Word Count

Writers Talk About Writing

Come to Papa with the Hemingway App

Many 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 Regan during the Iran-Contra scandal. But it's sometimes hard to spot the more subtle variants.

I tend to side with linguist 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 Pullum'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.  

Open it and 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 and the software did not misidentify any of them. But it did fail to catch a couple he had ID'ed 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.

By the way, this column earned a grade 8 ranking in Hemingway and had six examples of passive to begin with. I edited those down to two.

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


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A former daily newspaper editor, Daphne Gray-Grant is a writing and editing coach and the author of 8½ Steps to Writing Faster, Better. She offers a free weekly newsletter on her website Publication Coach. Click here to read more articles by Daphne Gray-Grant.

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Comments from our users:

Thursday July 23rd 2015, 5:41 AM
Comment by: Phil H. (Thessaloniki Greece)
See Spot write!
Thursday July 23rd 2015, 5:54 AM
Comment by: dejohnmi (Liverpool United Kingdom)
Is 'took quick' an Americanism for 'captured alive'?

[Fixed! —Ed.]
Thursday July 23rd 2015, 8:05 PM
Comment by: Phil H. (Thessaloniki Greece)
The Hemingway app seems ridiculous to me. There is a time for the passive voice and for complex sentences -- as Hemingway himself knew. Personally, I'd like to see a Melville app!
Thursday July 23rd 2015, 10:07 PM
Comment by: Richard A.
Is this better than Grammarly?

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