Hemingway flunks the Hemingway test

Published August 17, 2020, 3:39 AM

by AA Patawaran

STANDOFF Hemingway and the author goes face-to-face, art by Des Trudo

I stumbled upon the Hemingway app by accident, researching for something else.

Named after you know whom, the Hemingway Editor is a writing and editing tool, whose most interesting feature assesses the readability of your text in a pinch. It was designed to judge your every sentence against the touchstones of Ernest Hemingway’s writing, based on his highly acclaimed works and maybe a couple of notes he wrote to himself, such as “You can phrase things clearer and better” and “You can remove words which are unnecessary and tighten up your prose,” according The New Yorker’s Ian Crouch.

The app is simple. You may choose to either type straight into it or, as I did, paste text into it and automatically it provides you with its assessment by highlighting sentences or passages in colors corresponding to their weaknesses.

Sentences with adverbs or qualifiers, unnecessary or not, are highlighted in blue.

Words and phrases that have simpler alternatives are highlighted in purple.

Passive constructions (the much-maligned passive voice) are highlighted in green.

EARNEST Hemingway working on his book For Whom the Bell Tolls at the Sun Valley Lodge, Idaho, in December 1939

Complex sentences or sentences that are hard to read, maybe too wordy, maybe unwieldy with too many dependent clauses, maybe too long, are highlighted in yellow.

And then there is the red highlight, which means the sentence or the passage is—using the Hemingway app’s own harsh wording—“very hard to read.”

We know from high school literature how Hemingway earned his place in the league of immortal writers. His novels and short stories, from The Old Man and the Sea to For Whom the Bell Tolls, were told in mostly simple sentences, short, succinct, and even image-driven. His prose was unadorned, stripped to bare essentials, and revolutionary in those times of ornately descriptive writing. Basic to the quality of his works were boldness and clarity.

A writer’s style should be direct and personal…and his words simple and vigorous.

Ernest Hemingway

In pursuit of these basic writing attributes, the brothers Adam and Ben Long created the app five years ago. Theirs was a perfect combination. Ben, now 30, was a marketer in North Carolina while Ben, now 27, was a copywriter in New York when they developed the app, having realized that it would take more than self-editing to make sentences bolder and clearer, like Hemingway’s.

I haven’t tried the app in writing mode, which you can access by clicking the “Write” tab on the sidebar. This mode is like a blank sheet, without all the colors and stats to leave you write away without the distraction of the edits. Formatting is easy with buttons for bold, italics, headings, bullets, pullouts, even margins. When done, switch back to the “Edit” tab and pretend Hemingway himself is checking over your work.

FINE PRINT A screenshot of the Hemingway test showing an “ok” score, photo by Franklin Tower

Also, the Hemingway Editor grades your work. The lower the grade, the better, because the grading, based on the Automated Readability Index, “a reliable algorithm used since the days of the electronic typewriters,” judges how your work may be understood by the average reader. According to the developers, “Studies have shown the average American reads at a 10th-grade level, so Grade 10 is a good target,” although Grade 15 is still “OK.”

I am currently enrolled in a Creative Writing course at Wesleyan University via Coursera and it was while researching for one of my writing exercises for the class that I stumbled upon the Hemingway Editor. The task was to write in a few hundred words a story limited to what my character could perceive through her five senses in a 10-second moment—no interior monologue allowed, no recollections, no thoughts about the future.

Here is an excerpt of the story I wrote.

A gust of wind makes her look up from her phone, in which she has posted a selfie of the moment, of herself in the park. The flurry ruffles her hair and swings through the trees around her, shaking off dead leaves. In reaction, birds tear out of the treetops, taking to the air in a flutter of wings toward the sky the color of bruises.

So I decided to give Hemingway a try. I pasted my work into the app, where it yielded a readability level of Grade 6, “Good,” with the following comments— “0 adverbs, well done; 0 use of passive voice, nice work; 0 phrases have simpler alternatives; 0 of 4 sentences is very hard to read; 0 of 4 sentences are very hard to read.”

For good measure, I extracted this passage from Hemingway’s memoir A Moveable Feast.

The tank wagons were painted brown and saffron color and in the moonlight when they worked the rue Cardinal Lemoine their wheeled, horse-drawn cylinders looked like Braque paintings.

The comments: “0 adverbs, well done; 1 use of passive voice, cut to 0 or fewer; 0 phrases have simpler alternatives; 0 of 1 sentence is very hard to read; 1 of 1 sentence is very hard to read.”

The score: Post-Graduate, “Poor. Aim for 14.”