I am disappointed to learn that there exists an app that appropriates the name of one of the great American authors and yokes it to a machine text editor which will, invariably, drive its victims to write more like schoolchildren than the person for which it’s named. I am further disappointed to learn that this app is being promoted as a useful tool for new writers; very little could be further from the truth. So, let’s talk about it. For the purposes of this article, I will refer to the Hemingway editing app as simply “the HEA”, to spare the rightful bearer of the name some post-mortem indignity.
I want to start by pointing out that computer editors in general – besides basic spellcheck – do not make for very good writing tools, as you are not writing for a computer, but for human beings. Computers do not get bored, do not want to feel excitement, do not have emotions, and your writing cannot move them. All they can do is take a prescribed set of rules and attempt to apply them to your writing – and even then, they make mistakes often. Even spellcheck is limited in its ability, as it can only correct for the words it has in its vocabulary; archaic or unusual words will often be caught by the spellcheck and marked for correction (or worse, autocorrected), even though they are perfectly valid terms.
This limitation of computers is compounded by the fact that grammar and syntax is something that is designed to make sense to human readers. A computer cannot tell you whether a sentence actually makes sense and conveys information, it can only tell you whether it thinks a word is a verb or a noun and whether those appear to be in the right place. Likewise, sentences which are grammatically correct in a technical sense but have unclear meanings will entirely escape the notice of computer editors. In these ways and more, a computer editor can actually introduce more errors into your writing than it corrects. The reason for this is that writing errors are not like mathematical or coding errors. A mathematical error is one where the logical flow is disrupted; a writing error is one where the meaning and feeling of the author is not properly conveyed to the reader. Put very simply: Computer editors are not people, and your writing is intended for consumption by people.
Regarding the HEA in particular, it seems to me to be a particularly good example of these limitations – and by extension, a very poor editor. Mechanically, the HEA appears to concern itself with essentially four factors: adverbs, passive voice, and the length of both phrases and sentences. The program seems to operate in essentially the same way as spellcheck: It recognizes the “errors”, highlights them, and suggests the author make corrections. The “special” characteristics of the HEA appear to be the error aggregator on the side and the “scoring” system above it. We will get to these, after we address its baseline mechanics in more detail.
Contrary to what your English teacher may have told you, adverbs and passive voice are valid tools for constructing sentences in English. I do not know when or where the crusade against them came from. They are one of those “rules” that has been pushed by hard-nosed but little-accomplished English professors, but which was never really a rule in the first place – similar to the taboo against ending sentences with prepositions. (Regarding this, perhaps you read the second sentence in this paragraph and thought “no! It must be ‘from when or where the crusade against them came’!” If you did, ask yourself how the explicit and implicit meanings of both variations differ, and why it might be appropriate to use the “wrong” one.) HEA’s creators present the following argument against adverbs:
Adverbs are like verbs’ kryptonite (for non-nerds, they weaken them.) Instead of these verbal atrocities, switch over to a more powerful verb. For instance, instead of saying that someone is “walking slowly” you can say they “tip-toed” or they “crept.” That way, your writing is more vivid.
To this, I respond: The idea that vividity is a function of whether you are modifying verbs or not is foolish. Yes, “crept” is a more evocative verb than the verb “walking” modified by the adverb “slowly”, but “timidly crept” is yet denser and more evocative still. Frankly, stop being an ass about adverbs.
Against passive voice, they advocate “bolder” active voice:
When it comes to writing, confidence is key. AND YOU DON’T GET IT FROM WRITING IN ALL CAPS. Instead, removing passive voice can give your writing James Bond levels of swagger. Ensure that the subject of your sentence is doing the action, not being acted upon. For instance, “John threw a ball” is better than “the ball was thrown by John.” The first one has classic elegance; the second sounds like a Jeopardy clue.
I agree, active voice is better – for a James Bond novel. What about works exploring other emotions, other tones and themes? What about scenes intended to convey literally anything other than this?
Since the correction of adverbs and the passive voice as “errors” is itself an error, much of the feedback given by the HEA is simple nonsense from the start. It is of course possible for someone to misuse an adverb or the passive voice, but the HEA cannot tell you whether you have committed this error or not. All it can do is tell you whether you have used an adverb or the passive voice – which is not especially useful information if no error has been made.
The other function the HEA is to “correct” for overlong sentences or phrases, which it deems “hard to read”. Yet, this is trouble: A machine editor cannot possibly tell us what is and isn’t hard to read, as machine editors do not actually read. What the HEA is actually doing instead is recognizing certain sentences and phrases as being too long and/or complex, and dubbing those “hard to read”. This little cheat does not actually work, however, as the readability of a sentence is not very strongly correlated to its length or complexity – nor is readability of a given passage uniform across different readers. Advanced readers will have no difficulty with a lengthy compound sentence that may confound beginner readers – that this is true is self-evident by the very fact that books exist at different levels for readers of different skill. One does not introduce a toddler to reading starting with Tolstoy, and one does not seek to entertain a native-speaking adult of normal capacity with The Poky Little Puppy, either. It is true that “brevity is the soul of wit”, but brevity by itself as an absolute metric used to determine the goodness of a piece writing does not actually promote wit. It promotes choppy, boring structure that will have the reader wondering how the author passed grade school English.
Compounding these worse-than-meaningless metrics is the HEA’s scoring system, which rates a piece of writing on a scale that is intended to correlate to the breadth of audience which can read and make sense of it. This is done by marking each piece of writing with a “grade” score, with a low grade being considered better than a high grade. The idea is that if a 5th grader can understand your writing, it is better than if only a post-graduate can. The error here (as well the irony) should already be obvious. Not only does this concept hamstring those writers who are targeting a more mature audience that reads at a higher level, but it fails to acknowledge the simple fact that machines cannot differentiate between simple but bad writing and simple but good writing. Since we are not all Lloyd Alexander (nor are we all writing for his audience), this sort of feedback is just trash.
Hopefully, my words are convincing. More convincing still, I think, would be proof that HEA will make you write more like a 1st grader than Ernest Hemingway. Fortunately, I have that. Here we have the words of Ernest Hemingway himself, as judged by the HEA:
Not readable enough, Ernest! Those long sentences are holding you back from your full potential. Let’s try another passage:
So hard to read. So many words.
OK, so a computer can’t recognize mastery when it sees it. Fine. Surely it will give us some valuable assistance with our very first try at a zombie apocalypse novel, right?
Ummm… How about a Harry Potter fanfiction that was actually written by a teenage girl and is widely regarded as one of the worst pieces of literature ever created?
HOW ABOUT THE POKY LITTLE PUPPY!?!?!?!?
In sum, for the sake of your own writing, please DO NOT use the Hemingway Editing App. It will not make you write like Ernest Hemingway. It will make you write like shit.