Technology to Aid Writing, a Writer’s Perspective On the Hemingway App

Is writing a technology? Does writing require a technology? The second question treats technology as a tool, which is the modern definition, while the first question treats technology as a technê, which the Ancient Greeks used to denote craft or art. But are the definitions mutually exclusive? An Athenian potter might demonstrate an astonishing level of craft in shaping, firing, and painting a vase, but the endgame is always the same: a vase. Today it’s exhibited in the British Museum alongside jewelry and bronzes and admired as art, but three thousand years ago it sat on the dirt floor of an Athenian kitchen. It was a pretty vase, but it was a vase. There were plenty others.

So to avoid any philosophical black holes, let’s say that writing and technology are related, which is an important if obvious point. Because if they’re related they can affect each other, and if they can affect each other they can improve each other. (In theory.)

Thus the growing popularity of writing apps and editors, from proofreading plugins like Grammarly to distraction-free processors like Writer. The most ambitious of the bunch is the Hemingway App, which “makes your writing bold and clear” so that “that your reader will focus on your message, not your prose.” I’ve never used it until this piece.

To give a brief summary: Hemingway has a free browser interface, or you can download a $20 desktop app that includes premium features like Wordpress integration and HTML exporting. (I’m using the free option because it’s the free option.) There are two modes—”write” and “edit.” The writing mode looks like your average word processor with less buttons. The default font is good-looking, the page is clean, and you’re provided basic formatting gadgets like italics, bullet points, block quotes, and header sizes. It’s nice!

So you write your masterpiece, and then you toggle to the edit mode. Unless you are a robot, the page will now contain splashes of light blue, lime green, blonde, lavender, and what my Google image search calls salmon. Each color corresponds to one of the app’s five writing no-no’s: adverbs, passive voice, “complex” words, sentences that are hard to read, and sentences that are very hard to read. As of now, my editing page is some combination of Rothko and late Monet. It’s dizzying, but better than a series of stark red strikes.

Does it work?

It’s certainly a hands-on editor. When I write certainly it paints a blue highlight and advises me to “use a forceful verb.” Fair enough. But adverb tallying is an old trick, and not always a helpful one. Yes, adverbs can get in the way, and too many is a sign of bloated or plain bad writing. But adverbs can also add style. Same goes for passive voice. The shape of a sentence is part of its meaning, and inverting a sentence from active to passive can produce a powerful effect. (For instance, of powerlessness.)

Still, I’m being nitpicky. It’s important to note that the editor’s suggestions aren’t static. The longer the piece, the more adverbs I’m allowed, and the more passive voice I’m allotted. More important, Hemingway’s guidelines say “view our suggestions as just that,” and some suggestions are right. In general, it’s better to avoid a big word when a small one will do. (Though that’s Orwell, not Hemingway.) And in general a simple declarative sentence holds more capacity for truth than an elaborate, showy one. (That’s Orwell and Hemingway.)

So if a writing app can “work”—which is a dubious way of putting it—Hemingway does. The better question is how to use it. And if it’s not already obvious, Hemingway should never be used for any creative purposes, in both the name of creative freedom and the future of independent humane art.

I say that not as a Luddite, nor out of any transhumanist paranoia. (Not consciously, anyway.) I’m aware that technology has enhanced and expanded many art forms. It’s ushered in several more, including writing. But Hemingway has no intention of enhancing your writing and never pretends to, contrary to that misleading name. It’s a paring tool.

And what about that name? It’s clever branding, for sure. But it underscores some of the app’s ironies.

(As a pedantic side note on some of these ironies: Hemingway’s once lauded style now comes across as artificially austere. Guy Davenport wrote that “Hemingway’s prose is like an animal talking. But what animal?” And while Hemingway has a reputation for spare writing, he doesn’t have a reputation for much self-editing, which was left to Max Perkins and Gertrude Stein. Given the app’s fastidiousness, Flaubert might’ve been a more accurate, less compelling name.)

Of course, the main irony is that Hemingway doesn’t meet Hemingway’s standards, which a New Yorker piece nicely parodies. (Still, the creators are happy to display a positive New Yorker blurb on their site.) Consider the opening sentence of Hemingway’s short story, “Fathers and Sons”:

THERE HAD BEEN A SIGN TO DETOUR IN the center of the main street of this town, but cars had obviously gone through, so, believing it was some repair which had been completed, Nicholas Adams drove on through the town along the empty, brick-paved street, stopped by traffic lights that flashed on and off on this traffic-less Sunday, and would be gone next year when the payments on the system were not met; on under the heavy trees of the small town that are a part of your heart if it is your town and you have walked under them, but that are only too heavy, that shut out the sun and that dampen the houses for a stranger; out past the last house and onto the highway that rose and fell straight away ahead with banks of red dirt sliced cleanly away and the second-growth timber on both sides.

Now, this is a far cry from boilerplate Hemingway, but I’m out to make a point (which includes the fact that Hemingway’s minimalism is overstated). The app highlights two adverbs, cleanly and obviously, plus been completed, with the especially helpful hover text: “Passive voice: Use active voice.” The rest of the sentence is glazed in that becalming salmon color, which means it’s very hard to read. Leaving aside the other potential adverbs and passive constructions in the excerpt, the app’s least effective suggestions are these “too hard to read” highlights, which are mainly predicated on length.

Let’s look at another sentence from the same story:

Like all men with a faculty that surpasses human requirements, his father was very nervous.

This sentence earns the yellowish, blonde highlight for a first degree of difficulty. A long dependent clause begins the sentence, but for strategic purposes. It’s not hard to read.

Another, from “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place,” which James Joyce praised for its lucidity:

The two waiters inside the café knew that the old man was a little drunk, and while he was a good client they knew that if he became too drunk he would leave without paying, so they kept watch on him.

This one earns four salmon ribbons, and, given its shape, could in fact be mistaken for a salmon!

I don’t think I’m being nitpicky here. Sure, the app isn’t designed to edit literature, but that misses the point: it disproportionately flags sentences containing multiple clauses or more than a dozen words. It risks simplifying language to the point of etherization.

So use Hemingway as necessary. White papers, press releases, some journalism, maybe an essay—anything that needs good copy can stand to benefit, but copy can be clean without being dull. I’d take the “hard to read” alerts with a fistful of salt, and I wouldn’t recommend writing within the edit mode—you’ll second-guess yourself the whole way. Better to draft somewhere else and copy-paste into the app, and it’s especially helpful if you need a quick pass on something. In any event, the need for technê remains.