Category Archives: clarity

Want to write like Hemingway? There’s an app for that

Do you want to write like Ernest Hemingway, using active voice verbs; short, simple sentences; short, one-syllable words; and few adverbs?  There is a free web app to help you.  Here’s how the app works.

Type a passage which you want to be more Hemingway-like. Swipe and copy it.  Go to  Click the “H1,” “H2,” or “H3” button at the top of the app screen to allow you to paste your passage.  Or click the “write” button in the top right corner to compose on the site.

Highlighted in yellow will be sentences which are long or complex or which have common errors. The app identifies them, but it’s up to you to figure out how to fix them.

Highlighted in red will be sentences which are dense, that is, too full of information. Again, it’s up to you to figure out how to fix them.

Highlighted in purple will be words for which a shorter synonym is possible. Synonyms will be suggested by the app.

Highlighted in blue will be adverbs—a sign that your verbs aren’t strong enough to stand alone. The app won’t suggest stronger verbs, but it will identify adverbs, most of which should probably go.

Highlighted in green will be passive voice verbs. You need to figure out how to rewrite the sentence to make the verb active.

In the right margin will be a readability score, that is, the reading grade level of your passage.

The Hemingway app will make your writing more Hemingway-like, but that doesn’t mean your writing will be of high literary merit.  Your writing will be streamlined and easier to read, but that is not the same as “good.”

Still, if your revising skills are poor, or if you are pinched for time, this app can offer suggestions on how to make your writing more readable.  The cost to download a desktop version (3.0) is $19.99, available for both PC’s and Mac’s.


Diagrams help students read and write

“Scaffolding” is an educator term to describe teacher actions to help students  learn something new.  Scaffolding could be a series of questions meant to prepare students for what they are to read.  Scaffolding could be a timeline of a topic—say American history—to show where a subtopic—say the Civil War—fits into the big picture.

Scaffolding can also be simple diagrams to help visual learners understand what they are about to read or write.  These diagrams help students “see” the organization of a reading passage, or they help students “see” the structure of a paragraph or essay they are about to write, providing clarity.

For example, suppose a student needs to write a biography of Coretta Scott King.  Maybe the student has written a list of ideas related to Mrs. King’s life, from her education to working with her husband on Civil Rights matters to promoting his legacy.  But this brainstormed list seems to be without order.  The student doesn’t know what goes with what or how to begin.  How could a diagram help?  Take a look.

This diagram is a simple visual pattern following Mrs. King’s life, more or less in chronological order.  With a little help, the student might see that Mrs. King’s life was private until she married; then her life became public as she worked with her husband on civil rights matters; then her life became even more public after his death as she led efforts to honor him and she spoke and wrote about ongoing civil rights matters.  These insights could provide transition ideas from one paragraph to another.

If each box of the diagram is outlined in a color which corresponds to a portion of Mrs. King’s life or activities, the overall organization of the essay becomes clear.

A student can make a diagram like this after he creates a prewriting organizer such as a mind web or a brainstormed list.  Or this diagram can take the place of that prewriting organizer.  Color-coding the information is important because it helps visual learners “see” how the essay breaks down into smaller chunks.

A similar diagram can be made by a teacher to preview what students are about to read.  Whether it is Junie B. Jones’ fear of school buses or why polar bears face a bleak future, a diagram showing students what they will read before they read it allows them to see the big picture and each subtopic in the order in which they will read about it.  For children with reading comprehension problems, a diagram can help them understand and remember what they read.

“Automatic pilot” sentences can reveal character

Do you have “automatic pilot” sentences, the kind you use most of the time when you aren’t thinking about grammar or effect, the kind you use when you are speaking off the cuff or writing to a friend?  Most of us do.

Do you know that these “automatic pilot” sentences reveal how we think?  Take a look at the following sentences and some possible interpretations.

Dogs bark.   Simple sentence, subject followed by verb, no modifiers.  Clear thinker?  Simplistic thinker?  Black and white thinker?

Some dogs bark, but not all dogs bark.  Compound sentence, simple grammar, modifiers, repetition of idea.  Clear thinker?  Simplistic thinker?  A thinker who hedges?  A thinker who repeats for emphasis?  A thinker who wants to prevent misunderstanding?

Although some dogs bark, not all dogs bark.  Complex sentence, less important idea stated first, modifiers, repetition of idea.  Complex thinker?  A thinker who hedges thoughts?  A thinker unwilling to impose views on others?

Although some dogs bark, not all dogs bark, and not all barking animals are dogs.  Compound-complex sentence, complex grammar, multiple qualifiers, repetition of idea, convoluted logic.  Complex thinker?  A thinker who hedges thoughts?  Muddled thinker?  An attorney?  A trickster?

When I talk to immigrants for whom English is not a first language, my automatic pilot sentences are short and usually simple or compound.  I use no contractions.  My vocabulary is basic unless I recognize that they are comfortable with English.  My sentences use active, not passive, verbs.  My sentences seem to show I am a simplistic thinker.

But when I speak to native born English speakers and especially to savvy adults, I speak in long and complicated automatic pilot sentences, like this one.  I use contractions and, unless I am talking to a child, an academic vocabulary.  My sentences seem to show that I am a complex, well educated thinker.

Take a look at an email you’ve written.  What do your automatic pilot sentences reveal about your mind?

Why does “there is” and “there are” lead to poor writing?

Sentences which begin with “there” followed by a form of the verb “to be” put the subject after the verb. Most sentences, like the one you are reading now, name the subject first, and then tell what the subject does.  But when the sentence begins with “There is” or “There was” the subject is the third or fourth word, a weaker construction than the typical subject-verb construction.

“There is” and “there were” compound the weakness by using the weakest verb in the English language, “to be.” In a sentence like “There are two dogs,” we know nothing about the dogs except that they exist.  Even if we add a bit more information, such as “There are two dogs across the street,” we know little except that they exist across the street.

“There” like “It” (It’s raining out. It’s three o’clock) is a filler word, a word to get the sentence going without adding any information.  This construction is similar to a child starting a paragraph with, “I’m going to tell you about my pet dog.”  This child’s sentence offers a way for the child to start, but a poor way.  If the sentences which follow are about a dog, do you really need to start off by saying that you are going to tell us about your dog?

Sometimes the noun that follows “There is” is a noun which can be changed into a verb. When the sentence is rewritten, the sentence becomes more dynamic.  For example, take the sentence, “There was anger in the school about the school lunches.  “Anger” has no verb form, but “fume” or “seethe” are synonyms which could be used as the desired verb.  But now we have another problem.  Who fumes?  Who seethes about the lunches?

This problem leads to another shortcoming of “there is.” Many times “there is” creates a passive construction, one in which the reader doesn’t know who is acting.  Most of the time, the writer isn’t intentionally hiding who is doing the action in a sentence.  The writer is rather relying on an easy way to begin a sentence.  Why not come right out and say the actor, making the sentence more direct?

Another reason not to start a sentence with “There is” is that the beginnings of sentences receive the most focus. English speakers are accustomed to hearing the doer of the action named first.  (“John bounced the ball” not “The ball was bounced by John.”)  But when the beginning is a filler word like “There,” that opportunity to highlight the subject is squandered.  We focus on a meaningless word.

Analyze a piece of your own writing.  Circle all the “there is” and “there are” constructions whether they occur as the first words of sentences or the first words of subordinate clauses.  Now figure out how to eliminate them.

One exception:  When you write dialog, write the way people speak.  People say “there was” and “there will be” habitually.  On the other hand, if you want your speakers to sound dynamic, active, animated or enthusiastic, don’t put the words “there is” into their mouths.

When to use parentheses

Parentheses are marks of punctuation used to separate a word, phrase, or sentence from the rest of a sentence.  Here are some suggestions on how to use them.

parenthesesIf the parentheses contain words which are part of a sentence but not a complete sentence themselves, don’t use a period or a comma within the  parentheses.  The exception is when the words within the parentheses are a question or an exclamation.  Then use a question mark or an exclamation point as appropriate.

  • My mother (but not my father) has blue eyes.
  • Both of my mother’s parents had blue eyes (no surprise there!).

If the words in parentheses are a complete sentence, use punctuation at the end of the sentence, within the parentheses. 

  • My father and his mother had brown eyes. (But they each had at least one parent with blue eyes.)
  • My father’s father had blue eyes. (So why didn’t my father have one brown eye and one blue eye?)

Parentheses within parentheses can be grammatically correct, but they can be confusing to the reader.  It’s a good idea to rewrite those ideas using one or no parentheses.

  • I have brown eyes (the brown from my father (who probably had a recessive blue gene, like me)).
  • I have brown eyes.  The brown gene came from my father, who probably had a recessive blue gene, as I do.

When a name can be reduced to its initials, say the complete name first, and immediately after the name put the initials in parentheses.  Later, when you use the initials in place of the name, you need to use an article in front of the initials.

  • Both my mother’s parents were born in the United States (US), but neither of my father’s parents were born in the US.

When writing a research paper, you will be directed by your teacher to to use a particular style book.  That style book will have  information on how to use parentheses for citations and specific Latin abbreviations.  If you are not told to use a particular style book, you can use the Associated Press (A.P.) style book, or you can use a dictionary.  Name that book in the references part of your paper.

In general, it is better not to use parentheses if you can separate information with commas, or if you can rewrite idea to obviate the need for parentheses.  Too many parentheses can muddy the meaning, and the first rule in good writing is to be clear.

Use a diagram to “see” the structure of the new SAT essay

When working with students learning how to write an essay for the new SAT exam, I draw diagrams of an essay pattern they can follow. The diagram acts as a prewriting organizer.  It shows students an overall perspective of what they must write.  Here is a diagram that is easy to follow yet leads to an effective SAT essay.

diagram-of-sat-essayThis diagram separates the persuasive techniques from the summary.  In the SAT workbooks, the best essay samples entwine the summary and the persuasive techniques, a more sophisticated pattern to follow.

What is important is to cover all three of the criteria which will be judged:  1) clearly showing that you understand what the essay prompt is all about (the summary), 2) recognizing and analyzing persuasive techniques, and 3) doing all this using excellent English (perfect  grammar, a variety of sentence patterns, advanced vocabulary and–most difficult of all–your own voice).

Is there an ideal election ballot?

Is there an ideal election ballot, one written and designed clearly so that it is easy to read and use?

Yes.  It has ten features.*


  • The ballot uses mostly lower case letters. Why? ALL UPPERCASE LETTERS ARE HARDER TO READ compared to lower case letters.
  • The names on the ballot, instructions, and other words are aligned to the left, not centered. With left-aligned type, it is easy for the eye to find where the next line begins.  With center-aligned type, the eye has to work to figure out which is the next line.
  • Font size matters. For ballots on a touch screen computer, type should be at least 25 point.  For optically scanned ballots, type should be at least 12 point.  Voters should not need magnifying glasses in order to read the ballot.
  • Fonts should be sans-serif (a lettering style without those little tabs at the tops or bottoms of letters). Sans-serif type faces are cleaner and therefore quicker to read than serif styles.
  • Optically scanned ballots should have instructions at the beginning and page numbers on every page. Touchscreens should offer continuous instructions (for example, at the top of each screen), language options, and a navigation system which is identical on every page of the ballot.
  • Instructions should be presented in simple, easy-to-understand English (or other language). So should ballot initiatives, changes to constitutions, and proposed changes to tax law.  Sample ballots should be available at polling stations so that voters can read complete written instructions and law changes before entering the polling booth.
  • Visual instructions, such as an arrow indicating to turn the page at the bottom of a touchscreen ballot, should be obvious and consistent.
  • Only informational icons, such as a stop sign at the end of the ballot, should be used—no elephants or donkeys.
  • Color, boldfacing or boxing should be used consistently. For example, if instructions are in color or in a shaded box on page one, they should appear the same way throughout the ballot.  However, color cannot be the only way to call attention to important information.
  • Layout and text size should be used to indicate importance of information. For example, on the page of Presidential candidates, the words indicating a vote for President should be bigger and more obvious than the names of candidates.  The candidates’ names should be bigger and more obvious than their party affiliation.  Also, all candidates’ names should be presented equally in font size and darkness of font.

* Design for Democracy, a strategic initiative of AIGA, the professional association for design, developed these guidelines.  AIGA worked with the US Election Assistance Commission and did testing on potential voters to develop these guidelines.  Because holding elections is a function of the states and not the federal government, each state is free to create its own ballots according to its own criteria.  After the election of 2000, many states changed their ballots to make them clearer, easier to use and less likely to be challenged.