It’s one thing to write something, another thing to draft something memorable and eloquent. Quite obviously this is what separates the legends from those of us who write endless drivel. But is good writing something that’s programmable? Two brothers seem to think so. Or at least want the world to think they think so.
The new web app Hemingway is now making the rounds on the Web-o-sphere. And the idea, from what I gather, is to write like Hemingway. As the creators explained it to me, “Hemingway’s premise is to help us achieve clear writing. It’s inspired by what the real Hemingway learned at the Kansas City Star: use short, declarative sentences.”
Hemingway’s website allows users to copy and paste excerpts into a text editor. Then the app’s algorithm analyzes the sample for various issues. It scrutinizes the difficulty of the sentences formed, how many adverbs used, the simplicity of the word choices, and the times the passive voice has been used.
I contacted the two founders, Adam and Ben Long, and asked if they would have a quick chat with me. Adam swift response was, “Since Hemingway is an app for writing, how about we handle the answers through email?” A great introduction to the world of this app and the mindset of its creators, I suppose.
According to Adam, this is just a fun side project the two crafted sometime ago. He works as a product manager at a startup in North Carolina; his brother is a copywriter in New York. Both jobs entail frequent writing, and as well as clear and concise output.
“In our writing, we saw a common mistake: Sentences easily grow to the point that they became difficult to understand,” Adam wrote. So the two co-created this app, predominately via Google Hangouts. Adam developed and designed the software end, and Ben attempted to figure out what writing ingredients the app should specifically target.
While there’s something to be said for a second set of eyes that looks at content and structure, honestly I am somewhat dubious of the concept. This sort of app buys into the idea that there can be an overarching, universal structure and plan for creative output. What is writing if not a chance to express yourself, be it convoluted or concise? Would people like David Foster Wallace concur? (Of course, DFW has a few of his own web apps, so maybe the question is moot.)
The Long brothers, obviously, have a different view. Hemingway isn’t just about programming good writing, but about ensuring there is equal emphasis on the ease of the reading as there is to the grammaticality of the piece.
“When one writes all day, especially under deadlines, your brain focuses on getting it done instead of getting it right,” Adam wrote. He goes on to further explain: “Our suggestions aren’t unbreakable rules you must follow. They’re designed to show you things in your writing you may have missed and might consider changing.” So we have an app the existence of which is to remind one about the importance of presentation and style, but then to actually change that style.
But herein lies the problem: Yes, Hemingway’s style was short and concise, but that was his style. What made it good wasn’t merely the fact that it was short, sweet, and easily consumable, but that he owned it; Hemingway’s prose stylings were original and captivating. If you have an app that reminds people to be clear, that’s fine. But to say that style is transitive and can be corrected through technology is defeating the point. Not to mention, the New Yorker put some of Hemingway’s prose into the editor and, what do you know, it graded his style as “merely OK.”
Despite this, the Longs say their creation has been met with some high praise from users. Many people have related their stories to them about the app. For example, one person was learning English as a second language and used the app to check over his resume.
Right now it’s available as a free web app, so feel free to give it a whirl. The two co-founders are working on a desktop version that will go for $5. Will people shell out the bucks? Adam says they’ve received some real interest.
Enough for them to quit their day jobs? Well that’s unforeseen. But at least we can assume the two have the writerly skills to hold down a day job. Or, at the least, they could probably get a gig at the Kansas City Star.
[Illustration by Hallie Bateman]