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Hemingway and software-assisted writing

By Dave Menendez
Thursday, February 27, 2014, at 12:27 PM

Summary: Two recent apps claim to help improve your writing, but their advice is based on misapplying questionable rules.

Interesting article by Kevin Nguyen about two recent apps, Hemmingway and Writer Pro, which are alleged to help improve your writing. There are a bunch of problems with this strategy. As Nguyen points out:

Basically, Hemingway is a writing tool with a syntax highlighter, which identifies word types and sets them in different colors. This is a long-standing feature in text editors built for coding; it makes programming languages more readable and errors easier to identify. That is to say, Hemingway’s feature set is less indicative of how writers actually write and more about how a developer-centric mindset would view writing: treat prose as code.

This is the first problem: highlighting, say, all the adverbs in a piece of text doesn’t really make writing any easier.

The second problem, which Mark Lieberman points out, is that Hemingway (and Writer Pro, to a lesser extent) are basing their judgements on bad rules, like “avoid adverbs” and “don’t use the passive voice”. Yes, many professional writers will give advice like that, but examining their text will show they don’t follow that advice.1

More seriously, Hemmingway can’t actually tell whether you’re following the rules. As one commenter at Language Log points out, Hemmingway incorrectly flags sentences like “John was red” as passive. Its identification of adverbs seems to be based primarily on whether a word ends in “ly”. Sentences like “Teh teh teh teh teh.” are judged easy to read, presumably because they contain a small number of short words.

In other words, Hemmingway is advising you by applying questionable rules to faulty data.2

That being said: there are times when highlighting would be useful for improving writing. We already have spelling checkers that underline misspelled words. I would like a feature that highlights common homophones like “their”/“there”/“they’re” when I’m doing the final editing pass. That way, I can scan the text and make sure each one is correct. Unlike trying to identify adverbs or the passive voice, this would be pretty easy to automate, too.

(Hemmingway rates this article at grade 12, incidentally.)

(via John Moltz)


  1. I suspect things like “don’t use adverbs” is a reaction to amateur writers using too many adverbs. In other words, there’s an implicit “too much”.

  2. One also has to question the credibility of software that gives advice like “Aim for 0 or fewer.”