Come to Papa with the 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.