Monday, September 15, 2014

Wordcraft -- Who writes better, men or women?

Last Monday I discussed one of the interesting unexpected visitors that show up in my inbox. Today’s post is about another, a series of provocative little info graphs from an online editing service.

Grammerly asked me months ago to subscribe to its grammar checking services for my blog posts. I’m not crazy about paying a company to correct writing I don’t get paid for in the first place. But when it reported that thousands of people it surveyed weighed in on the subject of whether men or women were the better writers, I was hooked.

Grammerly’s conclusion: overall, 59 percent of respondents believe women are better writers. The site suggested that this is because women, in the opinion of those surveyed, tend to write more descriptively and spend more time developing a wider variety of characters. But although I’d love to think that members of my own gender are better, I’ve got to admit¾ I totally disagree with the findings.

Disagree, at least, on the criteria it selected as earmarks of good writing. These were: whether it’s better to spend more time developing characters or get to the point quickly; to write about people or about things; to write about people like ourselves or those who are different; and whether it’s better to write long, descriptive sentences or short, straightforward ones.

It’s not that there are right or wrong answers to any of these questions. Isn’t it obvious that the answer to the question about character development versus getting to the point should be “both”?

And the best answer to the question about “people versus things” (“best” as determined by me, of course) seems obvious when discussing most fiction. But what about those forms of fiction, such as science fiction and thrillers, that require quite a lot of thinginess to give the human characters room to develop?

On the question about writing about people like ourselves versus writing about those unlike us? All characters will have a huge amount of ourselves in them, whether we writers consciously realize it or not, because each of us is the only character we can know from the inside out. Still, I’ll admit to generally giving bonus points for writers who try to stretch both their sympathies and their craft by writing about characters different from themselves, even if it’s only a difference of age or gender.

Don’t even get me started on whether long, descriptive sentences represent better writing than short, straightforward ones. I’m a woman, a woman writer, but I’m extremely wary of long sentences. (Especially wary after criticism from a short story contest judge for using what he¾ or possibly she¾ considered overly long sentences.)

I decided that, on the whole, the question of which gender writes better is a sign of progress. After all, if Daniel Defoe’s 1718 Robinson Crusoe is taken to be the first novel (by which I mean book length prose fiction) we’ve only been writing long fiction for about three hundred years. Women like proto-Gothic writer Anne Radcliffe were churning out bestsellers by the end of the eighteenth century. But for decades afterward, the writing abilities of women were so denigrated that even such greats as the Bronte sisters originally published under male pseudonyms.

But are women really out of the closet as writers? Or does the whole J.K. Rowling/Robert Galbraith situation mean we’re still more acceptable if we wear our man suits?

Besides making use of Grammerly’s catchy graphics, I opted for a free check of my writing at I’m still debating whether to sign up for its services. And whether the errors it pointed out are from the viewpoint of a male or female computer program.

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