“Most technical writing is awful,” says Adam Long, who works in marketing. “Ever read the full manual for a new gadget, or even for your car? Me neither–they’re verbose, confusing, and use jargon the rest of us don’t know.” He says that lawyers are also chronically poor wordsmiths. “There’s a good reason why it takes you three years to learn how to screw up the English language,” he says. Adam and his brother Ben Long have created the Hemingway app to counter all of the horrendous prose used across all areas of business writing. It may not turn you into a great storyteller, but, drawing inspiration from Hemingway’s lean style, it does promise to strip the extraneous, the weak, and the complicated from your writing.
The Hemingway app uses an algorithm to flag problems in your prose. Overly long sentences show up yellow. Adverbs appear in blue. 50-cent words come up purple. (There is never a reason to select the word “utilize” over “use.”) Green indicates the passive voice. Finally, red means that you’re probably trying to imitate Faulkner or Joyce.
“I saw the need for an app like Hemingway after trudging through a few marketing companies’ “About Us” pages,” says Ben, who is a copywriter in New York. “Business writing seems to be a breeding ground for out of control sentences.”
Hemingway uses the popular Automated Readability Index to assign your overall composition a reading level. Adam says that most Americans read at grade 10 level or below. “A lower grade level means [the writing is] accessible to more adults, not that you’re writing for children,” he explains. “Hemingway’s famous story The Old Man and the Sea, for example, was written at a 4th-grade level, but it’s clearly not aimed at 4th graders.”
According to the brothers, if the app assigns your writing anything higher than Grade 10, you need an editor, stat.
Hemingway is currently available as a free web app. And even if you don’t write for a living, you might consider pasting in some of your emails. “The medium is prone to miscommunication, so it’s essential to hone your words,” says Adam. He adds that the app can help you craft better arguments. “We heard from a marketer who tested two versions of the same email, one edited through Hemingway and one without it. The Hemingway version received double the response rate,” Adam says.
The brothers both use Hemingway on a regular basis, even just for proof-reading. It turns out, however, that even Hemingway could have used the tool. The opening sentences of A Clean Well-Lighted Place scores an unimpressive “Grade 15” when put through the algorithm. Adam intimates that Papa could have learned something from the writing masterminds at Ikea. “They managed to teach me how to build a desk without even using words,” he says.