Teaching College Writing Using the Hemingway App

If he were alive today, would Ernest Hemingway be great at writing Tweets?

I like to think that he would. After all, he is attributed with writing the famous 6-word novel: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn” (though his authorship of the story is speculation).

ErnestHemingway

We’ve all been assigned one or more Ernest Hemingway novels in school. It is there we were introduced to his minimalistic style of writing, known as the ‘iceberg theory’ of writing. The iceberg theory, or theory of omission, can be summed up with the following quote (which I share with my students) from Death in the Afternoon:

“If a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them.  The dignity of movement of the iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water.”

Hemingway, there’s an app for that:

My Writing Across Platforms class (syllabus) teaches students to write news releases, for social media, content marketing blogging, and white papers. As stated in my Spring 2015 overview of the course, it is my goal to help my students focus on writing concise, specific, clear, powerful text across their assignments.

Enter, the HemingwayApp. This free online tool helps “make your writing bold and clear” (There is a paid desktop version, too). The app is easy to use.

Type or paste your text into the website and click “edit.”

The app highlights the following:

  • Wordy or convoluted writing.
  • Unnecessary adverbs
  • Unnecessarily complex terms
  • Passive voice

HemingwayApp

A readability score is assigned based on the above.  The app assigns a readability score (thanks Hemingway app!)

The app is great. You can see the improvements to your score based on changes you’ve made, allowing for quick feedback and improvement throughout the writing and editing process.

How I’m using The App and emphasizing concise communication:

In my writing class, I talk on the first day about the power and importance of each word. I use a blind date or another situation where first impressions count. I have students write the first 2 sentences they’d say in the situation, providing a specific goal they want to achieve – e.g., make a positive first impression to set the tone for the date. This fun exercise gets them thinking about goal-driven writing and what all they need to communicate – overt and subtle – with only a handful of words.

We then discuss how this applies to other forms of writing – from news releases to Tweets – where first impressions mean everything and failure to grab attention means failure, every word counts.

I have students write 3-4 sentences about where they’d go if they had a car full of gas, but no money.

Then, I provide a quote that we discuss including writing tips to achieve this:

The quote (from the Elements of Style – a great read) is: “If your every sentence admits a doubt, your writing will lack authority.”

Tips, derived largely from Elements of Style, include:

  • Active Voice – subject performs action.
  • Rewrite/reorganize whenever possible to convey the message with fewer words.
    • “ought to” = “should”; “It would be good if you” or “I was wondering” = “Will you”
  • Clarify the vague .
  • Replace adjectives with precise verbs.
  • Specific examples should replace vague or unspecific nouns.
  • Replace vague pronouns.
  • Remove NEGATIVE writing – when they say ‘not’ put it into the positive.
    • Example: “Not good.” replace with “bad”; “not present” replace with “absent”

Students switch their writing with a partner. Their goal is to use the writing tips I provide to remove any unnecessary word and strengthen sentences. We talk about how much they were able to cut from their partner’s writing. (Note: Sometimes they cut too much – which ties to the Hemingway quote below, and can be discussed with the quote).

In a follow-up class, I introduce the Iceberg theory and we chat a little about Hemingway’s style, as most students have read his work. I provide the quote above, and point out the below part of the quote I omitted when I first introduced the quote above, and we discuss this critical point and the trouble of knowing what to omit, from the exercise above:

“The writer who omits things because he does not know them only makes hollow places in his writing.”

After this, I have students implement the Hemingway App in their writing exercises in class. I provide strict word limits, such as for a news release exercise we did in class last Tuesday.

So far, we’ve just started using the app. And already I see students tinkering to strengthen their writing. It is my sense that the app will be a great help as they move along, so long as they commit to using it.

I plan to continue to remind them of the goal for concise, clear, powerful writing with new angles or tips during writing exercises throughout the semester.

I plan to continue to use the app for my own writing, too. I tell my students that becoming a great writer is a lifelong journey we all must be on.

Have you used the Hemingway app to teach writing? How have you found it? What tips do you have?

Fiction Aside:

So what’s my favorite Hemingway novel? If you’ve read my bio, you know I prefer Fitzgerald (a great book on their friendship turned sour is Hemingway vs. Fitzgerald). But I loved the autobiographical A Moveable Feast – perhaps because there is a section on his adventures with Fitzgerald! 😛

What’s your favorite Hemingway story?

photo of Hemingway in public domain; screen grab of Hemingway app

Sharing My Social Media Class Fall 2014 Syllabus

Last week I posted our semester long project in Comm 322 Social Media class. Below is my Social Media class syllabi for Fall 2014.

A few quick highlights:

  • New Semester-long Project – Each semester I’ve done something different in terms of a project that spans the entire semester with multiple assignments tied to it. Last year I did niche blogs. This year I’m doing the department social media – please read this post to learn about that project in detail.
  • New books this semester – I’m sticking with a favorite, “Likeable Social Media.” I really enjoy that book and think it explains things in a well organized, simple to understand format. And even though it focuses on Facebook, the lessons span the social media sphere. I’ve dropped the others from last year. And I’ve added “Your Brand: The Next Media Company.” I had a few others in mind, but thought I’d give this a go.
  • A guest speaker in my own class – This seems strange. Let me explain. 🙂 You’ll see on the syllabus that I have myself listed as a guest speaker. Because I’m doing the ICBO Social campaign for the Optometric Extension Program Foundation, I thought this was an amazing opportunity to come in not as the professor but as a guest speaker and present to my students the plan I put together and discuss its execution, and challenges we faced. I also plan to have an external guest speaker too. Have any recommendations? Tweet them my way!

One cool “professor nerd” thing I’d like to point out. You’ll notice icons in the schedule. This is something I’ve started using in recent semester in various classes to highlight important things on the schedule to students. So days where students are presenting will jump out at them, as indicated by the presentation icon. 🙂 I’ve found this to be really helpful!

You can see previous social media syllabi via the menu on the left. Mouse over “syllabi.” If you’d like to see how I changed my social media class last year and what I had planned for Fall 2013, see this post: “What’s Changing? Plans for My Fall 2013 class“.

-Cheers!

Matt

Here Are My Spring 2014 Syllabi: Writing and Research

The snow is coming down here in West Virginia! Classes are canceled today so I will be catching up on research and some other things. But let’s talk classes and syllabi!

In addition to the applied Communication Research class I am teaching this semester (discussed in the previous post) I’m also teaching a few other classes. 🙂 I want to quickly share some of my syllabi for the semester. I’ve uploaded syllabi for these classes to my Scribd account, which is where I host past syllabi and class assignments. Click the link below to see the syllabus. (You can also see all the below-described syllabi as well as past syllabi via the menu on the left, by mousing over “syllabi.”)

Comm 435: Communication Research – This class is discussed in depth in my previous post. Please read it to learn more about that class.

Comm 335: Writing Across Platforms – Changes from Fall 13 include: A lab day for greater access to press release examples and working with peers on the first press release assignment, I’ve re-organized and updated the related social media and blog writing assignments, and have shifted a few lectures around to more effectively deliver material. Other minor changes to make sure content is up to date. I’m also super excited that for our PitchEngine assignment this semester, all of our students will be temporarily upgraded from the free version of PitchEngine to the paid level thanks to the awesome people at PitchEngine! So, students will get experience with advanced functionality.

Hope you find these new syllabi helpful! If you share your syllabi online, please share in the comments below!

Teaching The Applied Communication Research Class

Metrics, Metrics, Metrics! I hear it everywhere I turn. 🙂 More than ever, we need to be teaching our students research skills.

This Spring 2014 semester I am really excited to be teaching an applied Communication Research class!

For two years at Utah Valley University, I taught communication research with an emphasis on academic research. You can see the syllabus for that class. In that class, student groups planned, wrote up, and executed a semester long academic research study. Though many professors don’t prefer to teach this class, research is one of my favorite classes to teach. I’ve had numerous undergraduate students present their research at undergraduate research conferences and earn travel grants to do so. This is a super valuable experience for those considering grad school. Though it is very time demanding, and some feel teaching others how to conduct research is tedious, I didn’t find it that way at all. Seeing students get that “aha” moment in research and seeing them succeed makes teaching the class very rewarding.

This semester, I’ll be focusing on the more practical uses of research with an emphasis on using research for strategic purposes. This class emphasizes research across new media, legacy media, and interpersonal and online environments. Students will learn both quantitative and qualitative methods.

Our textbook is Paine’s “Measure what Matters: Online Tools for Understanding Customers, Social Media, Engagement, and Key Relationships.” I considered the Stacks book as well, but liked the emphasis on new media in Paine and felt her book may be more accessible to students, as students can be intimidated by a research class.

This hands on class will emphasize the following research skill sets:

  • How to conduct content analysis using a coding sheet.
  • How to conduct a computer-assisted content analysis
  • How to conduct interviews and focus groups
  • How to conduct quantitative electronic surveys using iPads

Students will work in teams to conduct 3 applied projects. The first 2 projects are real-world problems I set up and the students have to solve, and in the 3rd project they have to identify a problem, write a proposal, and execute:

  • Media placement evaluation – Answering questions such as, placement, share of voice, and whether key messages are included in media coverage and to what extent. Done via content analysis of media clippings.
  • Sentiment analysis of social media content – What are people saying about your brand on social media, and what is sentiment towards it? Done via computer-assisted content analysis of Twitter posts.
  • Audience Research – Focuses on 1 of the 5 key PR variables discussed by Stacks (2011): Confidence, credibility, relationship, reputation (which may include awareness), or trust. Students will choose 2 of the following: interviews, focus groups, and surveys.

Students will be introduced to the following software:

  • Computer-assisted content analysis (Yoshikoder will be used as it is free and easy to learn)
  • Digital Survey programming with XLS Forms
  • Open Data Kit Collector – field data survey collection software (we will be using this with the XLS forms on the free FormHub.com online form tool).
  • SPSS – We won’t get too far into SPSS due the other demands on the students time, but students will learn data entry, descriptive statistics, and correlation analysis.

I’ll be posting the syllabus for the class soon! As the semester goes along, I hope to get up a number of blog posts expanding on the class, assignments, and so forth. So check back!

Have you taught research – what do you emphasize in your class? How can I improve my class? What key skill sets should we be teaching  future practitioners?

-Cheers!

-Matt

– top photo CC by IntelFreePress

Why We Should Teach Content Marketing in the Writing Class

Some say content marketing is a hot topic in 2013 that will pass – a buzzword of sorts. I say, we should be teaching it to our students.

What is content marketing?

As Tom Foremski said, “Every company is a media company.” Content marketing is the creating of content aimed at attracting a target audience. The content adds value to the audience, rather than simply trying to sell them a product. Ultimately, the content serves a business objective (think, profit).

tractor

For example, I’ve been spending a great deal of time researching lawnmowers. Kelin and I are new homeowners. We have a 3/4 acre lawn and last summer after purchasing the house I nearly killed myself trying to mow the hilly thing with a push mower that was not self propelled (Hey, I’m a professor not a body builder). It’s hot and humid here. This year, I have visions of myself destroying that tall grass from behind the wheel of a riding lawnmower, a bottle of ice-cold water in the cup holder.

I know what I want. But there are so many options and price points. As I research mowers online, I’m trying to educate myself on the different transmissions, how much power I need (we’ve got a mean hill), whether paying more for a particular brand is “worth it,” and more.

A traditional approach would be to show me a bright red mower and pitch me on why I should buy it.

A content marketing approach might be to educate me on how to pick the best mower for my lawn terrain, how to prepare my lawn for mowing, tips on how to ensure the longevity of my mower, et cetera. How does this work? Simply, as I learn more, I become more confident in the credibility and reliability of the company providing me this information – perhaps in this case the content marketing is being done by a local hardware store. They aren’t just trying to sell me something, they are trying to help me. They are building a relationship with me. I know I’m the type of consumer that is skeptical, over-thinks purchasing decisions, hates to waste a buck. I appreciate being helped and educated on the subject. I’m more likely to buy from this hardware store.

Next fall I’m teaching Writing Across Platforms. My goal is to prepare students to write for the Web economy. I chose to focus a good portion of the class on online content marketing. Here are 3 reasons why:

  1. Content marketing is tried and true – public relations practitioners have been using content marketing for decades! The concept isn’t new. The goal isn’t either: to build trusting relationships and establish reputations. Which leads me to:
  2. If the brand is a media company, it needs great content creators – Social media enables organizes to create content and reach audiences like never before, arguably shifting the role of communication professionals and making “owned media” king. As such, content marketing is being used by more and more brands today. Pitching is great, but you can go directly to your audience… they’re searching for you anyways. If a student is going to excel in the social media landscape, he/she needs to understand how to create content that builds relationships with and excites their target audience. That’s a different relationship than with bloggers and the media. I know social media is going to change in ways I can’t predict. I want students understand fundamental ideas that can be applied across social tools, the underlying essence of what makes these tools so powerful.
  3. Social / content marketing/ and SEO go hand in hand – I’ll talk more about this in future blog posts. But in essence, for people to find your brand on the overcrowded web, you need to create search-friendly content that people want.

I’m excited to say I’ve completed planning the class.

While students won’t get a chance to make ebooks, webinars, or other cool content (so much to do, too little time) – they will get a clear understanding of what content marketing is, explore many examples through the text and in-class, and use this approach to content to plan out and create a series of blog posts that add value to a clearly defined audience while building the reputation of an organization. Why a blog? As Mark Schaefer says in Born to Blog, the blog is the best content marketing tool around.

In future blog posts I’ll talk more in depth about some of the activities and assignments we’ll be covering in Writing Across Platforms, such as keyword research and SEO.

Are you teaching content marketing? If so, how? What books or resources are you using? I’d love to talk shop. If you’ve got any comments or questions, please drop them below.

By the way, hope you like the new website layout. Had to merge over to WordPress now that Posterous is going away.

Cheers!
– Matt

Related Posts:

  1. When Content Marketing Fails to Deliver: 6 Problems with Marketo’s Ebook
  2. Introducing Students to SEO Keyword Research with Google Trends (Activity)
  3. What is SEO keyword competition? A primer for the Google Keywords competition activity

Photo – creative commons by aivo2010