I don’t believe you. I understand why you feel the way you do, but I disagree. Grammar still matters. Proofreading is as important as ever. To deny it, is a defense of laziness. Just because we live in a post-truth, 140-character, listicle world of fake news, in which human decency may or may not have also been heaped upon the funeral pyre that is 2016, there’s no excuse for sloppy writing. Fortunately, you can save yourself from it for the low, low cost of ten bucks. I’m talking about the Hemingway app.
Bookmark this link now and use the web-based version for free. It’s perfect for those angry rants you post on Facebook. You’re welcome.
Ernest Hemingway, as you’re probably aware, was famous for a lot more than being a fan of bullfights, alcohol, women, and death. He was also an ardent believer in stripping a sentence down to its simplest form. He’d never use a ten-dollar word when a five-cent one would do, he abhorred adverbs, and he’d no sooner write a run-on sentence with multiple clauses than he would order a Shirley Temple. As you can see, I am no Hemingway. But with the app, I can get there if I choose.
Readability on the 8th Grade Level
The Hemingway App allows you to copy/paste (or import from Word) a selection of text for analysis. The algorithm detects use of passive voice, adverbs, complex phrasing, sentences that are hard to read, and sentences that it considers very hard to read. It then assigns you a Readability score based on the U.S. educational grade level. According to the app’s help page, the measurement (the Automated Readability Index used since the days of electronic typewriters) aims to gauge the lowest education needed to understand your prose.
The average American reads at a tenth-grade level. Hemingway’s novels scored at a fifth-grade level. Many of us can read at much higher grades, but doing so becomes tedious, especially if the text is filled with jargon. Writing for a higher grade level is a sure-fire way to turn off a lot of readers and find yourself a smaller audience.
My advice would be to aim for no higher than a tenth-grade level and use the app’s color highlights to tighten as possible. If you can get it down to an eighth-grade level without losing your writing voice, then you should try to do so.
Counting Adverbs and Passive Voice
One of the things I particularly like about the Hemingway app is that it doesn’t try to enforce a zero tolerance rule regarding adverbs and passive voice. While there’s no doubt the app would go bonkers with a selection from Harry Potter, it does allow for 0.88% of words to be adverbs (based on my experience with it). Similarly, it will tolerate 1.45% of words in passive voice (or up to 20% of sentences which I think is far too high). This prior sentence being guilty of said crime.
The app highlights all of your adverbs blue and use of passive voice in green. One of the nice things about addressing the blue and green highlights first is that doing so often lowers the complexity of the sentence, thus killing a second bird with the same edit.
For example, when I changed the “He’d been caught daydreaming” in the accompanying screenshot to “He daydreamed” it not only addressed the passive voice, but also removed the yellow highlighting as well. The app no longer considered that sentence hard to read. Address enough of those hard and very hard to read sentences and the Readability score will report a lower grade level.
Whether or not I make that change in the final draft is ultimately up to me (or, hopefully, an agent and editor) but I may not have noticed the flaw if the app hadn’t highlighted it.
Replacing Those Fancy Words
The Hemingway app and I don’t always see eye to eye on what it considers a complex phrase. For example, in the scene I pasted into the app, it highlighted the word “purchase” as being one that has a simpler alternative. Mousing over the purple highlight, a pop-up appears telling me to replace the word with either “buy” or “sale.” Unfortunately, the English language is complex and that wasn’t the meaning of purchase I was going for. I was using it (admittedly as a fancy alternative) for traction.
The three other phrases it highlighted for replacement (the app’s suggestion in parentheses) included: “all of” (all), “numerous” (many), and “very” (remove the word).
Defining Hard to Read
I don’t worry about addressing the sentences it highlights yellow and red (hard to read and very hard to read, respectively) so long as my readability score is below Grade 10. This isn’t to say that I ignore them though.
Instead, I scroll through the selection and look for the white (un-highlighted) space. I don’t want to see large blocks of red and yellow where multiple complex sentences bunch together. Rather, I want to see a mix of red, yellow, and white. This is a mark of good pacing. I like it when my writing (and the writing I read) mixes long, complex sentences with simple, punchy statements. Here’s a sample paragraph from the opening scene of my work-in-progress.
Edward moved his left hand to his hip — an old steadying maneuver he retained from his racing days — and turned to face his wife. Her yellow handlebar bag and panniers were spackled white and her gloves looked soaked, but even through the gauzy curtain of snowflakes he could see her smile and a few curly tendrils of hair sticking out beneath her helmet. Two weeks in and he still couldn’t get used to the purple highlights. “Are you sure you’re okay riding in this?”
As you can probably guess, the Hemingway app colored the first sentence of that paragraph yellow (hard), the second red (very hard), and the third and fourth it left white. It also highlighted the “were spackled” green, indicating the passive voice. I’ll probably leave it since there are so few instances of passive voice in this scene and I like how it reads.
And that’s the beauty of the app. It helps you write with intent. Often we don’t know we’re using the passive voice, or using fancy, cumbersome words, or sprinkling our text with dozens of -ly words. The app points them out (it also underlines typos). What you do with the suggestions is up to you, but I for one couldn’t imagine sending a query letter or a contest entry without first running my text through the Hemingway app. It’s no replacement for an editor, but for $10, it’s a mighty good investment.