Hemingway May Have Advised to Write at a Third-Grade Level, but...
IT WAS HEMINGWAY, THE APP... NOT HEMINGWAY THE WRITER...
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.
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".
"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!
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 level — most likely because there are none.
Hemingway, the app, may recommend writing at a third grade level, but Ernest Hemingway never did...
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...
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:
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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.
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.
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