Wednesday, April 09, 2014

Hemingway: A Simple Online Tool for Better Short-Form Writing

Exhibit labels. Promotional text. Grant proposals. For many arts/museum professionals, writing text in 100-word chunks is a daily activity.

And unfortunately, a lot of that writing is lousy. There are great references for better art writing, but we don't always use them. We pack sentences with high-falutin vocabulary, pepper them with clauses, and wrap them up in insider language.

Recently, I discovered an online tool that can change that. It's called Hemingway. Its intent is "to make your writing bold and clear."

It does this by offering everything you wish Microsoft Word grammar check provided:

  • it keeps track of word count, sentence count, paragraph count, and character count.
  • it highlights sentences that are hard to read. 
  • it highlights phrases that are unnecessarily complicated.
  • it marks adverbs and uses of passive voice.
  • it judges "readability" by calculating grade level of the text (apparently using an average of several scoring rubrics).
  • it doesn't flag stylistic flourishes like intentional incomplete sentences. Like this.

I started using it for exhibit labels. When writing exhibit labels, I am constantly checking and rechecking the word count. I use online calculators to assess grade level. It's a pain and Hemingway takes that pain away.

Then I started using it for chunks of grant proposals. Word counts matter there too. In proposals, it can be easy to fall into jargon and long, convoluted sentences. Hemingway has helped me declare where I used to meander.

Hemingway has one big downside: right now, it's just an online app. You have to copy and paste text in (and out) to use it. I'm hopeful that they will release a desktop app soon.

And of course, it doesn't actually channel the voice of Ernest Hemingway. As many have observed, Ernest Hemingway scores low on Hemingway. The app encourages clear, declarative writing, which makes it a poor fit for many creative endeavors. But exhibit labels or marketing brochures? It's ideal for that.

Now I find Hemingway infiltrating my brain when writing almost anything--including this blog post. It is at an 8th grade level, with four adverbs and two hard-to-read sentences. I can live with that.
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