What if you could learn to write like Ernest Hemingway?
I’ve recently come across a program that purports to help. The Hemingway App is a simple tool for identifying common writing errors. The web-based (or desktop-for-a-fee) application allows you to cut and paste in your text. It then tells you where the passive sentences are, the adverbs, and the overly complex sentence structures. It looks like this:
I enjoy using it. It’s nice to have a second pair of eyes to look over a paragraph that isn’t quite working. Of course, I don’t feel any need to slavishly follow its advice. Rather, it helps make my writing purposeful. I’m aware of my complex sentences and passive voice, and I can choose to alter them or not. The App is purportedly inspired by Hemingway’s lessons in writing journalism. Since I do not need to write in a journalistic style most of the time (you’ll note that I haven’t front-loaded this post, but buried the lede) I take its advice in stride. Sometimes it’s useful to write at a Grade 7 writing level. Other times, not. I do wish that it has been around for my undergraduate English students when I was still marking their papers.
Since this app is more than a year old, I have the benefit of being able to read earlier reviews of it. Author Jerry Coyne lists great authors throughout history who fail the Hemingway app, The New Yorker notes that Hemingway himself would fail this app, and scores of other reviewers pooh-pooh the very notion of it. They seem to think that the Hemingway App implies an absolute imitation of Hemingway, as if the App has passed a Turing test. Wouldn’t Papa turn over in his grave at the very thought? The negative reviews console the part of me that loves the poetry inherent in Hemingway’s work so absent in this app. Ernest Hemingway has his own style. It’s strong and crisp and poetic in its simplicity.The Hemingway App knows nothing of poetry. Its only job, which it does well, it to identify a select range of errors. It has nothing to do with the man himself. Like most writing tools, The Hemingway App doesn’t give you the ability to take a style and own it. Most generic advice tends to flatten, to dull, to unify. Writing tools are no substitute for confidence and voice, which writers must find on their own.
The App is best viewed as a simple tool to be used by a writer capable of knowing when to ignore advice. But, it also raises some interesting questions. The App doesn’t imitate Hemingway very convincingly, but what would it be like if it did? What if it could pass the Turing test and actually help one emulate Hemingway? This is a major part of the appeal here: to imagine my writing and Hemingway’s interacting in some digital way. While the creators of this App modeled it after a writer known for his clarity, what would it be like if they had chosen someone else? A Herman Melville, an Elizabeth Gaskell, a Shakespeare, or a William Carlos Williams? What would a really good App like this look like? (If you’ve seen anything better than a simple translator, please let me know). The idea of giving authors like these any impact of contemporary writing is fascinating, and very welcome. It reminds me of how modern Italian is based, in part, on the works of Dante. It isn’t too late for us to collectively decide to model our use of language on someone equally as fantastic. What if great authors could breathe new life into humdrum prose through the use of Apps?
Until then, if we can use Hemingway as simple inspiration to become better writers, so much the better.
Image Credit for To Have and Have Not courtesy of Adam Field