Kill the Squiggly Line to Improve Your Writing

During season five of Family Guy, episode eleven was named The Tan Aquatic with Steve Zissou. If you’ve not seen it, I highly recommend you watch it at some point. For now, keep reading. I won’t spill details other than to say that at one point Stewie believes he’s dying. As part of fulfilling last wishes, he dictates his memoirs to Brian, beginning with a poem:

Ode to the Squiggly Line
Oh squiggly line in my eye fluid.
I see you lurking there on the periphery of my vision.
But when I try to look at you, you scurry away.
Are you shy, squiggly line?
Why only when I ignore you,
do you return to the center of my eye?
Oh, squiggly line,
it’s alright, you are forgiven.

Stewie was, of course, paying homage to what are more commonly known as floaters. They happen to most people at some point and are generally harmless. In contrast, consider the many-coloured squiggly lines that festoon word processing, presentation, email and almost any other application into which text is entered. These squiggly lines provide spelling and grammar checking services by indicating errors. Ostensibly, they are helpful. And, if spelling and grammar were one’s only concerns when writing, the squiggly lines would prove useful. Unfortunately, within the process of actual writing – i.e., forming an argument, authoring cogent prose and editing to improve coherence – spelling and grammar really do play a trifling role. However, when you type ignor instead of ignore (you fool!), a squiggly line indicates the error, elevates the importance of spelling and distracts you from actually writing.

The squiggly line’s intentionally bright colour draws attention away from the text and derails your train of thought. Most people opt to correct their mistake immediately and then return to their writing. Switching from composition to error evaluation (is that really spelled incorrectly?) to error correction is expensive because it takes minutes (or longer) to recover. What’s worse is that because most people make many small errors, during composition of even a simple passage, they switch context many times. Consequently, writers suffer because they loose track of their argument, readers suffer because the resulting prose isn’t as terse and pithy as it could be, and all parties suffer because everything ends up taking a little longer to accomplish.

Unlike, Stewie, I do not forgive the squiggly line. I want the squiggly line to die. Fortunately, almost all editing tools provide me a way to quickly terminate those undulating horrors. Disabling the feature won’t turn you into Hemmingway, but it will speed up your computer (all that checking requires lots of computing power), and improve both the writing process and your writing. Of course, when you’ve finished your masterpiece, don’t forget to run the spell check. There’s no excuse for sloppy work, but just as review occurs at the end of a draft, syntactical errors are best corrected at the end of a writing session.