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Writing and Publishing

How to Make Your Writing Easier to Read

The Hemingway Editor Guides Authors in Improving Readability

A friend recently turned me on to the Hemingway Editor, a nifty online tool to assist writers in improving our work. The website says, “Hemingway makes your writing bold and clear. It’s like a spellchecker, but for style. It makes sure that your reader will focus on your message, not your prose.”

It’s simple to use. Go to the website and paste some writing into the text window. The software analyzes the writing and reports on what it finds:

Grade Level: The Hemingway Editor uses a standard readability algorithm to assess the U.S. grade level. It goes as low as a fifth grade and says the average American reads at grade ten.

Stats: Hemingway reports on the number of paragraphs, sentences, words, and characters, as well as the time it takes to read the text.

The Number of Hard Sentences: Each sentence that is hard to read is highlighted in tan.

The number of Very Hard Sentences: More critical than hard to read sentences are very hard sentences, which are color-coded as reddish-brown.

Phrases with Simpler Alternatives: I often type “implement” when “use” is a better choice. Hemmingway points these out in violet. Hover over the violet word or phrase and Hemmingway will show you the preferred alternative.

Number of Adverbs: While we don’t need to remove all adverbs, Hemmingway will point them all out and tell us the maximum acceptable number for our piece. Adverbs are in light blue.

The number of Passive Sentences: Once the king of passive sentences, I trained myself away from them. Still, they pop up and Hemmingway points out the passive voice in pale green horror.

Armed with this color-coded input it is easy to visually see where to make changes to increase our work’s readability. The adverbs and simpler alternatives are quick to fix.

In general, the hard and very hard sentences are correctable by rewriting complex and compound sentences into shorter, simpler sentences. That leaves a passive voice, which takes some practice to reword. The good news is that having some adverbs and passive sentences are okay.

We can edit in the Hemmingway window, which updates its analysis in real-time. As we make changes, the grade level decreases, meaning the piece is more readable. Also, the various highlighted colors disappear. While editing it to become colorless may make for rather bland, fifth grade-level reading, less color is preferred.

Using the Hemmingway Editor is a quick, easy, and fun way to improve our writing readability.

The Hemmingway Editor results for the above text are:

  • Grade Level: 8
  • Stats: 14 paragraphs, 31 sentences, and 426 words. The reading time is 1:42.
  • Hard Sentences: 7
  • Very Hard Sentences: 3
  • Phrases with Simpler Alternatives: 5
  • Adverbs: 1
  • Passive Voice: 2, having 6 is acceptable

I’m tempted to edit this post in Hemmingway to make it more readable, but I think I’ll leave it as is so you can see the unedited version.

Learn more about writing and publishing in Peter’s book: The Successful Author: Discover the Art of Writing and Business of Publishing. Get your copy today.

Peter Lyle DeHaan is an author, blogger, and publisher with over 30 years of writing and publishing experience. Check out his book The Successful Author for insider tips and insights.

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Writing and Publishing

How Many Words Do You Write Per Hour?

Do you know how many words you typically write per hour? Do you know how long you can sustain that rate? This is a critical number to know when estimating how long a project will take. We need this for meeting deadlines and for quoting projects.

Without having a firm grasp of our typical writing speed and sustainability we run the risk of not meeting deadlines or of underquoting projects. No one wants to turn in a project late or end up working for next to nothing.

But what we shouldn’t do is compare our writing speed with others. If we write more than most people, then we may feel pride or look down on them; if we write less than others, then we might feel discouraged, assume there is something wrong with us, or even try to change our writing process to write faster than we should.

None of these are good outcomes.

Also, we need to realize that our writing speed is for our first draft, which will require additional work, such as re-writing, editing, and proofreading. Some people who can crank out high word counts on the first draft often spend much more time bringing their work to its final form. Conversely, other people with slower writing speeds often have much less work to do afterward.

We need to know how fast we can write, how long we can keep up that pace, and how much more work is required to polish it to final form.

I’ve talked to writers who write about 100 words per hour. On the other end, I have heard of writers pushing two thousand. But people seldom share with me how much time they spend later on to bring these words to their final form.

On most projects I write in the neighborhood of four to five hundred words an hour, though it occasionally goes higher, approaching one thousand; my record is 1,750, though I’m not sure how I pulled that off.

I also know my second hour is often more productive than my first, which is an important reason to set aside a block of time to write. I also know I can keep up this pace all morning, providing I take periodic breaks.

My “first draft” is in decent shape and seldom requires re-writing, so I just need to polish and proof the results, which takes 15 to 25 percent additional time. (Remember that I mostly write nonfiction.)

Though I don’t like working on the same project for more than four or five hours, I often switch to something else in the afternoon, which seems to reset my mental focus and I’m off again. In the morning I can consistently produce two thousand words or more, assuming I don’t need to do too much research or fact-checking.

When I write in the afternoon, it’s always smaller projects, such as articles or content marketing. In this way, I can hit up to four thousand words a day (my personal record) if I need to, but that doesn’t leave much time for anything else.

Armed with this information, I’m now able to set realistic writing deadlines and hit them. I’m also able to give reasonable quotes for contract work. And it only took me about five years to get to this point and figure these things out.

Learn more about writing and publishing in Peter’s book: The Successful Author: Discover the Art of Writing and Business of Publishing. Get your copy today.

Peter Lyle DeHaan is an author, blogger, and publisher with over 30 years of writing and publishing experience. Check out his book The Successful Author for insider tips and insights.

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Writing and Publishing

Search and Replace Trite Phrases in Your Writing

Avoid using “it was,” “that was,” and “this was”—among other things

I hired a developmental editor to give me big-picture feedback on my novel. Though her comments overall encouraged me, I have several things to work on and fix.

One was that I used the innocuous phrase “it was” too often. How often? It popped up 126 times, which was an average of once for every 365 words. Interestingly I discovered I used it in spurts, with the phrase being absent in some chapters and plentiful in others.

As I set about to fix the problem, I realized I could simply replace “it was” with “that was” or “this was,” but doing so solved one problem by creating another. I would need to find and replace those phrases, too. While “that was” occurred only twenty-one times, “this was” showed up fifty-six times, for a total of 203 instances for all three.

  • The ideal correction involved replacing these trite phrases with a more powerful verb.
  • If that solution alluded me, a secondary option was replacing “it,” “that,” or this” with the noun they referenced or a suitable alternative.
  • A few times I couldn’t find replacement wording that would convey the same meaning without ballooning the sentence in size or structure, so I left it as is.
  • Last was dialogue. I reasoned I could often retain these phrases in speech because that’s how people usually talk. Even so, I did clean up some of the conversations in my story, too.

While I could have slavishly reworked every occurrence of these offending phrases, I felt inclined to leave some in to maintain the flow or clarity of the story.

In the end I left “it was” in twelve times; “that was,” three times; and “this was,” four times. This reduced my total number of offenses from 203 down to only nineteen, a 94 percent reduction.

Now my next task is to develop a habit were I don’t use “it was,” “that was,” or “this was” in the first place. While I long ago put my writing on a “low-that” diet, I suspect this new skill will take a bit longer to develop.

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Writing and Publishing

Is Your First Draft Too Long or Too Short?

Some authors write too much and need to delete; others don’t write enough and must add

Do you write long or short? Some writers produce long first drafts and then shorten them—sometimes a great deal—as they edit. Others write shorter first drafts and then add to them—sometimes a lot—as they work on revisions. Which camp are you in?

Write Long; Edit Later

Some writers produce long first drafts. Then they remove the parts that don’t fit or edit it down to hit a target word count. I suspect discovery writers (those who “discover” what comes next as they write) or those who write fast tend to fit in this category.

I try not to do this. It pains me whenever I need to cut something from my work. If you do cut a section, a chapter, a scene, or a character, always save what you remove; it could come in handy later – especially if you need to put it back.

Writing long feels unproductive to me. Writers who do this spend more time writing their first draft and more time editing it later. That’s why I try to avoid writing long. This is why I plan before I write.

Write Short; Add Later

The opposite is writers who write a short first draft and then expand on it as they edit. They insert scenes, characters, sections, or points. Sometimes this is to round out the text. Other times it is to hit a minimum word length.

I needed to do this once. After including all the information I was provided for a ghostwriting assignment, I was 10,000 words short. I added paragraphs, lengthened sentences, and inserted words. The result was longer but I fear not much better. This arduous task drained me, as well as taking up a lot of time.

For another book, my dissertation, it seemed everything I added messed up the flow of what came next. So each thought I inserted caused me more work with the following text, requiring even more rewriting. That wasn’t fun either.

A Just Right First Draft

My goal is to write the right length in my first draft. That’s a big reason why I outline, either on the page or in my head. This saves me the pain of cutting and the agony of adding.

Usually, I come close to meeting this goal. But not in this post. I just deleted 225 words because it was running long, but I saved them to use in a future post. So it’s all good.

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Writing and Publishing

Editor Skills

There are three basic types of editors (and they each have various names). Each type of editor requires a different skill set.

Developmental Editor

A developmental editor, sometimes called a comprehensive editor, looks at big picture issues. For fiction this includes items such as story arc, character development, writing voice, and plot issues. Nonfiction looks at theme, organization, structure, writing consistency, and so forth.

A developmental editor must read widely and have knowledge of your genre and the publishing industry.

Copy Editor

A copy editor looks at sentence structure and the flow between sentences, paragraphs, and chapters. They will identify awkward sections and poor phrasing. They may point out character inconsistencies and possible factual errors to check.

A copy editor needs to know the genre. Having a college writing degree helps, but a more beneficial characteristic is having taught writing and graded a lot of papers or has experience in a career that requires a lot of editing.

Proofreader

A proofreader looks at the details: word usage, punctuation, and grammar. A proofreader should enjoy specificity and be able to focus. A proofreader must know and follow a style guide, such as the Chicago Manual of Style (CMS).

Some proofreaders know multiple style guides, but others specialize in using just one and therefore only take jobs that use that style guide. The key requirement is having mastered a style guide and knowing how to apply it.

No one can do all three types of editing at once—nor should they. And most editors will only ever do one type.

The ultimate qualification to become an editor is having successfully done the work. This makes it hard for people to start as an editor because few writers will hire an unproven editor.

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Writing and Publishing

Editing Options

Some writers say they can’t afford an editor, but I say you can’t afford to. No one can.

But if you want options, here are three ideas come to mind:

Barter

First, look for an editor who will barter. They edit, and you perform a service of equal value. It might be writing-related or it might not. But since most editors need actual money, this may be hard to pull off unless the editor is a friend or just starting out.

The Beginning Editor

Second, the next option is to seek a beginning editor who wants to edit but has no finished projects to show people. Maybe the first-time editor will edit your work for free or at a reduced rate just to have something in their portfolio. Remember, every editor must have a first project to get a second project. But the first one is hard to get. You can help them as they help you.

A University Connection

Third, contact the writing department at a nearby college. Maybe they have a promising student looking for experience.

These are all long shots, but they’re worth exploring.

The one thing you don’t want to do is find an editor who isn’t qualified, such as a person who majored in English or who likes to read. These people may make good beta readers, but don’t ask them to edit.

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Writing and Publishing

Grammar Checking Programs

I once signed up for a trial of grammarly.com. It’s a most impressive grammar checker.

The problem was that it was too sophisticated for me. It flagged many things to check, but I lacked the needed background to comprehend the issues. Many of their suggestions were beyond me. However, I recently took a fresh look at it, and it seems they’ve made it easier to use.

Regardless, the built-in grammar checker in Microsoft Word is a great place to start. Though this still requires the writer to decide which suggestions to accept and which ones to reject, it’s easier to manage. While this won’t catch everything, it covers the basics.

In my experience as a publication editor, most of the submissions I receive could benefit from doing this basic grammar check in Word before they submitted their work. It seems many people have turned off this option (I once did), and some don’t bother to run spell-check either. Don’t make that mistake.

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Writing and Publishing

What Are Some of Your Editing Pet Peeves?

Things Writers Do That Irk Me

Here are my editing pet peeves:

  • Writers who don’t spell check their work. This is so easy to do. Why do they skip it?
  • Writers who use “creative formatting” of their text, with bold, italics, underlines, and combinations thereof. Along with this are UPPER CASE phrases, sentences, and even paragraphs. I need to undo all this before I can start working on their submission.
  • Writers who use multiple exclamation points and question marks, sometimes in combination, to end a sentence. Use just one but only when it’s appropriate. And before adding an exclamation point, consider whether it belongs or if a period is correct. Most people overuse exclamation points. When in doubt, use a period instead.
  • Writers who slap something together and assume I’ll fix all their mistakes. That’s lazy, and sometimes it’s more work than I’m willing to do.
  • Writers who send a draft and ask me to let them know what changes they should make. It’s their job to send me their best work and not expect me to do it for them. And if they really have doubts about their work, then they’re not ready to be submitting their writing.
  • Writers who request feedback on their writing. While I understand their desire for feedback, so they can improve (we all want that), it should come from other sources, and not a person who expects to read a finished piece. (From a practical sense, whenever I’ve tried to give feedback, it’s never gone well. So even when I want to help someone who asks for feedback, I know from experience to not try.)
  • Writers who miss deadlines. Sometimes we can’t help asking for more time, but usually, it’s a result of poor planning and a lack of priority. Besides, it’s disrespectful. Without deadlines, nothing would ever be published.

I’m more than willing to overlook a few of these mistakes and be extra tolerant of new writers, but when these things occur too often, it’s often easier to just reject the submission.

I hope this helps.

Whew, I feel better having gotten editing pet peeves off my chest. Thanks for asking.


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Writing and Publishing

Should You Use Dictation to Write?

Writers claim to dramatically increase their writing speed by speaking instead of typing

In listening to podcasts and reading blogs, I’ve heard a lot about writers using dictation. This intrigued me. There are two reasons why I wanted to try dictation instead of typing when composing my first drafts.

Why Diction?

Increased Speed: The most attractive reason for dictation comes from the promise of increased output. Some writers claim to hit speeds of up to 5,000 words per hour when using dictation. Though I have no expectations of hitting that number, the idea of creating content faster really intrigues me.

Protect Wrists: The other reason I’m curious about dictation is for an alternative to typing to reduce repetitive strain injury (RSI) or carpal tunnel syndrome. Indeed, there are times when after too many days of logging too many hours of typing that my wrists grow tender. When this comes it’s too late to do my wrist exercises to minimize the impacts of carpal tunnel syndrome.

Being able to speak my words instead of typing them provides an alternative data-entry method. And it’s always good to have a backup plan if for some reason I must ease up on my typing. In fact, concern over tender wrists is one reason why I take a break from writing on Saturdays. I want to give my wrists a rest from the daily strain of typing.

Why Not Dictation?

However, despite these two benefits to spur me forward, there have also been three reasons why I was reluctant.

Voice Strain: My first concern is voice strain. Perhaps because I don’t have a reason to talk much throughout my workday, I find that it’s very easy to strain my voice. Sometimes even giving a half-hour presentation will be enough to cause my voice to falter. An hour is about as much as I can speak without going hoarse. Perhaps with practice, I can extend this time, but I’m not sure.

Speaking Quality: My next concern is the quality of my speech. My diction is not great. I can pronounce the same word in different ways and pronounce different words the same. This presents a problem. However, my speaker-independent smartphone seldom misunderstands my verbal instructions, so I’m no longer as concerned. And with professional dictation software that I can train to learn my voice, I could minimize this potential problem even more.

Writing Style: The third reason I was hesitant to try dictation is that my speaking style is different than my writing style. I feared that I would spend too much time editing my dictated words that I would negate the time savings from using dictation.

Conclusion

Despite my apprehension, the allure of increasing my writing output and saving my wrists was enough to cause me to seriously consider dictation. But before I spent money on software and hardware I wanted to do some testing before making an investment.

Without spending a penny, I did just that. When accessing Google Docs through the Chrome browser there is a dictation feature (go to “tools” and select “voice typing”). For hardware, I used a standard headset I already had. Though this was not the ideal test, it would be enough to let me see if dictation held potential for me.

I’ve tried it, and I liked it.

For the last couple of weeks, I’ve been writing all my blog posts and articles using dictation. Even though I’m new at it, I’ve already realized an increase in writing productivity. And as I get better, I expect an even greater boost in output.

Next week I’ll share more about my process, and how I’m moving forward with dictation. But for now, I wanted to share my initial thoughts so you could consider dictation.

Until then happy writing.

(By the way, the first draft of this 650-word post took me under ten minutes using dictation; typing would have been at least 45 minutes.)


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Writing and Publishing

Do You Know Your Go-To Words in Your Writing?

Authors must be aware of words they overuse and that will irritate readers

Every writer has words they use a lot, too often in fact. They’re called go-to words. In my fiction writing, I use a smile, nod, and sigh a lot. Too much, way too much. But I never realized this until my editor pointed it out.

I also tend to have my characters grin, whisper, and wink. Plus, I enjoy it when they grasp, squeeze, and scrunch. Yep, these are my top nine go-to words. I have a list.

I also overuse just, only, and bit. And don’t get me started on adverbs, which harkens back to bad instruction from high school. (Though it might have been common practice back then.)

Your go-to words will likely differ from mine, but maybe my list will get you started on making your own.

Yes, you should make a list of your go-to words, as well as overused phrases and the common errors you make. One of my common errors is writing all of when I should be satisfied with all.

As I progress in writing a book, one of my editing phases is to work through my list of go-to words. One by one, I search for my overused words and fix them.

Sometimes characters have to smile, so I leave them smiling. But other times their smile does nothing to advance the story, so I wipe that smile off their face, that is, I delete the word from my writing. But I prefer to find creative ways to communicate my intent. Sometimes this task is easy, and other times it provides a challenge.

One final thought about scaling back on our go-to words is that we can inadvertently create new ones. For example, to scale back on the nod, I started having characters bob their heads, which is even more annoying. So in attempting to fix one problem, I caused another. Don’t do that.

This list of my go-to words only applies to my fiction writing. I need to make another list for my nonfiction work. A few that I’m aware of enough to avoid are corresponding, conversely, significant, and efficacy. But I’m sure there are more.

If you know your go-to words, great. If not, ask someone to read your work and tell you. Then find them and fix them.

Your writing will be stronger and you won’t weary your readers with repetition.


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