Improve your writing style with help from a machine

Hemingway is a proof editing tool. It helps simplify and improve the comprehension of your writing.

Good, concise writing uses a set of rules that we learn at school. It can take years of practice to achieve mastery through practice and coaching. It’s an area where machines can help improve the quality of your work and provide feedback to aide learning.

‘Omit anything you want (as long as you know you’re doing it)’

I often use a tool called Hemingway to edit my written work for my blog. The software helps simplify writing and improves its comprehension.

The Hemingway app takes it name from Ernest Hemingway whose style is lean and stripped back. It’s available as a desktop app or for free as a web app. You can use as a text editor or cut and paste text from your word processor.

The app marks up writing in blue, green, red, pink and yellow by applying the lessons we learn at school. It lights up like a Christmas tree when you feed in a chunk of text.

You can see the comparison of two versions of a blog post. I’ve include before and after images. A panel on the right of the screen highlights areas for improvement. Your goal should be to reduce these to zero.

A first draft of a blog post incorporate mark up from the Hemingway app

A first draft of a blog post incorporate mark up from the Hemingway app

Edited version of the blog post incorporating feedback from the Hemingway app

Edited version of the blog post incorporating feedback from the Hemingway app

Hemingway marks the grade level of your text using the Automated Readability Index. It’s a well-established algorithm that determines the reading level of a piece of text.

The index uses US school grades to benchmark against reading ages. Grade 1 is a reading age for a six to eight years; Grade 8, age 14; and Grade 12, age 17.

The average reading age of the UK population is nine years. A tabloid newspaper has a reading age of eight and a broadsheet newspaper age 14.

Your goal should be to write as concisely as possible and aim for as low a readability index as possible. Eight or nine are okay for profession written work but aim for lower. You can see in the example above I’ve reduced the reading level from Grade 10 to Grade 6.

Using Hemingway as an editing tool

The next job is to strip out adverbs and passive voice. Good writing should remove unnecessary words and be confident and assertive.

Remove words that aren’t needed. Replace words where a simpler alternative exist. Don’t use a big pompous word when there’s a leaner alternative.

The final job is simplifying the structure of your writing. Sentences that are hard to read or very hard to read should need editing. Use two or three sentences instead.

Hemingway is invaluable in helping write for the web. Sentences should be short and tight. No paragraph should ever be more than two or three sentences long.

A word of caution. Use Hemingway as a guide and teacher but don’t become a slave to its suggestions. Knowing when to break rules is also a basis for good writing.

I’ve run this blog post through Hemingway. It scored a readability level of Grade 5 with no markup. Let me know what you think.

Image of Ernest Hemingway courtesy of US National Archive.

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