2014-02-24

Co.Labs

A Leisurely Afternoon With The Hemingway App

How does it perform with real writing?



When it comes to editing, few writers are evoked as much as Ernest Hemingway. The author’s spare and economical style is often seen as the gold standard for prose. Now, the patron saint of clarity in writing has a web app named after him.

Hemingway is a lightweight web app that will quickly analyze your work for clarity. It will point out every sentence that is too long, and shame you for every adverb you use. It will guide you to simplicity, and perhaps, to Truth.

At least, that’s what the real Hemingway would say. Maybe.

So for kicks, we thought it would be fun to use the Hemingway app to critique both the real Hemingway and his imitators. We took four winners from the now-defunct International Imitation Hemingway writing contest—which ran from 1977 to 2005 and asked writers to emulate the author’s style in a funny short story—to see if they were up to snuff.

The earliest winner that we found was from 1986, Mark Silber’s "The Snooze of Kilimanjaro." And it’s off to a pretty great start, with only one adverb and one instance of passive voice. As far as the app is concerned, Hemingway himself wrote the thing.

Jump forward a year for 1987’s winner, "In Another Contra." The results on the scorecard are pretty good:

But it also has this paragraph, which would have caused the real Hemingway to finish his whiskey and then say something disparaging about the author’s integrity.

The winner for the year 2000, "Across the Suburbs and Into the Express Lane," is probably the most grievous of the lot, with this doozy of a paragraph.

If you know what that means, please tell us in the comments.

The scorecard is pretty grim, too. Eight out of 48 sentences are hard to read. That’s one-sixth of the entire story. A travesty. Hemingway is the guy who people attribute to having written an entire short story in just six words. You know, "For sale: Baby shoes, never worn." The man could have rewritten the Constitution in eight sentences had we asked him to.

The last person to win this contest was cardiologist Gary Davis, with his 2005 story "Da Moveable Code." The web-based Hemingway had problems with it instantly.

The real Hemingway probably wouldn’t have read it at all, choosing instead to shoot a bear and make love to a woman immediately after. That’s the sort of thing Hemingway was into. He was kind of a rock star.

All things considered, Mr. Davis isn’t that far off the mark, although the Hemingway app says precious little about bear hunting.

At this point, you’re probably wondering what App Hemingway thinks of Meatspace Hemingway. So are we.

That’s from Hemingway’s "The Old Man at the Bridge." Clearly, the guy was a hack. Five adverbs in a 762-word story, and this long-as-hell sentence:

Amateur stuff, man.

But let’s not get too haughty. We should all be willing to subject our work to the scrutiny we apply to others. It’s The Golden Rule, you know.

Here’s (Right) what this piece looks like, according to the Hemingway app.

That’s what you get for using em-dashes, I suppose.






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