Hemingway or Woolf?

Recently I’ve been playing with an online tool called Hemingway Editor. This programme is supposed to help you simplify and refine your work, i.e. make your writing more readable. It grades your work for readability and it is able to identify sentences that are hard to read.

If some of your sentences are too dense and complicated, you will see a red or a yellow highlight, which will be removed once you edit the respective piece of text.

Also, you will be prompted to remove all the needless words. The programme doesn’t like it when you use too many adverbs, for example. These will be highlighted in blue and you will be asked to get rid of some. You can do so by switching over to more powerful verbs (whisper vs. speak quietly).

The same happens if you throw too many passive structures around – if you use, say, five, the programme will ask you to aim for two of fewer.

To make your writing less verbose, pay attention to the purple highlights. If you mouse over them, you’ll be offered better alternatives.

Here’s an excerpt from one of my blog posts:

my text

At first glimpse, you can see that I’m no Hemingway. Most of my text has been highlighted in red, which means that many of the sentences are very hard to read and some phrases have simpler alternatives. For example, However could be replaced with But or Yet and it’s been suggested that I should substitute very as well. I generally tend to use too many adverbs.

Let’s have a look at the real Hemingway now (Cat in the Rain):

hamingway excerpt

Bingo! That’s the way we should write (or should we?). Most of the text is not highlighted and the readability score is Grade 4 (= Good). My score was Grade 12 (= OK) and ‘Bad’ would be for Grade 17 and above. The measurement gauges the lowest education (U.S. grade level) needed to understand the text.

To make things a bit more complicated, I looked at another highly regarded writer – Virginia Woolf (here’s an excerpt from her Kew Gardens):

Virginia Woolf excerpt

Well, it seems we shouldn’t aspire to such complexity. There’s not a single sentence that wouldn’t be very hard to read and with the Post-collegiate readability score, the text was labelled ‘Poor’. Poor Virginia Woolf.

Hemingway Editor is fun to experiment with but how useful is it for an English learner? Not all our learners are planning to become highly regarded writers, but most of them would like to learn and improve their English.

What I like most about the programme/app is the fact that it asks you to utilize a shorter word in place of a complex one. The coolest thing is that if you mouse over the word, it gives you hints, i.e. it comes up with synonyms. This is a great way of expanding one’s vocabulary. It’s great if students are working with their own pieces of writing. I believe that if they are encouraged to make conscious decisions about what word to use in a text they produced, they are likely to remember the alternatives with little effort.

However, you can also flip your approach. If your (or your student’s) writing is too simple, i.e. too Hemingwayan, you can play with it a bit and make it more complex, i.e. more Woolfian. You can make quick online changes – right in the editor – and see what happens.

Although I’m well aware of the fact that Woolf wrote the way she did for a particular reason, it doesn’t mean that writing at a higher level is automatically better than writing at a lower level. My students sometimes think that if they plague their texts with enough low-frequency words and strange grammatical structures, they will get a better mark. The truth is that their writing only becomes more confusing and their message is lost.

PS.: The readability score of this post is Grade 8 (Good). I hope you found it useful and easy to read.


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Hana Tichá

I'm an EFL teacher based in the Czech Republic. I've been teaching English to learners of all ages and levels for almost 30 years. You can find out more about me and my passion for teaching here on my blog.

4 thoughts on “Hemingway or Woolf?”

  1. Hi! I have been reading your blog for some time already. I always find your posts very interesting and educational. I am also hooked because you are a NNEST and it is very encouraging to read about your worklife. I am too a non-native speaker, I am not a teacher but I would like to become one in the future. I am always engaged by your topics and I enjoy reading them. Thank you for sharing the online tool – I tried it out with my own humble writings..interesting tool to play with!

    Liked by 1 person

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