Writing Apps on Writing

Critiques of the writing app Hemingway have been making the rounds. Hemingway (the app, not the writer – though I’m not sure I would trust his prescriptions on writing, either, while we’re at it) has discriminating taste – it doesn’t like adverbs, passive voice, or anything that it opaquely deems “very hard to read.” The self-described aim of Hemingway is making writing “bold and clear,” hence the name, and this motive and the mechanisms (color-coded highlighting system) with which the app sees it through, aren’t inherently bad – better bold and clear than timorous and muddy, right?

I’m neither a linguist nor a marketer, so my critique of Hemingway is going to be more on the cultural side. Here’s Hemingway’s feedback on my paragraph above:

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The irony of the “very” in the app’s “very hard to read” category aside (I’ll get back to it later), Hemingway isn’t a fan. It isn’t even a fan of its namesake, as Mark Liberman noted in his entry for Language Log. There’s lots of good writing that won’t make it through the Hemingway gauntlet, but I think that’s neither here nor there. What’s notable about Hemingway is how it enforces more than 50 years of overbearing conventional wisdom about what “good writing” even is.

In 1959, Cornell professor William Strunk, Jr. and writer E.B. White’s The Elements of Style was published, and over the ensuing 50 years it became the grammar bible for millions of postsecondary students. That’s too bad, since The Elements of Style is full of terrible advice, terrible advice that lives on in those annoying jagged red lines in Word, the platitudes of SEO experts, and in apps such as Hemingway.

If you’ve not read it (lucky!) Strunk and White doled out expert maxims such as:

  • “Be clear”
  • “Do not explain too much”
  • “Omit needless words”

These suggestions run the gamut from vapid to tautological to useless, as linguist Geoffrey Pullum noted in his evisceration of The Elements of Style on the tome’s 50th anniversary. They’re jargon, really, and the irony was lost on both Strunk and White, who similarly violated their own rules at every turn. Hemingway’s “very hard to read” prescription seems insignificant as a violation of its edicts, but it’s as good an illustration as any of how opinions about what constitutes “good” (or “bold and clear”) writing are projected from weak grounds.

Hemingway is an heir to a long line of nag-apps, from Word to more subtle offenders like the wave of “distraction-free” writing tools that through their spartaness softly scold writers for exploring alternative methodologies (Dr. Drang has a great piece on why those apps don’t work for him). A nag-app doesn’t have to concern itself primarily or exclusively with writing, but writing is the art that yields itself most easily to e-nagging, since everyone consider herself an expert on the matter.

The comments to Liberman’s piece contain a counterargument to the effect that Hemingway is for technical writers and marketers. Perhaps it is, but it seems to cast a wider, much more broadly prescriptivist net than that. The opacity of the terms “bold and clear” rival the seldom-questioned, but eminently fungible, word that Google has so redefined: “relevant” (what’s “relevant”? That depends on…everything). In this respect, one can entertain the idea that Hemingway has roots not only in the over-opinionated Elements of Style but in commercial writing, a field that really has little to do with much that it good or literary about writing.

Google apparently values how-to’s, varying lengths, and keywords (tho increasingly less so). Writers “clean up” their copy so that they don’t risk running afoul of Google’s algorithms – it’s a similar effect to being told by your clueless 1st-year English professor that “is” is passive voice, and being forced to change it to something “more active.” In both cases, the rightness of the prescription isn’t questioned, for some reason – its roots in some very specific cultural context (postwar, hypermasculine America for Strunk & White; marketing, ad sales, and machine learning for Google) are forgotten and it becomes something akin to dogma. And dogma helps no one.

I suppose it’s this presumptive universality that gets me about Hemingway. It also has the air, as Kevin Nguyen points out, of a coding text editor trying to force its prescriptions onto all writing. Such a phenomenon isn’t surprising, given the cultural ascendancy and increasing prestige of programming (the absolute extreme example of this rise is Kentucky’s decision to let Java and C++ count toward foreign language requirements in schools). It’ll pass, and there may be a whole new wave of writing tools that aren’t always looking over their shoulders at computer science. Until then, writers have better (but more contradictory) sources of advice.

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