New “Hemingway” App Promises to Make Your Writing “Strong and Clear”

hemingway writing app

I con­fess, I pre­fer Faulkn­er to Hem­ing­way and see noth­ing wrong with long, com­plex sen­tences when they are well-con­struct­ed. But in most non-Faulkn­er writ­ing, they are not. Stream of con­scious­ness is a delib­er­ate effect of care­ful­ly edit­ed prose, not the unre­vised slop of a first draft. In my days as a writ­ing teacher, I’ve read my share of the lat­ter. The Eng­lish teacher’s guide for par­ing down unruly writ­ing resem­bles a new online app called “Hem­ing­way,” which exam­ines writ­ing and grades it on a col­or-cod­ed dif­fi­cul­ty scale. “Hem­ing­way” sug­gests using sim­pler dic­tion, edit­ing out adverbs in favor of stronger verbs, and elim­i­nat­ing pas­sive voice. It promis­es to make your writ­ing like that of the famous Amer­i­can min­i­mal­ist, “strong and clear.”

Of course I couldn’t resist run­ning the above para­graph through Hem­ing­way. It received a score of 11—merely “O.K.” It sug­gest­ed that I change the pas­sive in sen­tence one and remove “care­ful­ly” from the fourth sen­tence (I declined), and it iden­ti­fied “unruly” as an adverb (it is not). Like all forms of advice, it pays to use your own judg­ment before apply­ing whole­sale. Nev­er­the­less, the sug­ges­tion to stream­line and sim­pli­fy for clarity’s sake is a gen­er­al rule worth heed­ing more often than not. Broth­ers Adam and Ben Long, cre­ators of the app, real­ized that their “sen­tences often grow long to the point that they became dif­fi­cult to read.” It hap­pens to every­one, ama­teur and pro­fes­sion­al alike. The app sug­gests writ­ing that scores a Grade 10 or below is “bold and clear.” Writ­ing above this mea­sure is “hard” or “very hard” to read. Which prompts the inevitable ques­tion: How does Hem­ing­way him­self score in the Hem­ing­way app?

In a blog post yes­ter­day for The New York­er, Ian Crouch ran a few of the master’s pas­sages through the online edit­ing tool (a con­cept akin to John Malkovich enter­ing John Malkovich’s head). The open­ing para­graph of “A Clean, Well-Light­ed Place” received a score of 15. Hemingway’s descrip­tion of Romero the bull­fight­er from The Sun Also Ris­es also “breaks sev­er­al of the Hem­ing­way rules” with its use of pas­sive voice and extra­ne­ous adverbs. Does this mean even Hem­ing­way falls short of the ide­al? Or only that writ­ing rules exist to be bro­ken? Both, per­haps, and nei­ther. Style is as elu­sive as gram­mar is con­strict­ing, and both are mas­tered only through end­less prac­tice. Will “Hem­ing­way” turn you into Hem­ing­way? No. Will it make you a bet­ter writer? Maybe. But only, I’d sug­gest, inas­much as you learn when to accept and when to ignore its advice.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Sev­en Tips From Ernest Hem­ing­way on How to Write Fic­tion

Jack Ker­ouac Lists 9 Essen­tials for Writ­ing Spon­ta­neous Prose

Crime Writer Elmore Leonard Pro­vides 13 Writ­ing Tips for Aspir­ing Writ­ers

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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