Editing Tools

The Helpful Machine: 5 Self-Editing Tools to Improve Your Writing

I have always hated spell checkers and am deeply suspicious of automated translation. So I am certainly not pre-conditioned to love automated self-editing tools.

And yet, I’m here to tell you–with enthusiasm!–about a set of tools and techniques that can work wonders for your writing. I have come to use several of these tools on a regular basis myself.

Used the right way, these tools will help you get your message across in a crisper language that is easier to read.

1. Let Hemingway pick it apart

I’ve written about the Hemingway app before. This app got me started using more automated analysis. Hemingway takes you to task for such offenses as:

  • Hard-to-read sentences
  • Too many adverbs
  • Use of the passive voice
  • Difficult words that have simple synonyms

You can use Hemingway directly in the browser. I first wrote this blog post in the Hemingway desktop app, which has some nice perks. You can save and load files, export them to HTML, and turn editing mode on and off. Seeing all that highlighting while typing can be disruptive. This setting lets you think with your fingers first and do the editing later. There’s also support for Markdown.

(For more on how Hemingway works, see my first review of this tool, Your own, personal Hemingway.)

2. Find your Flesch-Kincaid score

The Flesch-Kincaid scale for reading ease is one of the most well-known readability calculations for US English. It’s also the one I choose to look to, although there are many others, mostly because my previous employer used it, and one can only relate to so many scales.

Flesch-Kincaid is more fine-grained than for example the Hemingway readability grade:

  • 90–100: easily understood by an average 11-year-old student
  • 60–70: easily understood by 13- to 15-year-old students
  • 0–30: best understood by university graduates

(Source: Wikipedia)

This makes it easier to track readability improvement of longer documents, which Hemingway in the browser is not so well suited for.

If your writing tool of choice does not have this built in, the easiest workflow is to simply copy/paste the output into

Oh, and if you’re in documentation, make sure to remove any legal disclaimers you’re stuck with from the text before analyzing it. Their profound lack of readability is probably out of your hands.

3. Use built-in readability tools

Of course, it is easier when testing or analysis is built into the writing tools you already use. This blog uses the Yoast SEO plugin, which includes a readability analysis based in part on the Flesch-Kincaid scale.

If your writing tool of choice (or duty) is Microsoft Word, it can also test your readability for you, but beware:

Depending on your version of Word, not only may Word force you to check your spelling and grammar first, it will warn you that it resets your grammar and spell checkers to do so.

So you may prefer to use an external tool after all. If you want to have a go, try these instructions for setting up readability checks in Word.

4. Check your sentence length

Long sentences are proper readability thieves. If you use Word or, they can both calculate your average sentence length.

The average won’t identify the outliers, of course, for that you need something like Hemingway.

For a good read on sentence length, see this post from Sentence length: why 25 words is our limit.

5. Track and compare your readability

It’s worth noting that you will want to find a readability calculator you like and stick with the same one over time. Different tools use different algorithms, even to calculate scores on the same scale.

When you have ensured comparable results, start comparing! Accumulate your own readability statistics. I’ve used a simple spreadsheet. You can track and compare revisions of the same document over time, or compare different documents to ensure a consistent readability level.

Good trends, bad trends, consistency, it will all be easy to see and act on as required.

The blog post Write Better: Online Readability Testing Tools Compared shows how different results tools produce for the same piece of text.

The best editors and proofreaders remain human

Of course, these tools and tricks won’t re-structure your entire document or tell you that your blog post is at least twice the length it needs to be. Or that your jokes just aren’t funny. For that, you need an editor, a proofreader, or at least an honest friend or colleague.

I do find that having self-editing tools to help me spot the low-level issues makes it easier to spend time on those other factors, though.

And here’s a bonus “tool”: Time. If you have to be your own editor, give yourself a little time and distance from your text before re-reading and polishing if at all possible.

Do you have any experience with self-editing tools and techniques? Share your tips and hard-earned lessons in the comments!

Editing Tools

Your own, personal Hemingway

Ernest Hemingway famously lamented writers that hadn’t learned “how to say no to a typewriter”. The Elements of Style, one of my favorite books on writing, advises that we “Omit needless words”. While that may be easy to agree with, it is quite hard to live by, especially for those with limited or no access to a skilled editor. Self-editing is difficult! Enter the Hemingway app.

I first came across a link to the web app Hemingway on Twitter, and I was immediately smitten.

What Hemingway does

You can type or paste your text into the web interface, and Hemingway calls out:

  • complex sentences
  • adverbs
  • uses of the passive voice
  • fancy words and phrases that you can omit or replace with simpler synonyms

Hemingway uses an easy-to-grasp color legend to signal where the issues are. Accessibility-wise, this heavy reliance on color coding is of course bad news for colorblind users.

Putting Hemingway To The Test

I’ve run the tool on a few different texts, including:

  • An IPCC fact sheet. Hemingway gave it a “10 Good” and minimal highlighting, which I think is an impressive result given the subject matter.
  • The Wikipedia entry on Client-server architecture. Hemingway said “14 OK”, with some very complex sentences and a few uses of the passive voice.
  • A random piece of Buffy fanfiction. “5 Good”, although containing a rather high number of adverbs.
  • This blog post, which I kept re-testing until I was happy with the result. The first draft got “11 OK”, with a few complex sentences and some fancy words that were better replaced or omitted. You can see the result of the final run in the screenshot above.

I have tried with a few different texts and so far failed to get Hemingway to say anything but “OK” or “Good”. I even ran the analysis on a patent document where 74 out of 250 sentences were “very hard to read” and there were 86 uses of the passive voice. Hemingway still found this to be “14 OK”.

The Verdict

I dislike spell checkers and the grammar and syntax checking in word processors, and I have rarely bothered to use readability analyzers on my text. This might just be the tool that convinces me to embrace automated readability checking as a supplement to the editing and reviewing I otherwise may have access to. I gather that I like this tool because I feel like we’re on the same team. Clean, helpful, simple writing is what we want, and to that end, the tool has a clean, helpful, simple interface.

The app has some obvious shortcomings. The most obvious is that the analysis is not able to call out overall verbosity. A human (and hemingwayesque) editor would immediately strike down on long and repetitive text. I also find the individual highlighting a lot more useful than the readability score, which is often far too kind. If you manage to find a text that gets a terrible score, do let me know in the comments!

I will keep trying out this tool with my writing both for work and for this blog. The creators are trying to find out whether there is interest in a $5 desktop version that would be able to save and load files. I have signed up to receive notification when and if the desktop version releases.

The Hemingway app may not turn any of us into an author the level of its namesake. For self editing, however, it is probably the most helpful tool I have seen so far.

(The New Yorker has of course subjected Hemingway to the Hemingway app test.)

Update: I wrote some more about the Hemingway desktop app here: The Helpful Machine: 5 Self-Editing Tools to Improve Your Writing