Sunday, January 10, 2016

Hemingway, the App

Every now and then a new application pops up that will claim to make you a better writer, or that will offer to edit your work for you. Of course, MS Word itself offers to do some of this, with its spell checker and grammar checker, and I think we all know that the results are chequered at best.

I came across an app recently: the ‘Hemingway App.’ It claims ‘to make your writing bold and clear’. It does this by pointing out what sentences it considers hard to read or very hard to read; phrases that have simpler alternatives; the number of adverbs (of which it will specify what it considers to be a suitable number for a piece of writing of that length); and uses of the passive voice. It is called the ‘Hemingway App’ because Hemingway is so often held up as a writer whose writing is ‘bold and clear’, a paragon for all writers since. He is often cited by those whose aim is the extinction of adverbs. Once you begin to look more closely at Hemingway’s writing, of course, it becomes clear this his writing is far from always ‘bold and clear’; nor does he particularly shy away from the use of adverbs.

Any piece of software like this is just begging to be put to the test, and this can be done on their web site here: Text can be entered and subjected to scrutiny. Naturally, the first author anyone is going to subject to this analysis will be Hemingway himself. Here is the opening paragraph of For Whom the Bell Tolls:

He lay flat on the brown, pine-needled floor of the forest, his chin on his folded arms, and high overhead the wind blew in the tops of the pine trees. The mountainside sloped gently where he lay; but below it was steep and he could see the dark of the oiled road winding through the pass. There was a stream alongside the road and far down the pass he saw a mill beside the stream and the falling water of the dam, white in the summer sunlight.

The first thing the app does is identify three out of four sentences as ‘hard to read’. Erm, well … Either the software can’t count or it is not able to identify sentences very well. There are only three sentences here. Perhaps the app doesn’t know what semi-colons are. Nevertheless, it highlights the whole passage as ‘hard to read’. Hard for whom, one wonders. It identifies ‘gently’ as an adverb and advises its removal. Really? ‘The mountainside sloped where he lay’ would be an improvement? What mountainside doesn’t slope? So, remove an adverb and generate a tautology. The point is that it slopes gently here and not precipitously. The app apparently has no problem with this sentence opener: ‘There was a stream alongside the road …’ I would consider this passive, but the app doesn’t. As an editor I would change this to: ‘A stream ran alongside the road …’ So … not a great start for the app.

It rated this passage a ‘ten’ (good). The lower the rating, the higher the readability, apparently. It goes up to twenty-four. Even the lowest rating of ‘one’, however, is still only ‘good’.

Here’s a passage from a Hemingway short story:

I guess looking at it now my old man was cut out for a fat guy, one of those regular little roly fat guys you see around, but he sure never got that way, except a little toward the last, and then it wasn’t his fault, he was riding over the jumps only and he could afford to carry plenty of weight then. I remember the way he’d pull on a rubber shirt over a couple of jerseys and a big sweat shirt over that, and get me to run with him in the forenoon in the hot sun. He’d have, maybe, taken a trial trip with one of Razzo’s skins early in the morning after just getting in from Torino at four o’clock in the morning and beating it out to the stables in a cab and then with the dew all over everything and the sun just starting to get going, I’d help him pull off his boots and he’d get into a pair of sneakers and all these sweaters and we’d start out.

The app gave this a grade of twenty (poor). That it may be—we are harsh critics—but the point of including it here is to consider adverbs more closely. I have highlighted the adverbs; I see ten of them. The app identified one: roly. Which, of course, isn’t an adverb. (Is it even a word without its ‘poly’ partner?) So … the software doesn’t appear to know what an adverb is.

Finally, who could resist entering some gibberish.

Me thinks this um piece of software is crap. But it likum this. Car happy not today. Me good writer ugh.

This (apparently) is a Grade 1 (but still only ‘good’) piece of writing, with no issues at all. Now I understand what I have been doing wrong.

Some might advise caution when using, or even considering purchasing, the Hemingway App. I would never do that, of course. 

[By the way, this post rated ‘seven’. I’m not at all sure that I should be happy about that!]