Hemingway and 9 Pulitzer Winners Failed the Hemingway Test and What it Taught Me About Easy Reading

It was never about dumbing down your writing.

Linda Caroll
Jun 17 · 9 min read
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Photo by 2Photo Pots on Unsplash

Ernest Hemingway, winner of the Pulitzer Prize and the Nobel Prize wrote at a 4th grade reading level.

First time I read that, I had to see it for myself.

Call me a cynical cuss, but you can’t believe everything you read on the internet. I’d rather double check and be sure. Share enough stuff without double checking and you know... Toilet, meet reputation.

Pulitzer winners burst my bubble…

I like reading about Pulitzer winners. In a world of seventy gajillion books on Amazon and so many struggling writers, it’s encouraging to read about people who succeeded beyond their wildest dreams.

How would the Pulitzer winners of the last decade score?

Are they writing for 4th graders, too? They must be, right?

How do you win a Pulitzer with a grade 9–12 book when half of adults read below 8th grade level?

I wish I was kidding, but no. According to USA Literacy Rates, only half the adults in America can read above a grade 8 level.

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graph from Contently

Hemingway failed the Hemingway test…

It occurred to me that I pasted Hemingway’s entire book into the reading level tester — but only excerpts from the Pulitzer winners.

Excerpts from Hemingway’s “grade 4” book…

Ding, ding, ding! Look at this…

But also, look at these… same book!

I began to see a pattern, so I grabbed a few more…

It became predictable…

There’s a magic trick where you put 3 paper cups on a table. You put a coin under one cup. Then you madly move the cups around, while talking to the audience to distract them. Then you ask them where the coin is.

3 tips for keeping your Flesh-Kincaid Score low

As I pasted in excerpts, I could guess whether they’d score low or high.

1. Big words DO increase reading level

Big words increase the “reading level” — that’s a given. Sometimes, you have to. No getting around it. If you’re writing about Adenoacanthoma or some other medical or academic term, you can’t really use another word.

2. Long sentences increase reading level.

It was the surest indicator. If I saw a long sentence, it would increase the reading level. If it had semi-colons, it would rate at grade 10 or above.

3. Long paragraphs also increase reading level.

Same as above. Have you ever watched someone run their fingers under the words to read? They do that to follow along because books are a wall of text. On the internet, that’s what long paragraphs are. Hard to follow.

Reading level is just ease of reading

I played a little more and discovered that parts of every book passed the test and failed the test. They all had varying reading levels.

The finest language is mostly made up of simple unimposing words. ~George Eliot

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graph from Contently

The Partnered Pen

MPP friends writing about life, love, and everything else…

Linda Caroll

Written by

Top writer. Featured in NYT, Forbes. https://lindac.substack.com/

The Partnered Pen

MPP friends writing about life, love, and everything else in between together.

Linda Caroll

Written by

Top writer. Featured in NYT, Forbes. https://lindac.substack.com/

The Partnered Pen

MPP friends writing about life, love, and everything else in between together.

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