The Hemingway App Grades My Novel

Some guy and his brother built “Hemingway, a new app to make your writing bold and clear.”

Well, I thought, that’s an easy blog post.

For many months I have been working on a novel about the terrifying arrogance of the tech industry, which is rapidly emerging as the preeminent center of power in American society. This industry is redefining not only communications but also commerce and labor. It is independent of and yet intertwined with the federal government. The relationship is most troubling where “big data” meets the military and intelligence agencies.

It is an industry with its own incipient ideology. Its leaders promote many dubious ideas about politics, economics, the arts and culture, science and indeed about human nature. Some of these ideas are worse than dubious — they are dangerous.

My novel examines the outcomes of this power shift. It takes on its subject in a way that can only be described as (ahem) fresh, lively, engaging and deserving of an outrageous, jealousy-inspiring advance. The novel also works on a level that my journalistic writing, for various reasons, never could.

One problem with writing a near-future comic dystopia about the tech industry is that reality keeps outpacing the imagination.

An app that makes you write like Hemingway?

Genius-as-a-service? Could I have imagined a more absurd and amusing example of the smugness, cluelessness and soullessness of the overpaid software engineers bent on “disrupting” our lives? Could the authors of this app have done anything more to demonstrate the inherent philistinism of “tech culture,” with its sad, binary Weltanschauung?

More importantly: Could I have asked for an easier way to prove the timeliness of my point while, at the same time, poaching a little advance publicity?

When I saw the Hacker News item about this new write-like-Papa app, I knew what I had to do.

I plugged my novel into the Hemingway app.

Would its algorithms detect my disdain for its existence?

Would it react with spite? Would it prepare poison-pen reviews for submission to Amazon as soon as my novel gets published?

Nope. According to Hemingway, my sample chapters were good. “Grade 8 Good.”

The Hemingway app analyzes a section of my novel.

(Forgive me for skipping the obvious joke, which the app’s grading system seems to invite.)

I’ll admit, the Hemingway app began to win me over from the moment it delivered a friendly review.

A number of literary agents have received the same 26,105-word sample as the Hemingway app. The app got back to me much faster than the agents, and with better news.

I like the app.

When I looked at what it actually does, I realized I could not be as wantonly dismissive as I had hoped.

The app flags adverbs, passive constructions, convoluted sentences and $10 words (such as Weltanschauung).

That’s what I do when I edit, whether it’s my own writing or someone else’s. This app just speeds up the process. It isn’t hubristic, merely useful.

I’ll probably keep using it, because it’s much faster and more pleasing to the eye than similar tools already built in to word processors. I would even pay $5 for a desktop version that didn’t require me to send my precious, perfect, top-secret prose over an unencrypted HTTP connection. The app’s primary author lives in North Carolina and likes team sports. I don’t know whether he’s smug, clueless or overpaid, but he built a pretty handy tool and he won’t suffice as my punching bag today.

As for the simmering question of whether an app like this one encourages formulaic writing, I’ll just say that the greater scourge is bad writing. Formulaic writing is a luxury problem. Bad writing is pandemic and rooted in illiteracy.

Morever, the app can’t force anyone to write a certain way — not yet, anyway. Writers may accept or reject Hemingway’s advice at their pleasure.

Complaining about this app would be like complaining about spell check: You’re free to carry on, but it’ll be a lonely journey.

If there are formulaic tendencies in contemporary literature (and there are), the evil is rooted in the risk-averse nature of the publishing industry and the consequent pressure to fit every story into a niche so that it can be more easily marketed. What’s worse, I ask you: An app that jokingly claims to make you write like Hemingway, or publishing house editor who coerces authors into changing endings, characters, chronology and so on until everything reads like the same hackneyed Hollywood blah-blah? Formulism is a many-faceted sin.

As keen as I am to blame billionaire tech plutocrats for the devastation of many worthwhile and wonderful things, such as the concept of full employment, they can’t be blamed for the uninspired character of so much mass-market literary fiction and nonfiction. The blame for that offense must fall to publishers, to editors, to MFA departments and to writers themselves. Blame their politics and their pretensions. Blame their narrow sense of ambition, which encompasses wealth and fame but not artistry. But don’t blame the geeks. It isn’t their fault that the titles on the new arrivals shelf at the bookstore already seem to have been composed by robots.

Enough of that rant. For once I have something positive to say. Let me get back to it.

The Hemingway app seems to take some pain out of revision and line-editing, and that is commendable, because for mortals, revision is the key to better writing. Readers and medicorce writers tend to greatly underestimate the amount of revision that goes into good writing, especially writing that feels spontaneous.

I once had the chance to see the faxed back-and-forth between one of my literary heroes, Hunter S. Thompson, and his editors at Rolling Stone. The revisions were incredibly extensive and detailed and, contrary to his self-crafted mystique as a wild literary id, Thompson incorporated many suggestions from his editors. (One of those editors, Bob Love, wrote about the experience of editing Thompson for CJR, where I was working at the time. That’s how I saw the story drafts.)

Any fan of Thompson’s knows the energy his work carries. But few appreciate the fact that the energy in that writing was literally transferred from his body onto the page. The mechanism of transference was revision.

In case I haven’t been clear enough: I expected to have deep problems with this app, both philosophical and practical, but as it turns out, I don’t and it’s fine.

If every blogger ran his her or stuff through the Hemingway machine before hitting the “publish” button, the internet would hurt my brain less.

The app did glitch out a couple of times, giving me this message:

"Not enough text," it says

No shit, Sherlock — I wanted to have this book done months ago.