Before I go further, let me say this: the Hemingway App is great.
Any piece of software that can help you make your messages more readable gets my vote. It’s simple and accessible, highlighting your problematic words and sentences according to five colour-coded categories of literary blasphemy.
It suggests a simple word when you try to crowbar in a pretentious one, and it draws your attention to adverbs and the use of the passive voice.
But that doesn’t make it perfect. And it doesn’t mean it’s going to help you churn out perfection every time.
I’m not setting out to degrade the massive value the app has for those who want to improve their writing. What I am saying is that it’s not a cure-all replacement for an understanding of context, rhythm, emphasis and style.
But as a freelance copywriter, of course I’d say that.
With that out of the way, let’s take a look at why the Hemingway App won’t always turn your first draft into a flawless masterpiece.
Adverbs can add flavour
“The road to hell is paved with adverbs,” said Stephen King (boldly). He’s (certainly) right when it comes to dialogue tags in works of fiction.
But when it comes to writing in a conversational tone, adverbs aren’t (completely) useless. They can add a little personality when they’re used with restraint, and removing all of them can make some sentences a bit too abrupt.
The Hemingway App knows this, and it seems to recommend a maximum number of adverbs based on the total number of words and the number of separate paragraphs.
It’s a useful gauge to remind writers not to go crazy with their adverbs. But it’s still a (presumably) arbitrary number that doesn’t appear to consider context or style.
If your banking app lets your customers move money around quickly and easily, don’t feel the need to tell them they can move money around at high speed, and with ease.
If your ingredients are carefully selected, your cakes are seriously addictive, and your customers are completely satisfied, your writing will (totally) lose its punch if you cut out too many adverbs.
And if your beer is reassuringly expensive, you (really) don’t want to start telling people it’s just plain expensive.
The passive voice isn’t always wrong
When it’s littered throughout your writing without much thought, it can make your messages dry and stale. But the passive voice still has a few specific uses. In particular, it’s useful when:
- You want to focus on the object, rather than the subject.
“A man was killed in a hit-and-run on Thursday”
has a more appropriate emphasis than
“A hit-and-run driver killed a man on Thursday”.
- You want to shirk responsibility – especially in public relations.
“The latest batch of toys was shipped with a life-threatening defect”
admits less than
“We shipped the latest batch of toys with a life-threatening defect”.
- You want to add a little drama.
“The road to hell is paved with adverbs”
sounds more foreboding than
“Adverbs pave the road to hell”.
Again, the Hemingway App doesn’t recommend eliminating every instance of the passive voice. But it does seem to follow a similar rule of density – which means it might not know when the passive voice makes good sense.
If you want to boast that your company “has been nominated” for an industry award, then do so. The announcement is about you, not about the awarding body.
If you need to issue a press release about your company’s poisonous candy, then blindly following the Hemingway App without a sense of context could leave you with a villainous reputation.
And if you want to get a little dramatic, feel free to tell your audience that “Rules were made to be broken” and that “True success is earned” – don’t let an app dilute your pomposity.
Complex sentences can be juicy
Shorter sentences are easier to digest. They’re direct without fluff. And they make an impact.
But it only takes an example of three short sentences in a row to see how frustrating and limiting things can get when you’re too afraid to take the reins off now and again.
That last sentence turned red in the Hemingway App, and was deemed “very hard to read”. Perhaps it is. But after the string of wooden sentences that preceded it, it feels like a rhythmic relief.
Anyone who’s heard a carefully crafted political speech can appreciate the structure behind the rhetoric, even if they’re not always conscious of it. It usually goes a little like this:
“We need better housing. We need affordable healthcare. We need a government that’s willing to stand up for the rights of its underprivileged citizens and take decisive action during times of crisis.”
We can call it “the old one-two-three”, or even just “the short-short-long”. What’s important is that the extended hail of verbosity in the third sentence is a crucial part of the overall delivery.
Even if it is a little hard to read.
As you’d expect, the sentence about governments and crisis turns red in the Hemingway App. But if we were to break apart the classic jab-jab-swing trio into four basic sentences, we’d be left with a message that feels stiff and contrived – and most of the intended impact would be lost.
Knowing when to break the rules
There’s no denying that the Hemingway App is great for people who struggle to turn a discerning eye to their writing. But blindly following it to the letter is just going to homogenise your messages until they’re stale and formulaic.
If you aren’t good at putting words together, it’s a brilliant way to start learning some useful guidelines.
If you’re comfortable in your writing, it can be a fresh set of artificial eyes to catch any slip-ups – or to keep your liberal word-hosing in check.
But if you think it’s the magical elixir that’s going to single-handedly rescue your business’s content campaign, we really need to talk.