What's our problem?

Find out why we think writers should pay more attention to their digital writing tools.

Do we hate technology?

We do not hate technology, but we treat these algorithm-based tools with slight suspicion. We see them as puppies who are yet to be toilet-trained: although they may appear enthusiastic and capable, these robotic writing aids remain awkward, limited, and often clueless when it comes to dealing with a living entity such as human language. We like them, and we may use them, but never uncritically.

Is it bad for novice writers to rely on technology for proofreading?

Research, anecdotal evidence, and the personal experience of teachers show that novice writers (e.g., students) rely too much on digital writing tools when proofreading and editing their texts. They tend to ascribe often-unwarranted authority to these tools and take the feedback given at face value. Text-editing tools can be very helpful if used in a critical and self-reflective way. However, while writing with digital tools is widely practised in both university and work settings, it hardly ever gets taught or addressed as a necessary skill.

Aren’t we exaggerating the impact of technology on writing?

Some artificial-intelligence driven writing tools leave us in awe, and we happily let them write for us. Others have crept into our lives so quietly that we no longer notice how much writing they do for us. Digital writing technology is slowly but surely growing in presence and capacity. For younger generations, it may even redefine the meaning of “writing” itself. As grammar-checking tools are increasingly embedded in most writing platforms, writers get so used to them that they risk becoming passive and inattentive users who are at the mercy of these blunt instruments. The most dangerous tools are those whose work has become invisible.

Why the quirky experiments and explorative exercises?

We usually notice technology’s limitations when something unexpected happens, causing the machinery to break down. Here, through small-scale experiments and exercises, we attempt to throw a spanner in the works by testing the limits of some popular digital writing tools. To add weight to these lighthearted tests, we also present what serious research says about the efficiency and usefulness of each featured tool. We poke at these machines, trying to figure out what good they can be for academic writers, especially novices, students and ESL/EFL learners. Machine-aided writing can certainly have value: by playing with these tools, one can learn more about their own writing as well as the disciplinary expectations and hidden language ideologies that govern each machine’s work.

Won’t these resources become dated as technology changes and develops?

We hope not. These resources were created in the first half of 2019 and were based on the most recent broadly available versions of each tool at that time. But technology does of course change too rapidly for us to capture the details of each new version, so we address more lasting issues. These include the overall accuracy of algorithm-based corrections vs those made by a human mind, the invisible ideological and linguistic influence exerted by our writing tools on our minds, and the pedagogical and ethical implications of using each tool for (teaching) writing.

Finally, what about many other tools not included here?

It would be impossible for us to feature here every tool available on the quickly-changing market of digital writing and editing software. Instead, we have chosen to present six popular grammar- and style-checking tools as examples of writing aids that you or your students may choose to use. We encourage you to experiment with other tools, and share your findings with us.