Hemingway Editor: App Review
A few weeks ago, a colleague of mine told me about this snazzy web tool called Hemingway.
I know. I’m often late to the party when it comes to new apps and technology…As a point of reference, I think I was one of the last stalwarts clinging to MySpace after Facebook had come through like Hurricane Katrina and taken the world by social media storm; I watched my ‘Top Friends’ dwindle until it was just Tom and I.
I’ll admit, the rapid proliferation of technology scares me a little. Part of the problem is that I have trouble keeping up, the other part is that a lot of the new innovations just don’t do it for me.
At least I’m not alone. Emma Stone, Kristen Stewart, Jennifer Lawrence, Scarlett Johansen, they all shun social media and they seem to be doing alright for themselves (it’s a shame the comparisons end there).
“But you’re in the digital marketing business, aren’t you?” One of my friends argues over drinks after I’ve made this point, barely raising his eyes from his phone: from the hyperactive ADD colour of Candy Crush, the faux-intellectualism of Words with Friends or the momentary excitement of Snapchat…it’s hard to tell which is consuming him at this exact moment.
Clearly I have great friends. After the brief temptation to text him my response passes, I choose to shrug it off, laugh jovially and sip my drink. Before long I’m once again mulling over the pros and cons of Hemingway.
Taking the (bull) fight to Hemingway
Named after the famously economical author Ernest Hemingway, this web tool and accompanying app is designed to sharpen up your prose to produce writing of clarity and cleanness. The programme highlights things like overly complicated words and sentences, use of the passive voice and adverbs.
Of course, naming your app after one of the world’s most revered authors, certainly of the last century, leads to unenviable comparisons.
The New Yorker, among others, leapt at the opportunity to test Hemingway with Hemingway himself, Inception-style. They input three passages into the app. The first came out OK, the second was deemed good and the third, taken from Hemingway’s reputable The Sun Also Rises, was bad.
To change it up a little, I decided to choose a passage from Jorge Luis Borges, my favourite author and who, like Hemingway, was known for his crisp, economic writing style.
To vindicate objectivity, I picked up my Borges collection of fictions, opened a page at random and dotted my finger down on a selected paragraph. This is what fate chose:
At dawn, the distance bristled with pyramids and towers. I dreamed, unbearably, of a small and orderly labyrinth at whose center lay a well; my hands could almost touch it, my eyes see it, but so bewildering and entangled were the turns that I knew I would die before I reached it… When I disentangled myself at last from that nightmare, I found that my hands were bound behind my back and I was lying in an oblong stone niche no bigger than a common grave, scraped into the caustic slope of a mountain. The sides of the cavity were humid, and had been polished as much by time as by human hands. In my chest I felt a painful throbbing, and I burned with thirst. I raised my head and cried out weakly.
This passage scored a readability rating of 9: Good. As you can see, Hemingway picked up two sentences that were ‘very hard to read’ (in blue), two adverbs (green) and one use of the passive voice (red).
The trouble with Hemingway is that it doesn’t discriminate. Now normally I’d applaud – our species has been trying to overcome this fallibility since the beginning of time – but in this instance it’s not necessarily the case.
Basically, this automaton lacks the ability to discern which highlighted points to change. It treats all adverbs equally, all passive voice the same and so on. But this isn’t true semantically; not all adverbs, long sentences or passive phrases were created equal.
Take the adverb ‘unbearably’ in the excerpt. Although Hemingway is right in saying it could be removed and the sentence would still make sense, doing so would lose the very lyricism and poetic nature of Borges’ writing, rendering it plain and dull.
For now I’m far from convinced…
From a Content Marketing Perspective
Analysing Hemingway from a content marketing perspective is much more effective. After all, Hemingway’s creators Adam and Ben Long, designed the programme to help their copywriting: Adam works in marketing, Ben is a copywriter.
With Hemingway, the Long brothers wanted to help fellow digital marketers write copy even a ten year old could read.
And Hemingway exhibits these beneficial qualities by highlighting lazy, lethargic sentences, flowery prose and adverbs, making you more aware of the style of writing best suited to selling an e-commerce product or service.
Articles like that of Marketing Director Kenneth Hain preach similar sentiments about the overuse of adverbs in content marketing. And I tend to agree. The lexicon of our language, spoken and written, is full of ‘literally’ all manner of adverbs.
The last thing left to do was to input one of my own pieces of copywriting. This was the part I’d been dreading most. I don’t mind critiquing other people but to have my own writing scrutinised by an algorithm is another matter. Nevertheless, I took the plunge, choosing three random paragraphs from a generic category page I’d written.
A dining set is an essential part of any backyard. It’ll be your focal point, your centrepiece, your conversation starter, which is why it’s key to consider what type you’re looking for.
You want your dining setting to look and feel solid. After all, the dining set you choose will probably have to battle the elements over the years and take a bit of a battering. But at the same time, you want it to look elegant and feel great too. The aim is to strike this balance, because if you find it, you’ll never dine anywhere else.
A strong, wooden dining set like the one shown above can provide the tone for your entire backyard. Another great option is a rattan dining set, since rattan/wicker is renowned for its long-lasting, attractive and weatherproof features, which make it a great addition to any outdoor living space.
What Hemingway picked up was helpful. It turns out my sentences are hard-to-read (I knew I should’ve stayed in hospitality) but not riddled with adverbs or passive voice. I was even deemed ‘6: good’ on the overall score system.
Hemingway revealed minor edits to me, such as the useless ‘probably’ in paragraph 2 that I later removed. Furthermore, I found myself reworking the highlighted, hard-to-read sentences into more direct, punchier copy. In fact, I’d say every change I made resulted in better copy.
The Ethics around Hemingway
What worries me most about Hemingway is the potential for homogeneity. Should we really strive to create copy that a ten-year-old can read? Should we be pandering to such a low common denominator (no offence to all the 10-year-old geniuses out there like Maths whiz Esther Okade)?
I understand the goal of a copywriter is to create content accessible to as many people as possible. But surely a line must be drawn in the sand; surely there must be a symbiotic balance between style and substance; surely the bar must be set at a height that has the potential to, at least occasionally, challenge and confound us.
Yet despite all these salient points, my main gripe, my actual issue with the programme is far more superficial: its name. By calling itself Hemingway, the app and desktop editor is immediately making its own comparisons to the revered author, forcing us to speak of the app and the author in the same breath, planting itself insidiously in that illustrious tier.
If it were just called something like Copywrite Cleaner or, hell, pretty much anything that resembled the app’s functionality more accurately, I’d be less scrupulous.
The Final Verdict
It’s easy to lambast new apps and programmes that, these days, seem to be coming out more readily than a Republican senator at a gay club, or my hair follicles. But Hemingway does have merit, especially in the world of content marketing.
From the excerpt above, Hemingway made me aware of my complacency and forced me to tighten up sentences that were, as it said, hard to read. It also brought to light a redundant adverb, which I subsequently discarded into the ether of jargon.
What Hemingway also does with conviction is lead us towards more intricate, macro questions, such as whether we’ve gone a bit far in our quest for clean copy, who we should picture in our heads when we write this stuff and how its algorithm actually works?
But my main question is: if Hemingway is effective in producing crisp, SEO-friendly prose that has us all salivating like Pavlov’s dogs and hitting the Buy Now button quicker than if it read Find Jesus, how long will it be until we’re all redundant, until an app can spit out category content and product descriptions at will?
What will this mean for us, fellow content marketers and copywriters? Perhaps it means we’re all hyper-accelerated Willy Loman’s, trudging home with battered laptops each night and waiting for the penny to drop…only to realize that the times aren’t changing but have in fact long since changed.
It’s a scary thought…which we’ll have to discuss another time. Turns out I’m over the word count already. If only there were an app to help with this…