The Old Man and the App

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAmong the best self-editing tools I’ve ever seen is “Hemingway,” an app that helps you write like Ernest Hemingway. Well, sort of. The app — $6.99 at — analyzes any piece of writing for simplicity. Short sentences. Plain language. Active voice. Strong nouns and verbs. Few adjectives. No adverbs.

The app then creates a readability rating based on grade level, and color-codes areas for improvement. Most good writing for a mass audience rates about eighth- or ninth-grade level.

Lower is better yet. The opening to a 1991 Sports Illustrated piece by my favorite writer, Gary Smith, gets a second-grade rating:

Singing. Did you hear it? There was singing in the land once more that day. How could you not call the Crows a still-mighty tribe if you saw them on the move that afternoon? How could your heart not leave the ground if you were one of those Indian boys leading them across the Valley of the Big Horn?

It was March 24, 1983, a day of thin clouds and pale sun in southern Montana. A bus slowed as it reached the crest of a hill, and from there, for the first time, the boys inside it could see everything. Fender to fender stretched the caravan of cars behind them, seven miles, eight – they had made the asphalt go away! Through the sage and the buffalo grass they swept, over buttes and boulder-filled gullies, as in the long-ago days when their scouts had spotted buffalo and their village had packed up its lodge poles and tepee skins, lashed them to the dogs and migrated in pursuit of the herd.

But what they pursued now was a high school basketball team, 12 teenagers on their way to Billings to play in a state tournament. The boys stared through their windows at the caravan. There was bone quiet in the bus. It was as if, all at once, the boys had sensed the size of this moment … and what awaited each of them once this moment was done.

 “A writer’s style should be direct and personal, his imagery rich and earthy, and his words simple and vigorous,” Hemingway wrote in the January 1963 Playboy magazine (back when some really did read it for the articles). “The greatest writers have the gift of brilliant brevity, are hard workers, diligent scholars and competent stylists.”

Funny. The Hemingway app rates that two-sentence paragraph only as “OK” — 13th-grade reading level.

Here’s a piece from Writer’s Digest about Hemingway’s writing style.


This entry was posted in editing, Writing and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The Old Man and the App

  1. Hemingway was amazing, no question. But I’m glad not all writers write exactly like him.

  2. Jim Killam says:

    Agreed, Sarah. Every writer develops his/her own voice. I do think Hemingway’s style has much to teach us, though, about simplicity and economy of words. Thanks for your thoughts.

Comments are closed.