The New "Hemingway App" Identifies Writing Mistakes, So I Put 8 Famous Speeches To The Test
Love him or hate him, Ernest Hemingway was undeniably a major force in 20th-century American literature, popularizing a spare, direct mode of writing that contrasted sharply with the perceived over-complexity of 19th-century prose. Though Hemingway can be a controversial figure (especially in regard to his depiction of women), many writers, fans and foes alike would do well to adopt the trademark simplicity of his writing—at least, that’s what Adam and Ben Long, the developers of the Hemingway Editor app, seem to think. The writing app promises to “[make] your writing bold and clear” by pointing out clunky constructions, unnecessary words, and complicated sentences. It’s fairly easy to use and is accessible online; to use it, writers simply type or paste text into a box, and the app highlights problematic areas, making suggestions for improvement. The app also assigns your text with a readability rating by showing the lowest grade level someone would need to achieve to be able to understand your writing. “Bold, clear writing” will fall somewhere below grade 10.
As both a writer and as someone who has taught introductory writing classes, I have mixed feelings about tools like this app. On the one hand, many people do struggle with unnecessarily complicated writing, and this app could be a useful tool in making them mindful of how and where they need to streamline their work. On the other hand, I’m skeptical of writing by formula; I’ve had so many students who have used computerized grammar and style checkers without paying attention to what they’re actually saying that I’m a bit wary of writing apps in general. The Hemingway app can assess issues like passive voice and sentence structure, but of course it can’t evaluate meaning. I’ve tested it out on some famous speeches (real and fictional) below, and, although the app does draw attention to potential problem areas, it can’t assess the quality of what’s being said. I guess what I’m saying here (in a convoluted, completely not-Hemingway-esque way), is that this app looks potentially useful, but should be paired with a heavy dose of common sense.
Keep reading to see how famous speeches from history and film fare, according to the Hemingway app. The app is primarily evaluating according to simplicity, so it is perhaps no surprise that speeches from mass-marketed, big budget films perform quite well:
Abraham Lincoln, The Gettysburg Address
In November of 1863, Abraham Lincoln gave one of the most famous speeches in U.S. history. It may be famous, but the Hemingway Editor labels the speech's opening lines ("Four score and seven years ago...") as "very hard to read." BURN.
Barack Obama, Victory Speech
The speech that President Obama gave after winning the 2008 election was famous for its repetition of "Yes, we can." According to the app, the end of the speech does well in terms of readability, despite its closing sentences being "very hard" to read; the app suggests that the speech is suited to those in the 6th grade and older.
President Thomas Whitmore, Independence Day
Will a fake president fare better on the Hemingway Editor app than real ones? President Whitmore's speech to rally the troop against invading aliens is suitable to a fourth grade level, which is ... a good thing, I guess? He needs to watch those passive verbs, though!
Miranda Priestly, The Devil Wears Prada
In this speech, Meryl Streep gloriously rips Anne Hathaway's character to shreds. According to the Hemingway app, she needs to simplify her sentences, but I think that it is precisely Streep's rapid-fire summary of the complexities of the fashion industry that makes this scene so satisfying.
Herb Brooks, Miracle
The Hemingway Editor loves this inspiring hockey speech from Miracle, pointing out only a couple of instances of passive voice.
Jane Eyre in Jane Eyre
Jane's impassioned speech to Mr. Rochester does fairly well; the app rates this excerpt as suitable for a sixth grader.
Ernest Hemingway, Nobel Prize Speech
Here's a speech from Hemingway himself, written for the acceptance of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1954. How does the app’s namesake fare? Not bad, actually, but not amazingly (by the app’s standards), either. The app labels almost every sentence in this excerpt as “hard” or “very hard” to read, but Hemingway does well at avoiding unnecessary adverbs and overly complicated phrasing. (I’m sure he would be thrilled to know that an app approves of his writing).
Mikey, The Goonies
Mikey's speech from The Goonies gets a perfect score when it comes to simplicity and readability. This makes sense, as Mikey is a child and his speech should be simple, but the fact that the app evaluates this speech from The Goonies as flawless, and almost every other speech on this list as over-complicated, shows the Hemingway Editor's limitations. Yes, simplicity important to good writing, but it's not everything. It's important to avoid complexity in writing simply for the sake of embellishment, but some ideas are complicated and explaining them is necessarily also complicated.
Images: Universal Studios; Hemingway Editor App (8)