After spinning my wheels for a couple of years after grad school, I accepted the position of Principal Cellist of the Evansville Philharmonic Orchestra. It was my first full-time gig, and included an Artist-in-Residence position at the University of Evansville, a small Methodist University in Southern Indiana. Those were good times. I was young and stupid, but I practiced the cello a lot, and ultimately got pretty good.

The Cellist's Bible

The things I practiced most in those days were scales and etudes. I was stunned to discover that, after attending two of the world’s finest music conservatories, and studying with two of the most sought after cello teachers in the world, I still struggled to sound awesome when sight-reading seemingly basic parts. For instance, I’d pull out music for a pops concert, most of it written in a so-called “easy” register, and I’d put in on the stand and read through it, only to discover a disgusting, scrappy sound coming from my cello. Sure, I could practice it and sound great—but where were my sight-reading chops? And, more importantly, why did the tone sound scrappy? I was trying to do simple things, not hard ones. Shouldn’t I automatically sound amazing when doing simple things?

I told you I was young and stupid. Well, I did get one thing right back then. My response: drag out the scales and etudes. I started small, and sight read simple, intermediate level etudes and tried to play them at a high performance level from the first time through. I disappointed myself a lot in those days, but I kept at it, and eventually started learning.

The first thing I learned was how to fall on my face. I learned that improvement wasn’t going to happen if I was too embarrassed to admit that I wasn’t nearly as good as I thought I was. I analyzed simple things that tripped me up and then learned why they tripped me up. I didn’t back off from playing something in a way that sounded mechanical in order to learn the mechanics of music. I practiced and practiced and practiced and practiced. Then I practiced more. Eventually, I started sounding pretty good. Even when I was sight-reading difficult repertoire. But then, Focal Dystonia set in, and my career as a cellist was suddenly over.

These days, I’m writing books. I’m writing books and applying lessons learned from the celloing biz into the new biz—only, there’s one big difference. I never went to a top writing “conservatory,” and I never learned from the “master.” (Well actually, I read books, and an inquisitive mind learns as s/he reads other authors, but you get my point.)

This time around, for my second career, I’m happily admitting I know nothing. My zest to learn remains. I’m aware that good advice can come equally from the master or the fool, if you’re listening critically. I’m aware that bad advice can come from the master or the fool also.

Not too long ago, a critique buddy of mine gave me some exceedingly good advice. She turned me on to Microsoft Word’s Readability

It won't make you a great writer, but it'll keep you from being a terrible one.

Statistics Report. I’m glad she did. For the uninitiated, Word offers a “Check Spelling and Grammar” option under the review tab. Once you’ve gone through the selected text, Word generates a report which includes your Flesch-Kincaid reading grade level and the percentage of passive voice used in your writing.

This is my new best friend.

My current project, The Philosopher’s Game, is happily kicking along in its 2nd draft at 80k words of 1% passive voice and 5th grade reading level—and I couldn’t be happier. Sure, there are sentences that read overly simplistic or too choppy. But this is akin to learning my etudes and scales. I’m still unafraid to sound mechanical to learn the mechanics of the art form. Word is teaching me to be a better writer, and I’m listening. I’ll finish the 2nd draft, and then whip that prose into something more beautiful in future drafts. But, for someone like me, the Readability stats are AMAZING.

If you’re an author who, like me, needs to learn: try following these simple steps.

Select a chapter of your book. Highlight and copy text. Paste text into new document and run Spelling and Grammar on it. Accept or reject Word’s attempts to correct all your stinking fragments or turn every “then” into “and then.” You may even discover a spelling error or two that you missed.

When you’re done, check out your passive voice and grade level. For a lower passive voice percentage, run a search for the words, “was, were, had, have,” and “to be.” If those words aren’t strictly necessary—lose them. The exercise of rewording into a stronger, more active voice, will teach you, if you let it, even if you end up preferring the original “was” or “were.” And—you’ll grow.

If you’ve finished culling out the “passive” words, and you’re still pulling a 1% or higher passive voice, try eliminating 90% of the text and run it again. (Remember, we’re going chapter by chapter. Limit the amount of text you’re working on.) Run the report again on the remaining 10% of text. If it’s good, paste the other 90% back in, and repeat the technique on 80% of the text, then 70%, etc. until you find the paragraph Word doesn’t like. When you discover the paragraph that’s screwing up your passive voice percentage, congratulations! Now you can read it and learn. You’ve given yourself a private lesson on writing in an active voice!

Are you already passionate about Word’s Readability Stats? Hate them? Sound off below in the comments. I’d love to hear your thoughts!

(Ps. This rambling blog entry, which used plenty of the words “was” and “were,” earned a 0% passive voice from Word, proving that it’s still possible to ramble in an active voice!)


14 thoughts on “An Author’s Best Friend

  1. That’s some good advice! I’ve never seen this, because I never let the checker finish – it always wants to check my comments and, as an editor, I leave a lot of ’em 🙂 Anyway, I’ve shared this on my Facebook page so hopefully some of my author friends will try this out!

    1. No idea. What is the Mac word processing program? If it has a spelling and grammar function, you could try that. Remember: limit the text, b/c it’ll stop you for every stinkin’ thing! 😉

  2. Hi David–

    I’m glad you are loving that feature in Word. 🙂 My fave, too. So funny that we both posted about the same feature on Valentine’s Day. Is the Readability Statistics Report our new sweetheart? At least we don’t have to fight over it! Plenty to go around.


  3. Well, you’re the genius who pointed me in that direction! But sweethearts aren’t as fun unless there’s a bloody death battle over them. At least, so sayeth Mr. Shakespeare.

  4. As advice goes this is pure gold, David! I had no idea MS Word offered such a valuable tool. I just ran one of my more recent blog posts at Lower String Theory through the readability test and came out with a whopping 12% passive voice. With a bit of careful editing I’ve managed to whittle it down to 0% and I’m very happy with the edited post. It reads considerably better. You’re a gem for sharing this!

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