Becoming Hemingway–or at least Improving Your Prose

P1000007A new app for writers emerged last week: the Hemingway app.

Hemingway, of course, was famous for his spare writing style: straightforward language, short sentences, action verbs, and not so many adjectives. A simple style, some say.

I have to say, the app is fun, and running a few of my own paragraphs through the program verified that doing so is a quick way to detect overuse of adverbs, instances of passive voice, and any long, confusing sentences that would be better broken apart. These are writing problems that result in convoluted sentences.

Theoretically, if you eliminate those three problems in your writing, you’ll approach Hemingway’s plain, terse style. Although there’s more to being Hemingway than that, it would be instructive and possibly amusing for students studying The Old Man and the Sea or A Farewell or Arms or any of Papa’s short stories to put their own prose through the Hemingway app’s paces.

But if your students use Word—or if you do yourself—here’s a way to use Word’s grammar checker to challenge students to improve their prose—and address more issues than the three mentioned above.

When the grammar/spell check finishes, Word reports the writer’s “stats.” Many of these counts (e.g., number of words, number of words in a sentence, number of sentences in a paragraph, number of characters in a word) can be used instructionally. For instance, you can challenge students to write longer sentences—so that average sentence length increases–or to use words with more than one syllable so that the average number of characters in a word increases.

There’s also a way to use those stats to help a student lift the entire level of the paragraph or essay he has written. The next to the last score that Word reports is the Flesch-Kincaid Readability score, a measure of the reading level of the text. You do have to caution students about this score. The Flesch-Kincaid score is the reading level of their writing, so a Flesch-Kincaid score of 4.5 means that a fourth grader in the middle of the year could read and understand what has been written, not that the student is writing “like a 4th grader.” (You also have to caution them not to take the score too seriously.)

The Flesch-Kincaid Reading Ease score is a variation on this theme. A slightly different score, the Reading Ease number indicates just how comfortably the text can be read. The higher the number, the easier the text supposedly is. Secondary students shouldn’t aim for 90, though, because then their writing would be suitable for small children. The easy reading range for 13-15-year-olds is 60-70, according to Flesch-Kincaid.

To begin, you’ll need to enable the readability statistics reporting function on Word’s grammar checker.
File > Options > Proofing
• Check the box that says “Show Readability Statistics.”
• Just below that box, a drop-down menu says ” Grammar.” Change that to “Grammar and Style.” (The grammar checker will be much more useful overall if “Grammar and Style” is the default.)
• Click “OK.”

If you have emphasized some specific writing strategies in your instruction—like sentence combining or the use of transition words—you can challenge your students to apply those strategies to their own writing. These instructional strategies are, in my experience, the most effective ones for elevating the reading level of a piece of writing using Word’s grammar checker:
• Combining sentences with coordinating conjunctions (i.e, creating compound sentences)
• Combining sentences using semi-colons
• Using colons correctly
• Combining sentences with subordinating conjunctions (i.e., creating complex sentences)
• Adding transition words and phrases
• Adding adjectives and otherwise elaborating
• Using words of more than one syllable

What follows is a series of paragraph revisions. The original paragraph was one I fabricated, but you could use a real student’s work to demonstrate this revision method for your students—or try this out with something you’ve written. The number at the end of each paragraph revision is the Flesch-Kincaid readability score for that rendition):

My name is Jose Carter. I am in 7th grade. I like to play football. I like to play basketball. I do not like baseball, though. It is too slow for me. I also like fast cars. I have three sisters. They can be real pains sometimes but sometimes they are a lot of fun. We have a good time during Christmas vacation. We live in a house on a big hill so we slide on the hill a lot. We also have a pond on our property. We go ice-skating whenever the pond is frozen. 2.1

My name is Jose Carter. I am in 7th grade. I like to play football and basketball, but I do not like baseball. It is too slow. As you can imagine, I also like fast cars. I have three sisters who can be real pains sometimes, but sometimes they are a lot of fun. For example, we have a good time during Christmas vacation. Since we live in a house on a big hill, we go sledding whenever there is enough snow. We also have a pond on our property, so we go ice-skating whenever the pond is frozen. 3.2

Hello! I am Jose Carter, a 7th grader at Any Middle School where I am on the football and basketball teams. I do not play baseball, though, because it is a slow sport, and I like speed. As you can imagine, I also like fast cars. Maybe that is why I enjoy sledding down the big hill on our property during Christmas vacation so much. When there is snow, my three sisters (who can be real pains sometimes) and I enjoy this activity very much. We also like ice-skating, which we also do whenever the pond on our property is frozen. 4.3

Let me introduce myself: I am Jose Carter, also known as “Speedy.” I am a 7th grader at Any Middle School and a proud member of the football and basketball teams. I have considered playing on the baseball team, too, but I really do not enjoy that sport because it is so slow-moving. You can probably tell from reading this that I like speed, and thus, as you can imagine, I also like fast cars. Maybe that is why I enjoy sledding down the big hill on our property during Christmas vacation so much. When there is enough snow, my three sisters and I, through repetitive runs down that hill, are able to create a thrillingly slick track. We also enjoy ice-skating on the pond on our property; once again, we carefully groom the ice so that it remains slick and we can travel fast across the frozen surface. 5.2

Using the grammar checker to improve writing can go beyond just checking for spelling errors, comma usage, capital letters, and subject-verb agreement problems. Some students will rise to the challenge of using it to revise their sentences, and they’ll make multiple revisions. But even reluctant revisionists will see improvement in their writing with just one or two attempts.

The grammar checker won’t cure everything—no more than the Hemingway app will turn our students into Hemingway—but such programs have the appeal of games, and a lot of kids like that.

Give it a shot yourself.

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