Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Have you tried Hemingway?

I have a love-hate relationship with Hemingway.

It's slow. It's clunky. The interface is horrible. I could go on. But, it works. It forces me to slash my run-on sentences until the yellow or purple go away. It challenges me to get rid of all the big words and adjectives. It took this book from a ninth-grade to a fourth-grade level. I know, that sounds bad, but the book is so much easier to read.

The dumbing down. Is it good?

I’ve wrestled with that one, over-and-over. Hemingway fought me on simple words like “require.” It highlighted it in purple. It said I should use “need” or “must.” It threw a fit when I typed “eliminate." It suggested simpler words like "cut," "drop," and "end." But, it didn’t flag “antecedent.” What the hell?
Two words I overuse are “just” and “really.” Hemingway highlights them in blue to let me know they are on the don't use list. Adverbs are bad. They recommend that you use fewer than one for every eighty words.

Ugh!

In case you're wondering. The original text for this chapter started out at the ninth-grade-level. After several runs through Hemingway, it's at the third-grade level.

Is that too low?

I'm not sure. It's a quick, easy read. Anyone can understand it and put the advice in it into action. That's what writing is all about, right?

Okay. Enough bitching and moaning.

You want to know how Hemingway works and if it’s the right tool for you.

Hemingway is a text editor.

You can import documents into it from Word, or you can copy and paste text into it. If you want, it has a “write” mode so that you can use it as your word processor. I wouldn’t recommend that. Except for the shortest documents, it would be a pain in the ass.

The right-hand column is the heart of Hemingway. The first box tells you how easy your text is to read. It does that by assigning a grade level. From what I’ve seen, lower is better. Hemingway likes it when you write at the third to sixth-grade level. More people can understand it.

Below this, it shows your word count. I can start out with one thousand words, By the time I make all my cuts, my document can be 800 words or less. It’s hard to make those highlights go away.

What highlights you ask?

Hemingway examines five areas of your writing. It looks for adverbs, the use of passive voices, and words that have simpler meanings. It highlights hard to read sentences, and harder to read sentences.
What are adverbs? They are words that modify verbs or adjectives. Most of them end in -ly. By themselves, they are not bad. People tend to overuse them. They tell you things you already know. “Billy is tired.” Versus “Billy is really tired.” Both sentences mean the same thing. “Really” is an extra word in the second sentence. It doesn’t do anything. So, why not get rid of it?

Hemingway doesn’t tell you that adverbs are bad. It warns you if you use too many of them. When you hover over an adverb, you get the option to click [omit]. Don’t do it. There must be a glitch. When I click on omit, it garbles the word instead of omitting it.

Not cool.

Use of passive voice is another biggie that can kill your writing. Whenever possible, use action verbs to move the story forward. “Is,” “was,” “has been,” and “are.” We use them all the time.

They are passive. There isn’t any action. Which sentence sounds better? “Nick is climbing the hill.” Or, “Nick climbed the hill.”

The second sentence sounds better. It shows Nick in action. A lot of writers get lazy. They don’t realize how many times they use passive verbs, so they let them slide by.

Hemingway and Grammarly point out passive voices. Hemingway tells you how many times you use them and how many are okay.

The next one bothers me. Phrases that have simpler meanings.

I understand not everyone owns a dictionary. Not everyone went to college. But, some of the words Hemingway flags don’t make sense. Who doesn’t understand “require,” “modify,” or “examine?”
It’s crazy!

But, it’s brilliant. When you reread your document after you make the substitutions, it flies by. There’s no confusion. No stumbling over words.

Again, hover your cursor over the highlighted word. A box opens up. It displays several words you can substitute. Click on the one you want to use. Better yet, manually make the correction. There is less chance for errors.

You don’t have to change every word Hemingway flags, but the more of them you revise, the easier it is to read your book.

It highlights sentences that are hard to read in tan. Check each sentence carefully. Sometimes you can get by with just chopping one or two words. Other times, you need to work at it. Phrases or unnecessary words at the beginning of the sentence can be a problem. I have a habit of beginning sentences with “basically” or “necessarily.” When you get rid of these words, many times the highlight disappears. Other phrases we like to stick at the beginning of sentences can cause problems. Some of these are, “I think,” “in my opinion,” or “in many cases.” Get rid of these qualifiers, and the highlight disappears. And, the funny thing is when you reread the sentence, it sounds better. It is easier to understand.

The final category is very hard to read sentences. Many of these occur in quotes. People tend to go on and on when they are talking. Run-on sentences are common. If it’s an interview you conducted, the sentences are easy to correct. When you use a historical quote things get more complicated.

I tried using Hemingway with a chapter from one of my history books.

What a mess.

Abe Lincoln talked in circles. George Washington’s writing is boring and confusing as hell. The only way to correct it and kill the purple highlights is to pick and choose the portions of the quote you want to use. Sometimes that works. Sometimes it changes the meaning of the quote. Then readers start flagging you for taking liberties with Lincoln.

Sorry, Mr. President.

My best advice is to use Hemingway to clean up what you can if you’re editing historical or scientific writing. Use it to clean up your editorial comments. Leave Lincoln and Washington alone.

Your book will still be more readable.

What bothers me the most is Grammarly, Hemingway, and Word don’t play well together.

They don’t agree on a lot of things. Grammarly makes you remove a comma. Word says you should add it. Word says you should hyphenate a word. Grammarly says you shouldn’t.

Who is right? Who is wrong?

That’s the real question. And, it’s one we can’t answer. Many grammar and punctuation rules aren’t hard and fast. They leave room for personal interpretation.

Do the best you can, and move on. Your document is going to be 99 percent better than when you started. That’s a good thing. Celebrate it.