“Axing is taxing”, says Allison Wright. So why not get tech tools to do the menial work, leaving us to concentrate on adding refinement – style, if you will. But what is style? Nebulous, subjective and mutable, according to Allison. It’s up to us, as language professionals, to define what works best in context. But one thing is certain: chopping away at our writing will help us improve our style.
Chopping means judicious, sometimes brutal editing – a hatchet taken to a Bandwurmsatz (tapeworm sentence). Allison hacks at her texts to make them easier to read, understand and scan – all things that engage readers.
Hemingway and Grammarly help her do this. These two online tools can, in her eyes, train us to write better by highlighting problems and applying metrics. Now, the word metrics understandably raises hackles in linguist circles. As Allison herself put it, it’s “a machine trying to impose a grid on top of our amorphous blob of text”. But metrics are just a guide. If you don’t like what they say, ignore them.
In Hemingway, the headline metric is readability, presented in school grades. Allison’s first drafts usually come in too high at grade 11 or 12 – that’s the last two years of high school. Why too high? Because the average American reads at grade 8 and content platforms recommend grade 9 or lower.
For Allison, Hemingway’s key feature is colour-coding: yellow highlighting for hard-to-read sentences and red for very hard-to-read sentences. She walked us through how she wrestled a grade-16 wall of red down to an engaging grade-10 text. And while Hemingway couldn’t tell Allison she’d been a “pompous ass” (her words, not mine), it could show her where she’d gone overboard.
Browser-based Hemingway has its limitations. Unlike Allison, it’s not a fan of adverbs. Oddly, it doesn’t mind adverbial phrases, which means that “generally” is out but “in general” is fine. You also have to copy and paste your text into Hemingway, compromising your formatting and, more worryingly, your confidentiality.
While Allison uses Hemingway for chopping, she uses Grammarly for checking. Grammarly is all-pervading: it works in your browser, word-processing tool and email. There goes that confidentiality klaxon again.
Drawing on the “traces of the souls of your former language teachers” (as Allison put it), Grammarly flags problems with language usage – like Microsoft Editor, albeit with a better display. But it flags them relentlessly, which Allison admitted could be annoying. Her advice: turn it off while drafting.
Explaining her own workflow (draft, check with Grammarly, chop with Hemingway and check again), Allison suggested how to get the most out of the tools. See the METM archive for details. But the recurring theme was that good writing is a human skill: tools can help us, but they won’t replace us.
After Allison’s overview, we split into groups to play around with Hemingway ourselves. Our task: to chop a grade-14 text down to grade 9 or lower. And we went for it, all slashing the text to at least grade 6. The lively discussion that followed showed the myriad ways we can edit a text – the human factor in action.
This was an entertaining session from a speaker who combines style with substance. Interaction is tough to get right online, but Allison nailed it, engaging our minds and our competitive spirits. Contrary to my opening, in good company, with the right guidance and a few plum jokes, axing isn’t always taxing.
Readability: grade 8
Chopped with Hemingway; checked with Grammarly.
This METM21 Online presentation was chronicled by Helen Oclee-Brown.