Curse Them Newfangled Editin’ Machines 01/24/2013
Anyone familiar with folk legend John Henry knows of his famous race against the steam-powered hammer. Okay, maybe you don’t know a thing about it, but don’t feel bad — I thought the legend was about Paul Bunyan until I did some digging.
John Henry worked as a “steel-driver” — a man tasked with hammering and chiseling rock in the mid-nineteenth-century push to expand railroads from the East Coast of the United States, across and through the mountains, to the frontier West. One day, the owner of the railroad bought a steam-powered hammer — a technological marvel at the time — to do the work of his steel-driving crew. To save his job and the jobs of his men, John Henry challenged the owner to a contest: Henry would race the steam-powered hammer to see who could reach the other side of a mountain first. Henry won the race, but as a result of pushing himself to beat the machine, he collapsed and died.
So what, if anything, does all this have to do with editing? Quite a bit, actually. In the last year or so, a number of “instant grammar check” websites have cropped up online. There’s a window where you copy and paste your text, the site fires up, and a list of all your errors populates before your very eyes. Of course, only the error list is free — to see your actual copy with everything pointed out, you’ve gotta fork over some cash. And since, in this scenario, I am John Henry and the website is a steam-powered hammer, I’d rather die with a red pen in my hand than pay a machine to edit my work.
I don’t care how advanced the algorithms are that power these editing sites. I don’t care if behind the curtain they have self-aware robots editing away as they slowly evolve into Terminators. No matter what you do, no machine will ever be as skilled as a human editor.
Just for kicks, I ran e.e. cummings’ “Why Did You Go” through one of these sites. The results? There are 16 issues with punctuation, 9 grammar issues, and 6 issues regarding style and words choice. The good news is that it passed the plagiarism check. The site informs me “The text in this document is original.” Thanks, editing machine! I can’t wait to publish it!