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The Hemingway Editor/App

www.hemingwayapp.com

“Hemingway makes your writing bold and clear” (from the official webpage of The Hemingway Editor).
 
“The Hemingway App would have ruined the books by my favorite authors. If you listened to everything that Hemingway App told you, it might ruin your writing, too” (Dan Kopf).
The Hemingway Editor (aka The Hemingway App) is a free online tool that checks readability of one’s writing and corrects the style. It can help writers who suffer from wordiness, weak rhetoric and over-complicated vocabulary.
 
Uncritical use may reduce one’s prose to over-simplified and choppy sentences that express absolutist claims.

Description

The Hemingway Editor is an ease-of-readability-checker that promises to help writers craft “simple” and “bold” prose. The “spellchecker for style” relies on the Automated Readability Index (ARI) algorithm to determine how easy it is to read and understand the input text. The ARI uses U.S. “Grade Levels” of reading comprehension for comparison. The index is like a measuring tape for the length of one’s words and sentences: the smaller the measurements, the better the writing. Long words and sentences render text “hard” (or “very hard”) to read. 
 
The editor also scans the writer’s text for adverbs ending with “-ly” (unnecessary, they weaken the verbs), qualifiers (which suggest lack of confidence), complex words (difficult to read), and passive voice phrases (abstract, they weigh down writing). To learn more about the principles behind the tool’s functions, visit the app’s Help page.
 
In spite of its narrow focus on measurable (some might say visible) simplicity, and of its prescriptive features, the Hemingway can be used by both mature and novice/student writers to practice editing in a self-reflective way. It can be particularly helpful for “wordy” writers who are in the habit of producing weak, unconvincing prose with many qualifiers and lengthy sentences (For possible caveats, see the section Drawbacks & Malfunctions.)
 
 

(Mis)Use in Writing

Use The Hemingway Editor to probe the linguistic and stylistic expectations of the discipline or genre you write in. Academic writing is notorious for its use of convoluted prose. Dated discourse expectations can reinforce bad habits: in academia, we often write in an unnecessary complicated way because we think that is the convention (Johnson). Here, The Hemingway Editor, like The Writer’s Diet, can help writers notice the tangles of jargon and wasteful syntax that conceal and suffocate their ideas.
 
Explore what would happen if you tried to break the conventions of your discipline in order to make your writing more reader-friendly. Johnson subjects different types of text to his experiments with the app: these include an essay from The New Yorker magazine, an academic article from Tech Comm Journal, and a piece of technical documentation from an Android Developer doc. Others (e.g., Kopf) have “hemingwayed” their writing, and then compared the revised version with the original. These examples can help you think about what you might do to make your writing more readable and, importantly, what your writing might lose if you do simplify it.
 
 
For even more examples visit Experiments.

In the Classroom

Tell your students to use the app as a reflective tool to learn more about writing.
 
  • Use it to explore quirks, strengths, and weaknesses of personal writing styles, as well as to question the stylistic conventions of genres and disciplines
  • Test various writing samples, and have students engage in discussions about target audience, text types, readability scores, and other criteria determining one’s understanding of what qualifies as an easy- or difficult-to-read text 
  • The tool’s obsession with eliminating adverbs and simplifying verbs provides a great prompt for students to address the roles of different parts of speech
  • The use of The Hemingway Editor may raise questions about stylistic and aesthetic qualities of text, including rhythm, especially in literary prose
 
Use the app to teach clarity and concision in writing: how to construct easy-to-read sentences without being wordy. The editor claims to help one become a “bold,” convincing writer; a great aim for hesitant academic writing novices. Yet the “be bold and simple” instruction should come with some warnings (see the next section).
 
 
To view more detailed suggestions for classroom activities, visit Exercises

Drawbacks & Malfunctions

 There are some weaknesses in how The Hemingway Editor “thinks” about readability, style, and rhetoric in writing.

 
Readability formula
Sam Williams who “deconstructed” the coding behind the app, explains the ARI formula:
 
“…your score is 4.71 [multiplied by] average word length [plus] 0.5 [multiplied by] average sentence length [minus] 21.43. That’s it. That is how Hemingway grades each of your sentences.”
 
But writing and reading are not mathematics. As Stockmeyer remarks in his piece on MS Word’s readability feature, “no mathematical formula can truly measure understanding.” Simple and short is not necessarily good or easy-to-read. Just using “shorter words and sentences can result in a text that is more difficult, not less,” notes Stockmeyer. Because the readability formulas are based on word count rather than word order or their meaning, scrambling the words in a sentence to create nonsense will not change the readability score. This program has no semantic understanding of text and is unable to judge whether one’s so-called simple writing is coherent and cohesive. Besides, novice writers may not always be able to perceive the subtle differences that separate simple from simplistic.
 
See Experiments for samples that have an ostensibly easy readability.
 
 
Writing style
Conversely, more complex prose with lengthy sentences and higher readability grades is not necessarily a bad thing. Because the algorithmic Hemingway embodies a very narrow view of what is good prose (Benzie & Harper), it is unable to appreciate the stylistic and lexical versatility, fluency and elegance of richer writing, as demonstrated, for example, by the essayist style. Variation in sentence length helps control the rhythm and dynamic of writing, and longer sentences, which allow for more transitions between ideas, help establish a better overall flow (Johnson).
 
Like Grammarly or MS Word’s spelling and grammar checker, the Hemingway imposes standardizing ideas of syntax and vocabulary. It “sort of levels everyone down to one kind of style,” says one professor in comparative humanities (quoted by Tina Nazerian). It threatens to take away the writer’s unique voice, and “[i]f we all wrote like Hemingway App tells us to, we’d all sound awfully similar, and awfully dull” (Esposito). While the kind of style endorsed by the app (i.e., strings of simple sentences) may work well for a news agency, its monotony may send the reader of your writing to sleep.
 
 
Disciplinary differences
The Hemingway Editor may work well for news and web writing, but it does not understand the requirements of other genres of writing. Some disciplines that deal with abstract concepts (e.g., philosophy) may resist simplification of thought and language. Other disciplines (say, medicine, law, or engineering) rely on complex explanations often involving jargon and polysyllabic terminology. Like The Writer’s Diet, the Hemingway is blind to disciplinary differences and texts targeted at specialist audiences. Anything that does not fit a generic idea of good writing is judged as poor by its readability standard.
 
 
Pedagogy
Do not leave your students at the mercy of The Hemingway App. By blindly follow the tool’s suggestions, they may end up producing not only oversimplified and choppy writing but also absolutist claims (Johnson).
 
Instead, engage your learners in a discussion about what the tool does, and how it is guided by a specific type of logic. The app’s confidence may seem authoritative to your students, who may not recognize that its advice (e.g., “Be bold. Don’t hedge.”) should be taken with caution and considered in context. Unsophisticated users may get the impression that good writing is bold, makes all claims and statements confidently, and avoids the use of qualifiers” (Benzie & Harper), and so may feel encouraged to produce absolutist rhetoric.
 
The immediate feedback given by the editor can motivate writers to do on-the-spot editing. But it can also tempt novice writers to try to eliminate any highlights (the potentially problematic parts of their writing) in an effort to please the tool (Brock observed this phenomenon already in 1990). The insecure writer may “rely too much on the app and assume that a clean document is perfect” (Sakib).

Ethical Issues

Data Privacy
The Hemingway App’s terms of service online cannot be found on their website, so it is impossible to evaluate their data security and content policies. The user’s input text in the online version cannot be saved, so it would not be collected; however, the tool could still be saving metrics behind the scenes and sending those back to base.
 

Experiments

Browse through Experiments to see how The Hemingway Editor evaluates different types of writing, from popular publications and novels to Donald Trump’s tweets.

Reading Room

Since The Hemingway Editor is mainly used by web writers and other professionals, there isn’t much scholarly research available on the use of the tool in teaching tertiary writing. However, insightful in-depth reviews of, and experiments with, the app can be occasionally found in online magazines and blogs – those too we have included in the reading list below.

 

Alexander, J. (2015) What’s Everyone Got Against Adverbs? Pairings. https://austindetails.me/2015/01/17/adverbs/
 
Benzie, H. J., & Harper, R. (2019) Developing student writing in higher education: digital third-party products in distributed learning environments. Teaching in Higher Education, 1-15. https://doi.org/10.1080/13562517.2019.1590327
 
Brock, M. N. (1990) Can the computer tutor? An analysis of a disk-based text analyzer. System 18(3), 351-359. https://doi.org/10.1016/0346-251X(90)90008-S
 
Crouch, I. (2014) Hemingway Takes the Hemingway Test. The New Yorker (13th February). https://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/hemingway-takes-the-hemingway-test
 
Esposito, S. (2014) Do we really need Hemingway App? SF Gate (8th April). https://www.sfgate.com/opinion/openforum/article/Do-we-really-need-Hemingway-App-5387151.php
 
Hodges, T.S. & Hani M. (2017) Focus on Technology: Digitizing Students’ Writing With Online Tools. Childhood Education 93(1), 93-95. https://doi.org/10.1080/00094056.2017.1275255
 
Johnson, T. (2017) Why simple language isn’t so simple: the struggle to create plain language in documentation. I’d rather be writing (27th July). https://idratherbewriting.com/2017/07/27/why-simple-language-isnt-so-simple/#hardtoread
 
Kopf, D. (2017) Don’t like the way you write? An artificial intelligence app promises to polish your prose, Quartz (10th March). https://qz.com/922659/i-wanted-to-be-a-better-writer-so-i-asked-an-artificial-intelligence-app-to-help/
 
Nazerian, T. (2017) Has Strunk and White Struck Out of Writing Instruction? Ed Surge (26th October). https://www.edsurge.com/news/2017-10-25-has-strunk-and-white-struck-out-of-writing-instruction
 
Sakib, M. (2018) Edit Your Writing With the Hemingway App. TechMasi (2nd August). https://techmasi.com/hemingway-app-review/
 
Silvis, R. (2016) A farewell to adverbs: why computers will never write novels. The Chronicle of Higher Education (April 15), B18-19.
 
Stockmeyer, N. O. (2009) Using Microsoft Word’s Readability Program. Michigan Bar Journal 88, 46-47. https://ssrn.com/abstract=1210962
 
Weiner, S. B. (2014) Free help for wordy writers! Investment Writing (4th November). https://www.investmentwriting.com/2014/11/free-app-improves-writing/
 
Williams, S. (2017) Deconstructing the Hemingway App. freeCodeCamp.org (4th December). https://medium.freecodecamp.org/https-medium-com-samwcoding-deconstructing-the-hemingway-app-8098e22d878d

Technical Specs

Title
The Hemingway Editor (aka The Hemingway App)*
Website
Type of help offered
Gives feedback on text’s clarity, concision and readability; suggests corrections
Platform
Online; desktop (Windows/Mac OSX)
Cost
Free online; USD 19.99 for desktop version (more functionality)
Function
Both developmental and corrective; both descriptive and prescriptive
Method
Automated Readability Index algorithm; pattern recognition algorithms
User interface
Friendly, simple and colourful, with Write and Edit modes. Potential issues in text highlighted
Related sources
Browser plug-ins
Currently none
Integrations
WordPress; Medium (from the Desktop App)
First released
2013
Developers
Adam Long and Ben Long
Support Service
  * Disclaimer: This website and its resources were created in the first half of 2019, based on the most recent broadly available versions of each tool at the time. Technology changes too rapidly for us to capture the details of each new version. Here we address more lasting issues: the overall accuracy of algorithm-based corrections vs a human mind; the invisible ideological and linguistic influence exerted by our writing tools on our minds; the pedagogical and ethical implications of using each tool for (teaching) writing.