Uncategorized, writing technique

Me and Hemingway

The other day, this blog post appeared in my Facebook feed with the title:  “This Surprising Reading Level Analysis Will Change the Way You Write.”

Once you get past the clickbait title, it’s a pretty good post. The reading level analysis the post is talking about is called the Flesch-Kincaid readability test, a method developed in the 1970s for evaluating the difficulty of a text. Basically, it analyses a text for complexity and assigns it a reading level.

Just for kicks, I fed a brief, randomly-selected chapter from my newest book, Whisper Blue into the analyzer over at ReadabilityScore.com and clicked analyze. My score?  A whopping 4.1. Fourth grade reading level. Ha! Shows what an erudite elitist I am! The analysis of Text Quality said I had:

—5 sentences with 30 or more syllables
—20 with 20 or more syllables
—3 words with 4 or more syllables, and
—no words exceeding 12 letters.

And this, really, is ALL that Flesch-Kincaid analyzes. Long sentences and long words get you a higher grade level score; short words and short sentences get you grammar school scores. A reductive metric if ever I saw one, but Flesch-Kincaid was never meant to be more than a very rough guide. There’s really no judgment involved. It’s simply a crude measure of complexity. And you know who else wrote at a fourth grade level? Ernest Hemingway. How about Cormac McCarthy? Fifth grade. Likewise Jane Austen. Tolstoy? Fitzgerald? Stephen King? Yup. They all, apparently, wrote for middle schoolers.

Obviously, these sorts of grades tell us a lot more about the test then they do about the texts. And the whole thing points out some of the difficulties involved in using any kind of standardized approach to evaluating creative work. For example, the analyzer at Readabilityscore.com also includes a tally of three of the best known No-Nos all writers should avoid: use of the passive voice, adverbs, and clichés. My score was 7 passives, 1 cliché, and a whopping 68 adverbs!

Yoiks! I suck! Only, I don’t really. In the first place, a large amount of the text I selected is dialogue. And normal human speech is riddled with adverbs and passive constructions, not to mention clichés. And in the second place, most of these adverbs weren’t bad adverbs, and most of the passive constructions weren’t even passive.

Example—the site flagged the following phrases as passive:

“maybe I shouldn’t be encouraging him.”

“Everything was going to be all right.”

“One minute I was dismissing the whole thing as mumbo jumbo, the next I was withdrawing a hundred dollars from the ATM, just in case.”

These aren’t passive. Apparently, when the search algorithm sees a construction like “was going” or “was dismissing” or “be encouraging,” it mistakes auxiliary verb constructions (such as continuing action) for a passive constructions.

As far as my copious use of adverbs, here are a few examples (the underlined words were flagged as adverbs):

There you go.”

“That’s probably exactly what happened.”

“That old fake had us jumping around like a couple of citified rubes, but it was all just a show!”

“You are not going anywhere three nights from now!”

Adverbs are not evil. Yes, it’s awful when writers overuse those dreaded -ly constructions, especially in dialogue tags. But adverbs expressing place (there) or time (now) really don’t get my critical dander up. I suppose probably is modifying exactly, (adverbs can modify other adverbs) but then why didn’t they flag exactly, which is an adverb of manner? And I’m not at all sure which verb, adjective or adverb just is supposed to be modifying in the third example.

Needless to say, this isn’t very useful as a writing tool, but there are a lot of sites like readability-score.com out there. Usually they let you try it out for free—paste some text and have them identify the alleged problems. Then, after you’ve used your share of free samples, you can sign up and pay for membership. I’m not sure what readability-score.com charges for membership, but even as a free service, it seems slightly overpriced. And it isn’t simply that it misidentifies the passive voice—I’ve seen human editors do the same.

0The problem is more one of attitude. Grammar and syntax have rules, but there are endless subtleties. Even if the website correctly spotted adverbs and passive constructions, the suggestion that adverbs are always wrong, or that the passive voice is always a weak choice, is simplistic at best. You should be aware of what your are doing, at all times,, and make good choices but following boilerplate suggestions for improving your prose is only going to produce boilerplate prose.  Good writing is clear, evocative, and surprising—and no algorithm is going to make that happen for you.

(By the way, If you’d like to check it out for yourself, my paranormal thriller about voodoo and cyber-ghosts and the mass hysteria of the crowds is available at Amazon, Kobo, and other places. I think you’ll like it. No matter what your reading level is.)

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18 thoughts on “Me and Hemingway

  1. Perry Palin says:

    In an early review of my first book a local reader praised my “short declarative sentences.” I thought I was writing for middle aged or older men with $20 in their pockets (enough to buy the book). Maybe those guys like to read at the fourth grade level..

    My sentence-smith friend Bill taught me what a sentence is for, and he told me where I could stick my adjectives and adverbs. With his coaching, I usually edit out a third of the words in my early drafts, and the stories are better for it.

    If the “Reading Level Analysis Will Change the Way (We) Write,” are we supposed to change toward a higher reading level? Why would we do that? Hemingway tells some pretty powerful stories with short sentences.

    Liked by 3 people

    • atthysgage says:

      Quite the opposite. The blogger suggests we embrace a more fluent and reader-freindly approach, if for no other reason than that we might reach more people. I suppose it’s something for tenderfoot writers to consider, particularly if they think their own style is too simple. Of course, a wealth of sophistication is possible in the simplest prose. In the same way, fancy-pants sesquipedalian gymnastics can end up being empty and tedious. It all depends the writer in question.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. mimispeike says:

    I take very little advice from live readers. (Their comments do impact my thinking, but often with unintended results.) To pay heed to formula-generated analysis is a real waste of time. Every story has a personality, calling for an appropriate approach, spare or extravagant, wherever your instinct leads you. Editing is one thing. Evisceration of style is quite another.

    To reach more people is not my goal. To tell my story the way I feel it needs to be told is. I’d better clarify that. To reach gobs of people with my website is my goal. Then, if they don’t care for my style of telling, fine.

    Liked by 4 people

  3. I think we all have a pretty good idea whether a paragraph we’ve written is easy to read or not. And the Flesch-Kincaid isn’t going to help us much with that. I just know my first draft sentences tend to be over-elaborate, and it’s pleasing when I find I can get a better result with something more simple.

    Liked by 3 people

  4. mimispeike says:

    I also go back and cut, cut cut. Don’t fall off your chair laughing.

    A so-called invisible style, done well, has its own charm. An invisible style, most likely, go here-go-there-do-this-do-that, not a lot of think-about-it, I would like to try it, but I know that I would dive back into a pool of cogitation and come up for event-focused gasps of air infrequently. That’s the way I think.

    Liked by 2 people

    • atthysgage says:

      Less probably is always more, except when it isn’t. Personally, I avoid cogitation whenever possible, and I try to write my characters the same way. The fewer thoughts and motivations I have to deal with, the better for everyone. By the way, Mimi, if you like an advance reading copy of the new book, just send me an email. Ive already imposed on Curtis and GD. No obligation. Just a freebie.

      Liked by 3 people

      • mimispeike says:

        Yes, I would like one. And I promise to read it and leave a review.

        I have read a bit of Amanda Hocking at work, and was not impressed. I don’t understand YA, but I’ll try. The YA that I adored was Nancy Drew, the original series. She had a car! She came and went as she pleased!

        Maybe it’s the paranormal I don’t get.

        I also adored Catcher In The Rye. Wasn’t that YA? (OK, sophisticated YA.)

        Liked by 1 person

        • atthysgage says:

          Whisper Blue isn’t YA (but it is paranormal—decidedly). I’m not particularly a YA fan. I don’t even see it as a distinct genre, except insofar as the protagonist is a young person. I don’t write specifically for young readers. I’ve never thought of Catcher in the Rye as YA though it gets assigned in high school. It’s an interesting question. What about To Kill a Mockingbird? Or Great Expectations? Peace Like a River? Huckleberry Finn? In short? To hell with it. Just write it and let others decide who it’s written for.

          This is a definite hindrance as far as marketing goes.

          Paranormality is a whole other question, which I’ve written about elsewhere. That just seems to be the way my mind runs. (But then, you’re the one with the epic novel about a talking cat.) I’ll send you the pdf by email. I look forward to hearing your opinion (as always).

          Liked by 2 people

  5. GD Deckard says:

    The one metric that we know will produce a great novel is 10,000 monkeys with 10,000 typewriters & enough time.
    P.S. Atthys, I am thoroughly enjoying Whisper Blue!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. mimispeike says:

    I’ve made it through the week. I’m having a bit of Grand Marnier to celebrate the arrival of the holiday season and to celebrate also that I haven’t been laid off yet. I only buy it for the holidays.

    Work has been unusually slow all year. For two weeks they made us all report exact time spent on every task. Rumors are flying. When they have laid people off in the past it has always been at this time of year. At seventy years old, I figure I’m a prime candidate to go.

    On a lighter note, they bought pizza at work today, and two pies (closer to three) were left over. I’m the last to leave, I lock up. I announced early in the evening, anyone wants to take pizza, grab it. Any pizza left at midnight goes home with me.

    My husband and I are having fillet mignon tomorrow. Germans are not much for turkey. We will not be eating pizza. Tomorrow night we are throwing a Thanksgiving pizza party for our raccoons (who come nightly and are fed dry cat food, for the most part) and skunks and anyone else who shows up. I will try to get pictures. If I do, I will post them here. My next blog post will probably be thoughts on Whisper Blue and a report on our Thanksgiving pizza party.

    Liked by 4 people

  7. Carl E. Reed says:

    Just ran across this piece on site (Thanks, Atthys!) and decided to feed the first three pages of my most polysyllabic, intentionally over-written story (a homage to Lovecraft) The Strange & Curious Tale of Professor Robert Howard Wilson into the grinder. The results—as you might imagine—weren’t pretty!

    The Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level was 13.4, the Gunning-Fog Score 14.6

    This analysis rendered the verdict that it would take a public speaker 8 ½ minutes to read these first three pages aloud. Good grief!

    Avg Grade Level: 14.0

    Reading Ease: 40.7 (A stinging verdict, which the site interprets as “College level. A difficult read.”)

    Sentiment: negative. (They got that right! First sentence of the story: “Professor Robert Howard Wilson hated children.” Heh! Too easy, word-metric-analysis thingy . . . )

    Longest words were: shortsightedness, disequilibrium, mesopotamian, chicuacentecpatl, transdimensional. (These five words alone give you a pretty good idea of the story content. Fascinating!)

    Liked by 1 person

  8. To me, what a “readability” test like this completely misses is the requisite emotional intelligence to understand a piece of writing. Simpler words and shorter sentences do not always make something easier to understand, because readers don’t just need to understand the words, they need to understand the implications of the words. Just as importantly, readers need to understand the words that weren’t said or “read between the lines”.

    Hemingway is a perfect example of this, particularly in his dialog. When I was in high school, for example, our 11th grade AP English class read “The Sun Also Rises” by Ernest Hemingway. In the earlier chapters, the protagonist mentions a war injury but Hemingway gives only extremely subtle hints about the manner of the injury. The protagonist, Jake, doesn’t want to be touched because he is “sick”, and he tells Lady Brett Ashley: “…what happened to me is supposed to be funny. I never think about it” (Chapters 3 & 4 – sorry, using a pdf and don’t have page numbers). Understanding Jake’s injury – that he was injured in the war in such a way that he is no longer able to be intimate with a woman – informs our understanding of Jake (and the fragility of his masculinity) for the rest of the novel.

    In our entire class of 30-some, well-educated high school students, only TWO PEOPLE realized the nature of his injury before it was explicitly revealed and/or discussed in class. In addition, the majority of our class didn’t like the book because they found the dialog (and writing in general) to be cryptic in its simplicity.

    I guess my point is that while the “readability” test checks for simplicity, it forgets subtlety!

    Liked by 2 people

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