Hemingway App Punches Up Your Writing

PHOTO: Author Ernest Hemingway poses for a portrait while on a big game hunt in September 1952 in Kenya.Earl Theisen/Getty Images
Author Ernest Hemingway poses for a portrait while on a big game hunt in September 1952 in Kenya.

The HemingwayApp promises to make your writing as punchy and compelling as anything ever penned by Papa. Imagine! Sales reports and client letters that read like "The Snows of Kilimanjaro."

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"I wasn't able to put it down," your boss will say.

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The app works like this: You paste into an "edit" field a copy of whatever piece of writing you want to have critiqued. An algorithm then color-codes it, highlighting the literary sins you have committed and assigning it a numerical grade for overall readability.

Red denotes a passage that is too long, too complex. You should break the sentences up into shorter sentences.

Yellow means you've committed some common error -— of grammar, say.

Green shows you have lapsed into the passive (i.e., unmanly) voice: "She was kissed by him" is bad, as judged by the app. "He kissed her" is better.

Blue highlights adverbs -— which, by definition, are bad. Papa didn't use them. Neither should you. Pluck them out, as you would an assassin's knife from your chest.

An introductory blurb for the desktop version says: "Hemingway makes your writing bold and clear. [It] highlights long, complex sentences and common errors; if you see a yellow highlight, shorten the sentence or split it. If you see a red highlight, your sentence is so dense and complicated that your readers will get lost trying to follow its meandering—try editing this sentence to remove the red."

HemingwayApp is the brainchild of two brothers -— Adam and Ben Long, both writers. Adam is a product manager for a Raleigh, Durham, software creator. Ben is a copywriter for a Manhattan ad agency.

"We both realized we had the same frustration," Adam tells ABC News. "When you're under deadline pressure, you write so much that your brain turns off. You want to get it done more than you want to get it right. Adverbs? Your brain ignores them. We wanted to come up with something that would be a second set of eyes to go over what you've written before you send it on to a reader or to your boss."

They wanted, he says, something that would exercise the same rigor, vigor and precision that Ernest Hemingway did in his writing. "We automatically thought of Hemingway," says Adam, "his short, declarative sentences. If you just cut out long words, wordy constructions, it makes the piece much more powerful."

How does Papa's own writing rate, if fed into the hopper? ABC decided to experiment. Depending on what passages we gave the app, Papa didn't fare too well.

Take, for example, the following:

"Nick drank the coffee, the coffee according to Hopkins. The coffee was bitter. Nick laughed. It made a good ending to the story. His mind was starting to work. He knew he could choke it because he was tired enough. He spilled the coffee out of the pot and shook the grounds loose into the fire. He lit a cigarette and went inside the tent. He took off his shoes and trousers, sitting on the blankets, rolled the shoes up inside the trousers for a pillow and got in between the blankets."

The app gave this passage (from a Hemingway short story) a grade of 4 -— good, but not great.

It faulted "was tired" for being a use of the passive voice. (It's not, but no app is perfect). And it thought "in between the blankets" could be simpler, which it could be: Lose the "in." It judged the entire last sentence as being hard to read.

We asked Adam Long if there wasn't more than a little irony in the app's faulting Hemingway's writing for not being up to Hemingway standards.

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Long says Hemingway displayed much more stylistic variety than is popularly believed (dagnabbit! We used the passive voice).

True, Papa wrote short sentences. But, says Long, he wrote a lot of long ones, too. "The Old Man and the Sea" has plenty of them, he says. Hemingway varied punchy with paunchy for rhythm. He deliberately departed from the standard rules of English, says Long, because, as an artist and as a master of language, he knew how to get the effects he wanted.

"If you know what you're doing," says Long, "there isn't any law you cannot break intentionally." (We were amazed to find the app gave this rather rococo sentence a grade of 8, faulting it only for the use of an adverb.) Long says the rules built into the algorithm are meant as guideposts, not as laws. "We don't prescribe a pedantic adherence to them." (Grade of 7.)