Last month we kicked off a new series of posts looking at some of the resources that we’ve gathered together in one place here. The inaugural post looked at the process of using text to create a word cloud, with the added benefit that you could look at the list to see if there are any ‘crutch’ words that are over used. It’s a nice tool: it has a functional, if slightly focused, role in support of editing AND allows you to produce some fun graphics that are tailored to your work in progress (WIP).
Today though, I thought we’d continue with the editing theme but get a bit more fundamental with Hemingway Editor. There is a paid for version (which I have not used) that can sit on your computer, and apparently it had the ability to import and export to Word etc, and you can publish direct to WordPress and Medium. One of these days I might shell out the $20 (less a cent) that it costs, but as there is a free version that is available via the web, I haven’t splurged yet.
I don’t use Hemingway for everything, and I have some issues with a few things – which we’ll come to in a minute – but I do use it frequently (and have it in a pinned tab on browsers on both my home and work computers), and in my day job I frequently recommend it to students.
So what is it? And how does it work?
Hemingway Editor is a bit like having Jiminy Cricket sitting on your shoulder, but this conscience is only interested in making sure that you use clear English. In terms of the programming that underpins, I can’t tell you how it works, but it flags difficult and very difficult to understand sentences, adverbs, and use of the passive voice. Lets see what I’ve written so looks like:
Eeek! That’s a lot of red! If we look at the right hand side, we can see the stats: 15 sentences, over half of which have been flagged as problematic, and I’ve used too many adverbs. On the plus side, the passive voice index is happy. Also worth noting, it reckons the whole piece is at Grade 9 – this is a piece of software coming out of the US. I don’t have a firm idea of what the Grade level indicates, but I do know from using the software that a lower number indicates work that is easier to read. Personally I take some of this with a pinch of salt. I quite like adverbs for example, and I think that people have taken the anti-adverb rhetoric to an extreme. That said, there are a couple that I could edit, and the shading of the text has helped me to see that I used frequently twice in the space of a couple of sentences. Oops.
What’s to like
This is an easy to use piece of software which you can just dump a chunk of text into and it automatically highlights the various issues. I haven’t stress-tested it with a big lump of text, but I’ve edited chunks of a few thousand words with no problem. I like the colour map produced and I think that it forces you to look at what you’ve written in a slightly different way. Simply breaking up the text can highlight things that you missed when it was a uniform block of black and white.
What’s not to like
There’s really very little not to like about this piece of software – as I’ve said, I recommend it to students regularly. The caveats that I give when using it are that passive voice is not necessarily a bid thing in academic writing (I’d quite like to be able to turn that feature off from time to time, and that you need to use your critical faculties when you are revising – it would be handy if the app came with a health warning in this regard. This is the downside of having something relatively simple – the software does not suggest any changes (which is probably for the best) but neither does it give very much detail as to what is wrong. Why is that a hard to read sentence? Is it just that it is very long? It should also be noted that Hemingway Editor will not pick up typos (such as if you were to forget to close parentheses) so you do still need to do some careful proof reading.
All in all a useful tool in your writing toolbox, but one that needs to be used with discretion and as an active rather than passive mindset. But what do you think? Have you used Hemingway before? What did you think?
© David Jesson, 2020