Friday, 23 September 2016

The Hemingway Editor

I tend to write really long sentences.
It is a problem that I have come to terms with and am fighting but it is a long hard road. I don’t even notice it happening in a first a draft and only when I come to read back what I have written do I find myself gasping for breath as I stumbling through these huge blocks of rambling, unpunctuated text.
I mentioned this to a friend of mine and he suggested the Hemingway Editor as a tool that might help.

The Hemingway Editor is available as a desktop app for both Mac and PC but being happy with my chosen editor I have only tried the web version.
What it does is analyse your text and highlight long or overly complex sentences. It also points out other perceived stumbling blocks such as adverbs and passive voice and gives you an overall grade or basic readability rating.

I admit I love a good tool and the idea behind this fascinates me. I don’t know the exact logic being applied but it seems to be more than simply a word counting engine. I pasted in a few chunks of my own work and it pretty conclusively told me what I already knew - that I write stupidly long and dense sentences.
While that was hardly news to me it was interesting to see the other points that it highlights and I found it a very satisfying process to make edits and watch the various red blocks change to amber and then to disappear one by one.
But it was here that I actually began to question the usefulness of this tool. I found myself forgetting that while there is of course a practical science behind writing - established conventions and accepted wisdom - there is also a more ethereal side to it which many would argue is actually more important. Find any rule or writing convention and there will be multiple examples of amazing works of literature that either twist them beyond all recognition or ignore them completely. Using the Hemingway Editor it becomes all too easy to forget this and I found myself so keen to achieve approval from its inner algorithms that I made edits even where I felt the results were less expressive and exciting than before.

I should mention here that the app appears to works better the more text you give it. It seems clever enough to understand that sometimes a long sentence is necessary as are adverbs and passive voice and it makes some allowance for each when it calculates your overall grade. So if you try out the app - it is definitely worth it - then give it as many words as you can and most importantly, stay in control and don’t become a slave to the pretty coloured highlights and easy fixes it presents.

I am geeky enough to believe that with the rise of AI a time may come when a computer programme can edit a manuscript as well as a human but that time is not yet here and for me at least such a thing is unnecessary. I am not a professional writer and I hold no illusion that I ever will be. Of course I want to improve my writing and to produce work that others might enjoy but predominantly I write for myself and as such I would rather be happy with my own creation than strip out its guts to tick the
boxes laid out by some mysterious function on a far away server.

Perhaps I’m wrong. Perhaps the Hemingway Editor really does know best and I just don’t want to hear it. I would love to hear your thoughts on the idea of automated/AI editors and on your experience with, and opinion of, the Hemingway Editor. Please have a play around with it and leave a comment below if you feel inspired to do so.

As an experiment I ran this post past Hemingway and got a grade of 12 which apparently is OK. There was a lot of red highlighting going on but I just ignored it because that is how I roll.

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