Come to Papa with the Hemingway app

hemingway app

Reading time: Just over 2 minutes

The Hemingway App promises to make your writing bold and clear. How does it do that?

Most writers today strive to avoid the passive voice. Do you know what I mean by passive?

Don’t be too quick to say yes! It may be easy to identify the blatantly obvious cases — “mistakes were made,” a feeling expressed by Ronald Reagan during the Iran-Contra scandal.  But it’s hard to spot the more subtle variants.

For example, This rug needs washing. Is that a passive sentence? (Indeed, it is.)

And what about the sentence, There was a ceasefire agreement in Southern Afghanistan? (It most certainly is not.)

I tend to side with language maven Geoffrey K. Pullum and his erudite and persuasive paper “Fear and Loathing of the English Passive.”  He argues that many of the constructions we view as passive simply aren’t. But we accuse them of being so as a  kind of all-purpose synonym for bad writing. (Warning: you may need a degree in linguistics to understand the finer points of Pullam’s article.)

I find it particularly telling that both George Orwell and E.B. White (whom I admire deeply) both decried the passive and yet used it frequently. For example, “The passive voice is wherever possible used in preference to the active,” Orwell wrote, passively. Ironic, no?

That said, I do regret it when many writers lapse into wordy, complex (and sometimes passive) sentences that make it difficult for readers to create visual images. But I’m not going to suggest you go back to school for remedial grammar. I have a much simpler suggestion. Use a free piece of software called the Hemingway App.

Simply click on the “write” button (top right-hand corner) and write or paste your text. Then, when you’ve done that, click on the “edit” button (also top right-hand). The single best thing about this software is that it will highlight all your passive construction in bright green. Easy peasy.

Even better, this multi-purpose software highlights hard-to-read sentences in yellow and very-hard-to-read sentences in red.

I double-checked some of the sentences Pullum had identified as active (ie: not passive) and the software did not misidentify any of them. But it did fail to catch a couple he had ID’d as passive. That said, I could see the Hemingway App had diligently earmarked hard-to-read and very-hard-to-read sentences. What I lost on the swing I could gain on the ‘round-about, I figured.

The brothers who designed the app — Adam Long (a marketing expert) and Ben Long (a copywriter) — did it out of a desire to improve their own writing.  You can read more about it in a delightful story in the New Yorker.

But, mainly, I encourage you to take the app for a test drive. Me? I’m vacillating between my old readability stats and the newer Hemingway App.  For a while, I’m going to use both.

This column earned a grade 8 ranking in Hemingway and had six examples of passive to begin. I edited those down to two (both deliberate.)

In readability stats, it earned a grade 5 to 8 ranking and a Flesch Reading Ease score of 68.88.

On a separate topic, if you’ve been thinking about buying my popular book, 8½ Steps to Writing Faster, Better, this is an early heads up that the price will rise on April 16.  If you’re interested, be sure to get it before that date. Note that shipping is currently free anywhere in the world.

What do you think of the passive voice? Do you try to avoid it or do you find yourself drowning in it? We can all help each other so please share your thoughts with my readers and me. If you comment on my blog by April 30, 2014 I’ll put your name in a draw for a copy of the autobiography Open by Andre Agassi. (I’m not even interested in tennis and I loved this book!) If you don’t see the comments box, click here and then scroll to the end.

Posted April 8th, 2014 in Power Writing

  • Jill

    Great PW email update! As a marketing copywriter and editor, I stay away from passive tense when at all possible. You want strong, punchy, call to action writing, and a passive voice sounds non-convicted and flimsy in my mind.

    • Passive is good for some things, though. (See D. Frost’s comment, above.) Note that it’s not a tense. It’s a voice. Different thing.

  • Maureen

    That was fun! I pasted in few of the things I’m working on. They came up as Grade 17, 19, 5 and 7. Only one passive phrase between them, though.

  • richardpelletier

    Hey Daphne,
    Let’s count this as yet another wondrous gift from your awesome pub coach newsletter/blog. I’d seen a few references to the Hemingway app, but I wasn’t sure it was worth looking into. I see now that it’s way worth it. It’s so easy to use, I got a bit confused. (Happens easily these days.) One of your very best tips. Thanks!
    Richard

  • Dottie

    I just bookmarked the webpage for the app. So easy to use and so helpful. Thanks for the tip!

    • Judi

      I also bookmarked the site. Added it to my bookmark bar, which I seldom do. It made such a difference in my first chapter.

  • D Frost

    I view passive constructions–all syntactical constructions, really–as tools to wield for different effects. (A quick caveat: I do have a linguistics degree, but I have yet to slog through Pullum’s 23-page manifesto.) The nebulous realm of subjunctives can be intimidating, but essentially all subjunctives serve the same purpose: append new or modified information to the verb. Grammatically, passive voice is one of the trickier subjunctives, since most other subjunctives use a model verb (would, could, might, may) that adds meaning in a straightforward way, whereas passive voice affects word order as well.

    The crux of the passive voice is that it shifts the impetus of the sentence from the agent of the action (in an active sentence, the “subject”) to the recipient of the action (the “object”). However the sentence is constructed, the spirit of the passive voice serves to underscore the object to which the action is happening, & muffle the agent performing the action. This is particularly useful if the agent is unknown, obvious, or intentionally left vague for suspense or foreshadowing purposes:

    “These tunnels were carved in the 700s.” A simple passive, omitting the agent, who is unknown or irrelevant.
    “Born into poverty, Grace sought to make a difference in the world.” An adjectival passive, evoking an action that was done unto Grace (giving birth) without having to address the obvious agent of the action (Grace’s mother).
    “She gaped aghast at the white picket fence sprayed with blood.” Another adjectival passive allowing the omission of the agent. This time, the passive creates mystery & suspense by leaving the agent unrevealed.

    Similarly, if the object is of particular interest or unusual for the action, passive voice can emphasize that interest:

    “The tea grown in the courtyard tasted vaguely of cinnamon and pretense.” Another adjectival passive, here emphasizing the tea, instead of the grower, because the tea is the point of interest.
    “The silent hall leered down in judgment, centuries of cruelty etched across its cold stone facade.” Again, an adjectival passive. Cruelty is not usually something etched in stone, so here the passive has a more powerful impact than the corresponding active, “The kings etched centuries of cruelty across the hall’s cold stone facade.”

    I hope this wasn’t too linguistic-y! In essence, the passive voice allows us writers to create different effects by withholding/undermining some information (the agent) & direction attention to other information (the recipient). But like wielding a hammer, using passive voice is best reserved for when you have a particular nail to drive home.

    • Judi

      What a wonderful discourse. I saved it in a document of its own. Thank you D Frost for giving me just the information I need.

    • You make some excellent points about the passive, D. Frost!

  • CodyCat

    I’ve earned much of my income for the past 10 years correcting the passive voice writing of research scientists. So I hate it, and I love it (because I love changing it). I was an Admin Assistant when I returned to school to at age 50 to earn my BA in English. Simultaneously, I started working for a scientist who had rough copies of book chapters several scientists had written. He asked me if I could “do something with them.” Thanks to that drawerful of scientific writing, I was able to bring a book to fruition, gain a substantial promotion, and become the only Editorial Associate at our organization. Now I’m a freelance editor, and I continue to edit, and occasionally write with, the scientist who gave me that first break (after I convinced him to stop writing, “it was learned…”)!

    • Just understand that not all passive is bad. (See D. Frost’s comments, below.) I agree that many scientists overuse it, however. “The data appear to show…” is a very useful phrase to remember.

    • Ha! Maybe this is why so much of my writing is passive voice. Much of my writing has been research papers.

      • Also, I’m guessing much of your READING has been research papers. This will also affect the amount of passive you produce.

  • organic_mama

    Wow–this is fun! I was never much of a Hemingway fan, so at first I thought I wouldn’t be interested. What I’ve found is that it forces me to recraft my sentences so they are shorter. Thanks for sharing.
    Marie at http://www.marie-everydaymiracle.blogspot.com

    • I agree. Have never been a Hemingway fan either. But I love this app.

  • Suzanne Gorhau

    I ran my sermon from last Sunday through the app, and the readability was grade 3. Is that a good thing? Maybe I should throw in a couple longer words 🙂

    • Impressive, Suzanne! Just remember that the “grade levels” used by readability software are somewhat arbitrary. I think you’re wise to aim for a really low grade level, though. The spoken word is more demanding than the written one.

  • Jon Pietz

    Thanks Daphne,

    This is incredible. And it’s just what I needed to get the stuffiness out of my writing. The only problem is that now I’ll have to revise everything on my site. Thank god I haven’t written a book—that would drive me crazy! Is it possible to go too far with this?

    Keep up your great work (and resource sharing).

    • Don’t try to revise everything at once, Jon! Presumably your website has been operating for a while now. Be very methodical with your changes. Maybe tackle one page a week (or a day if you have more time.)

  • Deborah

    Hi Daphne,
    I believe there is a typo in the first line of the third paragraph of this blog post:

    “Don’t be TOOK quick to say yes!”

    I absolutely love your blog and all your writing wisdom!

    Deborah

    • Thanks, Deborah. ARGHH. That was the third spelling mistake in this issue! (All fixed now!) I must have been having a distracted day.

  • S.C. Geezer

    A pretty good app, but if you lean on it too heavily you’ll wind up serving simplistic soup. I ran some of my favorite authors through this thing. Most got clobbered.

    • I don’t think writers want to lean on ANYTHING too heavily. As well, not every writer can — or will want to — sound like Hemingway. This app is probably most useful for corporate writers who want to appeal to time-stressed readers. And to academic writers, who have been corrupted by too much passive and otherwise flabby writing.

  • John Stuart Mill

    D Frost, below, gets a Grade 15 on this app

    • I hope you don’t mean that in a disparaging way, Mr. J.S. Mill! Different types of writing have different objectives. I would NEVER say that every piece of writing ought to score a grade 9 in Hemingway. But it IS a useful (and objective) way to measure what you’ve written.

  • Deborah

    Everyone is commenting that the Hemmingway App is so easy to use, but I don’t quite get it! Are you supposed to paste your writing/document under the explanation of the App? That seemed to work when I tried it but it felt awkward to have my text attached to the existing text of the App. Is that just the way it works or am I missing something?

    • HiDeborah, Go to the page and click on the “Write” button (to right), then just copy and paste your text on top of the text that’s already on the page (I agree: this is a little confusing.) Once you’ve done that, hit the “edit” button (also top right). Let me know if you need any more help.

  • Betsy

    Hi Daphne,
    This app is so easy to use and useful, I love it! I would like to share this post on Google+ but it doesn’t look like you offer that sharing option. Would you consider adding a G+ button?

    I am a huge fan of this blog – your writing and the resources you offer. Thanks!
    Betsy

    • Hi Betsy, Thanks for raising the Google+ issue. I’m going to be rebuilding my website this year and will ensure that option is available in future. (Will also ask my webmaster if it’s possible to include before that.) Will let you know.

      • Betsy Gustafson

        Thank you, Daphne!

  • Jeanne

    Thanks Daphne, I love all your tips and share many of them with my high school English students. Interesting app too, but I wonder what Flesch Kincaid Grade level and ARI level are we aiming for in high school writing? Letter writing? I’ve taught for years on eradicating passive writing but now on the Hemingway app there is also a problem with too many adverbs? When did this happen? As student writing keeps shifting and digressing, it is challenging to be practical with my expectations!
    Thanks again for all your hints! Jeanne

    • I’d be aiming at gr 7-9 for high school and for most non-fiction writing. (The grade level is a somewhat arbitrary distinction but gr 7-9 will require your students to keep their sentences at a moderate length.) Re: adverbs, that’s a Hemingway thing. He didn’t like them. (And many writers/editors don’t.) Perhaps you could use it as a teaching tool – let your students use it for ID purposes only.

  • Maureen Bayless

    Because of this post, I picked up a copy of For Whom the Bell Tolls at Book Warehouse. Seriously.

    • Maureen Bayless

      I mean, a book was picked up at Book Warehouse.

  • bruce corsino

    There’s a minor error at the outset of this report. It states that the sentence “This rug needs washing” is a passive voice construction. Technically, that’s not true. Yes, the sentence functions as a passive voice. But the existing definition of a passive voice construction is a sentence that includes a form of the verb “to be,” followed by the past participle of another verb. “This rug needs washing” is actually an example of a gerund (washing) that smothers the more active form of that verb (wash). A clearer, more valid example of passive would be if the author used the implied passive form of that sentence which would be “This rug needs to be washed.” With that, you’ve got the “to be” verb followed by a past participle (washed). You need both those things to meet the definition of a passive voice. Yes, this comment is probably a bit too picky, but the one big flaw of most writing gurus is how they mismanage the concept of passive voice when they explain it to others. Bruce Corsino, Psy.D., Plain Language Program Manager, Federal Aviation Administration, Washington, DC

    • Thanks for your clarification, Bruce. I feel better knowing that the New Yorker has also has a hard time correctly IDing passive. (Wish I could find that reference right now.)

  • Edith Kurie

    passive voice is detached, clinical almost. As if the writer is an ethereal observer reporting on something in which s/he is actually involved, but not… ??

    • Yes, I think it’s quite detached, mainly because the “actor” — the person performing the verb — is hidden.

  • Amy Wright

    Thank you so much for your tips! I teach 5th grade English and I am also finishing up my Master’s in English and Writing (Interdisciplinary Studies). I have used the free version of Grammarly for a while now, but I am definitely going to give the Hemingway App a shot!

    I also just started my blog if you would like to check it out. http://www.writetospark.com

    • Thanks, Amy. I do have one complaint about the Hemingway App and it’s that it treats EVERY long sentence as a “problem,” which is not true. As a result, I prefer to use another app first: https://www.online-utility.org/english/readability_test_and_improve.jsp

      I work to get my sentence length average to somewhere between 14-18 words and once I’ve done that, I’ll run it through the Hemingway app and just ignore its comments about “too hard to read” sentences.