Phil Friedman

7 years ago · 6 min. reading time · ~100 ·

Phil blog
Hemingway May Have Advised to Write at a Third-Grade Level, but...

Hemingway May Have Advised to Write at a Third-Grade Level, but...

Hemingway May Have Advised to Write at a Third-Grade Level, but...


Preface:  I've always made it a practice to avoid telling other people how to write. If for no other reason than my own developed style is far from being ideal or a paradigm of good writing technique, notwithstanding that many readers find it attractive and some have even said it is "warm".  You ask, "OMG, how can anyone say that?"  Well, I'm not trying to explain it, ma'am, just stating the facts. But that said, this is a piece on how to write —  or more accurately, a piece on what other people who tell you about how to write. And I present it to you for what it is worth. Love it, or hate it.

To be very clear, I count Paul Croubalian among my online writer-friends. Or at least I have,  until this post is published.

Make no mistake, Paul is a good writer, and seems a pretty good fellow and sport. But to my mind, he is a dyed-in-the-wool technophyte, who is in love with computer and mobile apps, which he believes can provide guidance and counsel concerning just about everything in life, including how to improve one's writing.

In a recent post, "Hacking the Flesch!", Paul wrote nominally about improving your writing, but ended up actually outlining how to improve the reaction of algorithmic evaluation to your literary droppings. In other words, how to hack your way to better exposure on social media.

"I aim for Grade 3 Reading Level. I say, “aim” because it isn’t always possible to do. It’s actually very tough to do..."

Paul Croubalian in Hacking the Flesch!
Hemingway May Have Advised to Write at a Third-Grade Level, but...
Not only does Paul frequently recommend striving always to write at a third grade level, he often repeats the claim that this admonishment comes directly from Ernest Hemingway. Almost as frequently as I use the term "bull chips".

But you see, although Hemingway wrote a fair amount of things, including several books, he never wrote a book or an article specifically on how to write. At least, not one that I can find although I certainly stand openly to be corrected. Hemingway did speak often about writing and how to write well, in speeches, transcribed interviews and conversations. And much of this has been "collected, collated and published in compendiums by people we used to call minor editors, but today call "content curators".

In literary circles, it is generally acknowledged that, as Hemingway himself found it harder and harder to write anything of substance, the more and more he was move to advise other people unsolicited about how to write, a situation some believe was part of his devolution into deeper and deeper depression and eventual suicide.

But even the compilers of Hemingway quotes on writing admit that their compendiums of wise sayings from Hemingway are simply that, namely interesting compendiums of individual statements banded about and finally collated into what may appear  to be an integrated opus on writing, but which is not. And in which I can find no references to writing at a third grade levelmost likely because there are none.

Hemingway, the app, may recommend writing at a third grade level, but Ernest Hemingway never did...

Hemingway May Have Advised to Write at a Third-Grade Level, but...
So, where does the claim come from? Well, it appears to come from Hemingway all right. But from the app called "Hemingway", not from anything that Hemingway ever said.

Moreover, the Hemingway app has absolutely nothing to do with Ernest Hemingway, the writer. I would also like to emphasize, it does not derive from any sort of analysis of his writing, witness the following exchange from the "New Yorker", traditionally considered a bastion of good writing:

"So would Hemingway have approved of Hemingway? Or, another question: Would he pass the tests he helped inspire? What about the visually potent opening paragraph from his short story “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place”

It was very late and everyone had left the cafe except an old man who sat in the shadow the leaves of the tree made against the electric light. In the day time the street was dusty, but at night the dew settled the dust and the old man liked to sit late because he was deaf and now at night it was quiet and he felt the difference. The two waiters inside the cafe knew that the old man was a little drunk, and while he was a good client they knew that if he became too drunk he would leave without paying, so they kept watch on him. (Ernest Hemingway)

"Bad news. Hemingway rates merely “O.K.” (Grade 15)." Ian Crouch, The New Yorker, Feb, 2014

In the article, author Crouch reports varying but essentially similar results for a wide selection of excerpts from Hemingway, the writer's work.

Come on, Paul and the rest of you who work so hard to perpetuate the absolute myth that Hemingway, the writer, told other lesser or would-be writers to write at a third grade level, quit blowing smoke. It's pure poppycock!

Hemingway, the writer, did tell others who would be writers to write boldly and clearly and simply. But he never said to write at a third grade level...

I accept the admonishments to avoid unnecessary adverbs. "Greatly appreciate" is no more expressive than "appreciate", just one word longer. And in this digital age, fatigue-inducing large blocks of unbroken type should, indeed, be avoided.
Which means shorter paragraphs. But language models thinking, and writing at a third grade level is writing for a thrid grade mind. No thank you.

Instruction manuals and user guides are an obvious exception. As are classified ads. In such cases, the briefer, the crisper the language, the better. Because nobody needs or wants to enjoy an instruction manual. They just want to get through it as fast a possible and get whatever it is they trying to get working, working. Or whatever they're trying to get done, done.

Hemingway, the app, is another instance of the drive in this digital age to believe that you can find the easy, templated way to intellectual success...

Hemingway May Have Advised to Write at a Third-Grade Level, but...
The Florida public school system instituted several years ago what is known as the FCATs (Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test), which is administered at the end of certain grade years to assure that all Florida public school students  achieve a given minimum standard with respect to certain core subjects. And the amount of money that goes to a given school in the system for salary increases and the like can be affected by students' performances on the FCATs.

One of the FCATs is in the area of writing skill. With the result that writing skill levels have improved? Not! The only thing the system has done is cause teachers to "teach to the test". Which effectively means teach students formula writing. With the result that students write poorly for all reasons, except for taking and passing the test. In fact, several post-secondary writing professors have told me that they have to spend a lot of time un-teaching all of the formula writing that the primary, middle, and high schools have ground into the brains of the students.

Templated writing is a species of formula writing, and automating it by means of algorithmic evaluation and correction does not really improve the situation...

If you write bull chips, putting what you write through an algorithmic app like Hemingway will only result in a shorter pile of bull chips.(Which I guess might be a good to better thing, depending on how bad your writing is in the first place.) For example, writing a bull chip piece about how Hemingway told us to write at a third grade level, then putting it through an app like Hemingway might make it shorter, and maybe but only just maybe clearer. But it will not change bull chips into beef bourguignon. And if you insist on making that mistake, don't lay it on Hemingway, the writer. Phil Friedman

Authors notes:  If you found this post interesting and worthwhile your reading, you might like to look at a few of my other articles, which cover a wide variety of topics:

"The Day I Almost Died"

"My Brief Sojourn As a Washington Press Corps Imposter"

"Three Points of Advice to My Teenage Daughter"

If you'd  like to receive notifications of my writings on a regular basis, click the [FOLLOW] button on my beBee profile. As a writer-friend of mine says, you can always change your mind later.

Feel free to "like" and "share" this post and my other LinkedIn articles — whether on LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, or Google+, provided only that you credit me properly as the author, and include a live link to my original post.

About me, Phil Friedman:  With 30 some years background in the marine industry, I've worn numerous hats — as a yacht designer, boat builder, marine operations and business manager, marine industry consultant, marine marketing and communications specialist, yachting magazine writer and editor, yacht surveyor, and marine industry educator. I am also trained and experienced in interest-based negotiation and mediation. In a previous life, I taught logic and philosophy at university.

Hemingway May Have Advised to Write at a Third-Grade Level, but...
The (optional-to-read) pitch: As a professional writer, editor, university educator, and speaker, with more than 1,000 print and digital publications, I've recently launched an online program for enhancing your expository writing: learn2engage — With Confidence. My mission is to help writers and would-be writers improve the clarity of their thought, master the logic of discussion, and strengthen their ability to deal confidently with disagreement.

To schedule an appointment for a free 1/2-hour consult email:

Hemingway May Have Advised to Write at a Third-Grade Level, but...

Hemingway May Have Advised to Write at a Third-Grade Level, but...


Phil Friedman

7 years ago #11

Paul \ - Pablo, you say, "You state that Hemingway never suggested people write at Grade 3 Reading Level. Considering he died July 2, 1961, and the test was only created in 1976, I don't see how he could have. But let's not bother with facts, shall we?" Well if Papa dies in 1961` and the test was created in 1976, then what I say about him never suggesting people should write at a grade 3 level is true. And that is a fact. I've posted a long comment on your rebuttal post at : . And anyone interested in the dispute can go there to read your rebuttal and my answering comments. Cheers!

Phil Friedman

7 years ago #10

@ Don Kerr - I take no exception to anything that you say in your comment here. I would add that bland comment of the type lionized on LinkedIn is a sure path to Insipidipity. Paul is a big boy, and nothing I've said impugns his writing abilities or his work. I just disagree with a perspective that he not only has, but expresses frequently. One which I believe implicity denigrates those writers who take their craft seriously. Thank you for reading and commenting.Cheers!

Phil Friedman

7 years ago #9

@Randy Keho - The fact is that, if you sample a fair number of paragraphs at random from Hemingway's work and run them through the Hemigway App, Papa scores consistently between the 12th and 15th grade level. So, yes, you can pick some isolated paragraphs and show that they score at grade level 3, but that does not show that "Hemingway wrote at a grade 3 level." And as you say, the readability tests were designed for instruction manuals and the like, where anything other than the down and dirty facts is extraneous. Thanks for reading and commenting.

Randy Keho

7 years ago #8

I recall one of my journalism professors introducing us to the Flesch-Kincaid readability tests in the late seventies. He simply used them as an exercise to demonstrate how the words we use are related to the understanding of a message. He had us perform the tests on articles in that day's paper and our textbook. They were designed with military training manuals in mind, but became useful for other things, such as car insurance information. We were never expected to actually use them after he made his point. However, as I recall, journalists were to aim for a 6th-grade level, which is twice as high as what's attributed to Hemmingway in this buzz.

don kerr

7 years ago #7

Anything that contributes to the objective of bringing to your writing the qualities of clarity, simplicity and wit is a good thing. No app, however, can replace a writer's ability to use the words necessary to capture the magic of their writing. James Joyce is a hugely complicated writer. Thomas Pynchon uses words that require one to have a Roget's at hand. David Foster Wallace just plain and simple made shit up and that didn't prevent him from creating true masterworks. John Kennedy Toole's 'A Confederacy of Dunces' is a brilliant piece that demands the reader to pay close attention to nuance and definition. The point, to my feeble mind is, both Phil Friedman have impressive writing skills and the very real ability to engage readers at an intellectual AND conversational level. That, my beBee friends is no bull chips. When I share this I will show my Hemingway score too!

Dean Owen

7 years ago #6

OK, to really get into the conversation I just now had to look up what 3rd grade actually is (since I have not lived an a country that uses that classification). We are talking 8-9 year olds! Now that does seem a little basic (even by Facebook standards!). Back to Paul - He always states "What I suggest here is not what you must do. It isn’t what you should do. It’s what I do. It works for me. It works well for me. Take from it as you will. It’s your voice, your choice." Is that not well intentioned? - offering advice for the newbie writer who will very often make the mistake of trying to be too clever - resulting in long winded sentences, a thesaurus to find fancy words that are not necessary? I do take from it what I will, which goes for his cooking lessons too (sugar in a marinara sauce, oh come on Paul-sensei!)

Phil Friedman

7 years ago #5

Dean Owen's writing style -- which I am not doing. For my part, I never tell people how to write, nor how they should write. And I never criticize anyone's writing style. Not because I am polite, but because it is not my place. What I am saying here is don't tell me how to write, and especially don't tell me to write at a third grade level. Now, you can say that nobody is telling me -- or you or would-be writers how to write. But when one attributes to a major, nominally highly respected writer the admonishment to write at a third grade level, the implication is that it is an approach to be emulated. I am making the point not that writing at a third grade level is not desirable -- which I think it is not -- but that the assertion of its desirability often comes with an appeal to authority that is simply false. Consider how different the admonishment would sound if couched as, "According to Hemingway The Mobile App you should aim to write at a third grade level." As to your point about writing for social media, again I understand, but submit that one's writing style should be adjusted according to objective. If the intent is to be read as much as possible by the greatest number of social media readers, then by all means write in a manner suited to getting what you want to say said within the attention span of a gnat. But if you want to engage through your writing, I would think that your style needs to be at a somewhat higher grade level. Thanks for reading and commenting, and advancing the conversation. Cheers!

Phil Friedman

7 years ago #4

@William VanDorin - I often write well past the bounds of madness, moving from word to word in a rant, seeing the entire structure of the piece in my mind's eye -- when I think my writing is best. At other times, it's a cut and paste kind of process, which I used to do by writing on index cards one paragraph at a time before (in case anyone remember) micro computers and word processing programs. I agree with your point, though. One can certainly formula write to make every piece clear and quick to read, which is good, since nobody wants to linger over something written like a washing machine instruction manual. Thank you for reading and commenting.

Phil Friedman

7 years ago #3

@Debasish Majunder - Thank you reading and commenting, and for the kind words. Titles are, for me, a matter of luck. Sometimes a good one comes to mind, at others, nothing seems to fit properly. Short titles are even more difficult.

Dean Owen

7 years ago #2

Phil Friedman, Whilst I get what you are saying completely, I think a distinction must be made between writing on social media, and writing a novel. Writing at third grade level is great advice for social media whether it came from physical or virtual Hemingway. We don't want to re-read a sentence to try and understand what the author was trying to say. It needs to flow, and Paul's writings certainly flow and are an easy read. Your writings are also easy reading despite the use of four syllable words. I struggle with some authors on beBee to be honest. I struggle with my own words quite often. With books, it is sometimes a pleasure to re-read a sentence. We do not rush books. I enjoy reading Shakespeare and Stephen Hawking, but it is never smooth reading.I would never read Shakespeare on a screen, my eyes would tire quickly.

Phil Friedman

7 years ago #1

Rod Loader - Your writing has distinctive personality and voice, which does vary from piece to piece. But always distinctive. If one puts one's writing through an algorithmic filter, then one's writing might still have personality... only it will be the same personality at everyone else's writing who does the same. Formula or algorithmically filtered, such writing is bland, just like the templates found in MS Word. Thank you for reading and commenting... and for writing. Keep the faith. Cheers!

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