Be warned. The Student Resource Notebook is a style guide and reference tool rather than a teacher. However, the tips and suggestions in the book serve as guideposts to improve writing.

The final tip for overcoming grammatical obstacles is to recognize that few published works are without flaws. Articles abound featuring excerpts from many New York Times bestsellers that have horrendous communication errors. And those best sellers include well-known authors from major publishing houses. You won’t catch every mistake, and that’s okay. Seriously! Consider the few missed errors like a parking ticket. Sure they’re annoying, but they’re not detrimental to your driving record.

As long as you are striving to convey a clear story for your family that endears them to their ancestors, you have succeeded. You may have a comma out of place. You may add an unnecessary word or use the wrong spelling. But, it’s better to publish and share your best effort than strive for a perfectly polished book that never leaves your computer.

Former heavy metal headbanger, Devon Noel Lee shocked her parents when she wanted to trade in her tomboy ways for rhinestones and tiaras by entering her first pageant. In 2016, her husband asked for the rest of her pageant story and she wrote From Metal to Rhinestones: A Quest for the Crown. In addition to preserving personal history, Devon is an author, speaker, and blogger teaching others to capture and preserve their genealogy and having fun along the way. Her latest book A Recipe For Writing Family History came after struggling to turn her research into stories for 6 generations of ancestors and the quest for a simple solution to overcome writer’s block. Devon Noel Lee can be found at FamilyHistoryFanatics.com, DevonNoelLee.com, or through her Amazon’s Author page.  When not involved in family history, Devon is a home educator of five superheroes, cheers for the Texas Aggies, and runs 5Ks.

You can also purchase her books at http://www.devonnoellee.com/books


  1. Carol Lee Enos
    February 22, 2017

    Very helpful…I hope. I will try these resources.Somehow, I believe my Strunk & White is is bit outdated!