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Hemingway Editor (hemingwayapp.com)
442 points by mlejva on Nov 17, 2020 | hide | past | favorite | 248 comments

Couldn't resist the temptation. I grabbed the opening paragraph of Hemingway's own short story "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place" -- and put it to the test.

Danger alert! Danger alert!

The master himself opens with a 110-word, two-sentence paragraph. The first sentence is flagged yellow. The second one is flagged red. By the software's system, Hemingway's own writing is in trouble.

Truth is, this app is a nifty diagnostic tool that will help you avoid some writing goofs, if you use it judiciously. But if you let it dictate every change, you'll lose the full rhythms of good writing.

Even a master of lean writing (Hemingway himself) knew when to bulk up, even for just a moment, to create a cadence that could surprise and intrigue us.

> By the software's system, Hemingway's own writing is in trouble.

> Truth is, this app is a nifty diagnostic tool that will help you avoid some writing goofs, if you use it judiciously. But if you let it dictate every change, you'll lose the full rhythms of good writing.

That is why I prefer to use ghostwriter app[0], which has "Hemingway Mode", but I may enable or disable it on my wish.[1]

[0] https://github.com/wereturtle/ghostwriter

[1] http://wereturtle.github.io/ghostwriter/

Unless I'm missing something, the "Hemingway Mode" in ghostwriter is not the same as the feature offered by the other editor:

"Clicking on the "Hemingway" button in the lower right corner of the editor will disable your backspace and delete keys, creating a typewriter experience. This feature is especially useful if you want to avoid editing and force yourself to write." (From the second link you posted)

I've been using this app for a few years, just as you recommend. It's a tool, and a good one in certain circumstances. Hopefully folks don't assume it will make them write like Hemingway!

That’s a really good point, and is also how I see other similar apps like grammarly.

They can help highlight issues and it’s up to you to decide whether those really are issues or just personal stylistic choices.

I’m a user of both.

> They can help highlight issues and it’s up to you to decide whether those really are issues or just personal stylistic choices.

That's a great way to frame it. I find Grammarly useful, but grammar checkers will never be (human) language linters.

> Even a master of lean writing (Hemingway himself) knew when to bulk up, even for just a moment, to create a cadence that could surprise and intrigue us.

There are other considerations too beyond just sound. E.g. recently someone (helpfully) pointed out to me that I had used the word 'super' as a filler word 20+ times in one essay. Which is good to be aware of, and I got rid of some of them. But at the same time, in most of the cases the reason I had done it is because if you have two long and complicated words next to each other, just visually it's difficult to read them.

In the same way that whitespace is necessary in between paragraphs in order to make text readable, you also need horizontal whitespace to prevent the words from running together and the meaning getting lost, and to give people time to digest complicated ideas.

> if you have two long and complicated words next to each other, just visually it's difficult to read them.

So, you insert "super" between any two long and complicated words, and that fixes it? The meaning is no longer lost, and people have time to digest the complicated ideas?

What's an example of that?

> So, you insert "super" between any two long and complicated words, and that fixes it?

In the case of "super" specifically, the issue is more that there's a short word that I want to emphasize that would normally get drowned out by longer words surrounding it. So the fix would be writing something like "super easy" instead of just "easy."

It's hard to give a good example because it's dependent on the typography. I usually write my drafts in a different typeface than I publish them in, which then forces me to do a final round of editing once they're in the CMS.

What type of writing are you doing that using “super” in this manner is acceptable? It feels so tacky to me...

It seems far more appropriate for conversational use (or dialog).

Thank you, Hemingway frequently used lengthy compound sentences to suggest rushed or immediate actions; critics compared it to cinematic story-telling techniques that were novel at the time.

The English language is my second language that I learned quite late. I appreciate its beauty with all quirks and complexity.

Good writing is not an intrinsic property of the text - it is defined within a context of message and reader. Who is this product for? Business correspondence, tech specs, technical books, or school essays? The style is usually not consistent throughout the same text. Intro or side notes are often less formal than the body.

Applying the same standard of writing to all texts preaches mediocrity as a virtue. I would prefer a tool that instead of telling me what to do, would only offer insights into the text. With AI's insights of sentiment, writing style, and several metrics of complexity, one could use that guidance for the same goals as this app and many more.

And it's more than just context, it's also the intent. Naturally you may have different intent in different contexts, but it doesn't end there.

For example one may chose to come across weak by using the passive voice, either to avoid responsibility, or to pay tribute to another person, or even to create a favorable background for a strong stance on a different subject.

Passive voice itself is not a problem, lack of discretion is.

Linguistics explores these phenomena from many directions, via it's subdisciplines like pragmatics, discourse analysis, semantics, and even syntax.

A couple well known things the field mostly agrees: there are no real synonyms, in the sense that every word has its own semantic baggage, and that manifests different meanings in different contexts. So i.e. "use" and "utilise" are not at all the same words, one fancy.

Same goes for syntactic structures. There's a variety of approaches here, but you'd be hard pressed to find even a supporter of transformational generative grammar, the Chomskyan paradigm who says active and passive sentences come from the same underlying deep structure (roughly speaking), who'd say active and passive voice sentences are equal or equivalent in discourse.

Similarly, you can't boil down "complexity" to the length of sentences or number of clauses. I'd be more willing to concede if this was talking about the distance of things that refer to each other, or the number of words that refer to previous discourse or outer world (i.e. long-distance dependencies & deictic elements). But you can have paragraph long sentences that read just buttery smooth, and "sentence" itself is a pretty vague term that you can't really pin down. Like, if I splat that previous sentence into two around "and", would it really be two sentences, or is it really one sentence to begin with?

All these weird stuff like "don't use active voice" or "use 'simpler' words" etc. are the product of the same mentality that in ye olde times wanted you not to split infinitives, not to end your sentences with prepositions, and other nonsense up with which you should not put.

What kinds of techniques are used in discourse analysis? How do you approach investigating problems in pragmatics (like how can you really establish a context for asking questions about contexts?) and can you give me some examples of interesting cases? I've wanted to do deeper reading on this topic for a while, which has intensified since I've been getting deeper into pure math. Can you point me in some directions to look for book recommendations? I have this as a jumping off point: https://www.nature.com/articles/s41562-020-0924-8 but anything else is much appreciated.

I'm only a lowly master's student so I don't have a good hold of all literature, and pragmatics & discourse aren't really my forte, so I think I'd rather refer you to a great resource: the Handbook of Linguistics, editors Aronoff and Rees-Miller. If you don't have hold of basic linguistics theory and concepts, you may give An Introduction to Language by Fromkin, Rodman, Hyams a go. For deepening on Chomskyan syntax, which has roots in mathematical / logical approaches, I suggest Syntactic Structures Revisited by Howard Lasnik, which is a truly wonderful pedagogical achievement, given the excess complexity of Chomskyan theory. In any case tho, if you are familiar with basics of linguistics, the Handbook is _the_ resource to familiarise yourself with latest research and history of ideas of any subdiscipline of linguistics.

Trying to talk about it a bit myself, I think I should start with saying that I don't really know methodology in pragmatics, but it and discourse analysis (DA) are pretty close to each other. Discourse analysis is an umbrella term for many research methodologies, and it's a hugely multidisciplinary field, so it's hard to pin it down. Tho suffice to say the concerns of DA inside of linguistics is separate from that in literary studies and the Foucauldian tradition, which tend more towards philosophical approaches. DA in Linguistics is more exact in general and focused on extents of written or aural or signed text and conversations. One of the most common tools is transcriptions peculiar to DA. There on we investigate different properties like structure, pauses or intonation in how they relate to different pragmatic goals, like turn taking in speech and signaling coherence, deixis, etc., in more "purer" DA research, and other strands of research like Critical Discourse Analysis or Feminist Discourse Analysis may then extrapolate how these reflect power relations or social preconceptions. This probably overlaps a lot with pragmatics---and a lot of theoretical and analytical tooling like speech act theory or Gricean maxims are shared---but AFAIU DA is more interested in textual (i.e. speech, not necessarily written) context here, whereas pragmatics in more mechanical and semiotic workings---tho I doubt subfields of linguistics are as distinct as some of the literature makes them seem to be. In any case, a more concrete method that's used a lot in DA (or other subfields) is corpus analysis, where large, often annotated corpora is used in order to test what constituents are found together.

Talking about your interest in math here, you may or may not find what you want in this. On the one hand, language is an incredibly flexible mechanism and almost everything, from words to farts to where one looks at has semiotic and discourse-relevant content, and this is something that conflicts a lot with more logically / mathematically motivated approaches like Chomskyan grammar. Simply put, language is hard to pin down, because unlike say in physics, chemistry, or astronomy, your subject matter is an extremely diverse, constantly changing beast that's produced with animals with extreme agency. But OTOH universe, biology, or materials are messy in their own ways and mathematical approaches have been useful in these pursuits. So it depends on where you come to it from, really.

As to the article you linked I'd say it falls under the umbrella of computational semantics which is an area I'm totally alien to (FWIW I'm more partial to usage based grammar and sociolinguistics). It does use corpora but that's not exclusive to discourse analysis (in fact its a methodology that began around the 90s and is used across all subdisciplines of linguistics today, maybe bar phonetics). There's an over reliance on the concept of the "word" as some basic elementary unit here, which is not really the case. There being a word to express something in a language or not is not really a barrier or obstacle to expressing it in any language. The study feels like it could really make use of another linguist among its authors. There are disciplines that explore language contact and variation, second language education, and translation in itself, which could have a word or two here.

Let me Cormac that for you (for a perfect Hemingway score)...

  I got some thoughts on that.  I'm a student, see.

  They call me master, but it don't mean much.  Learned a bit from Aronoff down around San Pedro.  Rees-Miller too.  Real men of discipline.

  'bout myself, I got thoughts on discourse, but that's pragmatism talkin'

  I hear you like math though.  Chomsky's a son of a bitch, and he do know grammar.  But he can't put you in a box even if you talk animals, or rocks - 'cause he don't know where you come from.

  And that thing you asked me to read?  

  I read it.

  Keeps the rain off, but ain't that what semantics is all about?  Keeping concepts from seeping into your cloths to dampen your soul?  

  Your brain?

  I said too much already, but discipline's a creature of words.  A silver toung'd preachers words if you ask me.

Thanks for the great resources. Are you aware of any online communities that an amateur/hobbyist-linguist may benefit from?

There's r/linguistics, tho quality content and well-intentioned participants are limited. Y'know, general reddit things. There are some other subdiscipline specific subreddits too, tho all fairly small. This is a multireddit I made that contains the ones I know of: https://www.reddit.com/user/gkayaalp/m/linguistics/

The best community I know of is the LinguistList. I follow their RSS feeds to keep on top of what's happening in the field, but they also maintain many mailing lists, which you might wanna give a look.

There's also linguistics.stackexchange which does have some good content and answers.

There's some small linguist presence on Humanities Commons (https://hcommons.org).

LingBuzz is like an arXiV--discussion board hybrid thing.

If you're into conlanging, I know that some communities/subreddits exist but IDK the names or URLs, unfortunately.

Other than that sadly we don't have anything to the extent that CS or physics enjoy.

Edit: You're welcome, BTW. If you want to ask about anything more specific, resources or otherwise, I'd love to help.

Passive voice is actually essential sometimes - for instance when you're editing someone's work or reviewing their code.

"X can be changed to y" comes across a lot softer than "you should change x to y", and is likely to get better results.

What works even better is, “To avoid <problem>, consider Y instead of X”. Passive voice tries to mitigate the impact of the problem of “arbitrary direction” rather than resolving the problem.

Passive voice is something as opposed to active voice. Passive voice does not imply weakness or passivity, it typically just means there was a subject/object switch-a-roo.

Weak language, such as overuse of adverb qualifiers, is much more akin to the passive-aggressive tone that you’re referring to. Though, it can also just be the product of overly self-conscious writing.

Also, intent is just a small part of context. Therefore, it would rarely if ever supersede the importance of context. For example: Two spies are sitting on a bench speaking in code to one another. Spy 1 gives up an important detail concerning the number of Tridents in a specific location in exchange for some equally important detail related to Spy 2’s national defense structure. Now, it may not have been Spy 1’s intention to divulge his nation’s exact percentage of Tridents stored in a single location, but nonetheless and unbeknownst to Spy 1, Spy 2 already knew the total number of Tridents and therefore could deduce from context. Shovel in a few more cascading deductions and maybe Spy 2 now knows a lot more than Spy 1 ever intended to tell him.

This is true of a lot of things. You can make racists statements out of ignorance without intending to be racist. However, many things that may seem racist on the surface may in greater context be criticism, parody, or just an attempt at candid documentation. All of which are partially informed by intent, but only because intent is a part of context.

Given this and people’s proclivity for hiding their intentions (and even with intentions stated can be either a lie or the truth and we wouldn’t really know so we have to yet still include it in our box of contextual evidence that is still yet to be determined, in terms of authenticity) I would choose to gather as many contextual clues as I could while keeping intent at arms length—still there and I see it, but maybe not the most important factor.

Just for fun the “editor” put this comment at grade 10 and told me to aim lower, grade 9. Too many hard-to-read sentences, adverbs, and difficult words like “therefore”.

My experience with Hemingway in the past has been that it's a set of general heuristics which prevent bad writing. I found it quite helpful to proofread. It's not a replacement for a human editor, but it's a step up from traditional autocorrect.

At the end of the day, it is still up to the writer which suggestions they keep. Anyone who blindly accepts suggestions because the tool recommended them probably wasn't in the correct mindset to write well anyways.

As others have pointed out, the application of such a tool for the prevention of bad writing will, at best, produce writing that is merely mediocre instead. One but hopes that the common reader of HN aspires to produce writing of a quality beyond the mediocre, unless she is usually assigned with the most trite and dreary of tasks.

Think of it as an attention getter. Rather than saying "you need to change this," it's a way to say "Make sure your usage of this construct is thoughtful and intentional instead of accidental."

To that extent it seems like it could be useful in certain contexts.

> Good writing is not an intrinsic property of the text - it is defined within a context of message and reader.

Exactly. Hemingway himself wasn't a mechanical automaton blindly following his own rules. He broke them when it suited him. Style in writing isn't a process that can be applied in a mechanical fashion. Instead, _taste_ must be exercised.

I've found Hemingway to be useful when writing business-related messages to team mates. I tend to get wordy and intricate when I dash off messages. What this app is good at is poking you and saying "can you make this sentence shorter? Can it be simpler?" Usually the answer is yes. It's a forcing function that deters lazy writing.

It is not meant for writing beautiful, stylish prose. Or, at least, that's not what I'd ever consider using it for.

> It's a forcing function that deters lazy writing.

I'm not a proselytizer for it, but this is one reason I appreciate codebases that enforce arbitrary per-line character limits. It pressures me to game the utility:noise ratio.

Left to our own devices, we occasionally bang out 40-char variable names, of which 20 chars add no value to the reader. The color column on the screen is a nice coach, saying "c'mon, you can do better".

In Le ton beau de Marot, Douglas Hofstadter talks about how writing the book using 90s-era desktop publishing software allowed him to spot widows, orphans and other typographic ugliness as he was composing the text, and he would fix these by rewriting the text rather than adjusting the typography, which resulted in many improvements. I prefer writing in WYSIWYG editors for this reason – it’s good to have an external trigger that prompts you to try rephrasing, even if it’s effectively random.

Your English is very good based on this comment. It sounds formal, but that formality reads as coming from your personality rather than writing textbook English.

Thank you. I had a lot of early influence from the old English textbooks from the 80s that have more formal style and reading technical documentation. Until I started watching movies without dub, all English I studied was quite far from the real-life use of language. My peers who did more listening than reading have a more natural style.

I wonder -- would you say that you write more formally than you speak (on average, context aside)?

I'm always super curious about how someone's method of learning a second language impacts the way they use that language. My casual hypothesis is that what you read while learning impacted how you write, while what you listened to affected how you speak -- do you find that to be true?

My writing is much more formal than speaking. If one writes much enough in a certain style, they get used to it. Same thing about speaking - politicians, actors, and other public figures have a certain effect on their everyday demeanor.

Once I heard that writing and talking involve different areas of the brain.

There may have been a typo though, I think "with all its quirks" would be more correct.

I quibble with you there. "With all quirks and complexity" is grammatically correct and understandable as it is. I agree that "with all its quirks and complexity" is more idiomatic, though.

For what it's worth, I read it as "with all its quirks and complexity" because my brain just filled in the "its" I expected, which it might not have done if the English had been worse.

Seems like one should write how the people who read your text would expect you to write. This is my main problem with writing, since I have a very hard time to figure out what people expect. I also read a lot of books about writing, but none really helped. They always use these very abstract concepts which if you apply them blindly will also lead to an incomprehensible text anyways. What helped a lot was to just take a similar text which seemingly fulfills expectations, and, almost short of plagiarism, just exchange the messages which are conveyed. This is where AI could help a lot, because I would think that it should be able to exactly this task, if you provide it the message you would like to write up. Anyways, I don’t know anybody (at least in science) who likes writing and I really hope that there will be a more practical solution than spending hours and hours of refining a text in the future. This time could better be spent on research.

Have you tried Steven Pinker's "Sense of Style"? Although there is indeed a chapter (ch.4) that deals with some difficult to apply concepts (i.e. adding unnecessary friction at the moment of writing), the other chapters delve into graspable topics with lots of examples that clearly explain what works and doesn't.

No, I haven’t read this one, maybe it’s worth a try. The issue is, even when you are at a stage where you realize what works and what doesn’t, you still wouldn’t know what to write exactly. The only option you have is to write up sentences, then check whether you made a mistake and, if so, write up a different sentence and reiterate. I would need a book which would tell me how to construct sentences which are in accordance with all the rules and concepts. But, it doesn’t seem to be possible to write such a book, since writing really is an art. After all, there also isn’t any book which teaches you how to paint like Da Vinci, but only those which tell you which rules you can apply to his paintings.

There's a great saying that you have to know the rules before you can break them. Obviously a professional writer has no use for something like this... but I'm suggesting this to my young children for sure.

The trend towards using syntactic machines to teach people to write perplexes me because writing is foremost about meaning. For example, the Gettysburg address begins:

> Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.

Hemingway flags that as passive voice, but it's actually a present progressive construction. Rather than computers making us more fully human, they strive to make us more machine like, and that's a worry.

Fwiw, the Gettysburg address would have been pretty bad as prose. It was written to be delivered as a speech.

A speaker can control inflection and intonation, which add their own meaning and interact with the actual word choices. Written word has no such luxury.

Also, the Gettysburg Address was written 150 years ago. Language norms change over time.

Millions of high school students who had to read Shakespeare agree on both points.

The problem is that for every Lincoln you have hundreds of thousands of people who will never put together a sentence of that caliber, myself included.

I don't worry about great writers using this app and becoming more machine like. But everyday I come across documentation or emails that would benefit from this app.

I suppose I haven't given up on the idea that all of us can aim at being more fully human. You might be able to put together a sentence of that caliber! Particularly if you read a large corpus of great writing.

The worry is that young writers will become more machine-like in their thoughts, as part of a broader project to make people more machine like. For example, Google Docs complained to me that the sentence, "We will analyze the ballistics of the South Dakota, focusing on parameterizing the equations of motion" was incorrect because you don't put "the" in front of the name of a state. But I was talking about BB-57, the USS South Dakota, a battleship. Google Docs, naturally, doesn't have a sense of historical context.

I'm no great writer, to be sure, but the computer just doesn't understand what I mean, so it flags my thoughts as being wrong in some way. That smoothing out our thoughts is a long-term problem if our goal is to lead human lives, particularly as it makes it into education.

Yes. Tools like this are great for business writing where clarity and concision are priorities over literary beauty.

I'd like to see what it makes of the average software TOS agreement.

The difficulty, of course, is that clarity is primarily a function of ideas and meaning, and ideas and meaning are totally opaque to tools like this. For example, no complaints about this sentence:

> The poets breach the digestives by moatbutt every Thur.

And if I change the sentence to:

> The poets breach the digestives by moatbutt every Thurs.

it tells me my reading level has changed from 7th to 8th grade despite Thurs being a much more common shortening of "Thursday" than "Thur", which is nonsense. God forbid such tools ever be used with young students.

Wouldn't present progressive be "Now we are engaging..."?


Either way, active can really change the meaning:

"Now we fight/pursue/battle in/confront a great civil war..."

The passive voice (combined with the weak verb "to be engaged") emphasizes a future without the war ("we" and "endure"), not riling people up to fight it.

As you imply, passive voice is a tool humans can use to influence other humans. Of course, any tool can be abused, but that's no reason to yank it out of the box.

"We are engaged" is passive though. Specifically its form is passive: be + past participle. But its meaning is more reflexive than anything else. I don't know what the subject of that sentence would be in an active construction. Maybe "We have engaged ourselves in a great…" or possibly a bit more poetic "Fate has engaged us in a…". But this really speaks to your original point that a passive _construction_ (not necessarily meaning) does not always hide information the reader needs.

Yeah, if a couple really wanted to avoid the passive voice, instead of saying "we got engaged" they should say "we engaged each other". But I don't think that really conveys the intended meaning.

The same thing is true of of the Lincoln speech, in a somewhat different way.

Does anyone really need to be warned that they are using the passive voice? Does anyone actually do that by accident?

> Does anyone really need to be warned that they are using the passive voice? Does anyone actually do that by accident?

Yes, all the time. I write a lot and still fall into the trap, and it is hard not to do it sometimes especially if you were only introduced to the concept later in life. I try hard not to use the passive voice, but there are times when I think it is acceptable, and there are occasions where the alternative is more confusing. The quoted speech "Now we are engaged in a great civil war..." sounds perfectly fine to me!

Honestly, I have trouble thinking of an alternative sometimes, even when I can identify a passive voice sentence.

I think people use passive voice unintentionally or thoughtlessly. Not sure if you'd call that "by accident."

I see it quite often in business writing, I think people fall into it because it's a way to avoid taking responsibility. "It has been decided" vs. "I have decided." I would not say that it's always intentional.

> I don't know what the subject of that sentence would be in an active construction.

Wouldn't that just be "Now we engage in a great civil war, [...]"?

In a great civil war we now engage.

A writing app isn't there to turn Obama into Lincoln, it's there to get completely dysfunctional prose to borderline readable. I don't think there's any risk that Thomas Pynchon starts using this in a misguided attempt to emulate Hemingway.

It uses a simple algorithm to detect passives: be + past participle. It can't detect passives that don't follow that pattern, such as prepositional passives and get passives, and it labels some clauses as passive when they aren't.

Ironically, if you chose a random passage from Hemingway instead of Lincoln, it would litter that with spurious warnings too.

Good catch - but the thing to remember is, Hemingway isn't meant for writing great, historic speeches. It's basically meant for corporate emails, blog posts and the like.

Ideally such tools should be used as helpers, not as sacred. You what to comply with when to what degree.

As the saying goes, rules are for the guidance of wise men and the obedience of fools.

Society itself is trying to make us more machine-like, and it bends the practice of writing to that end.

If you want to write well, you have to read a lot of good writing, preferably starting at a young age. But if all you're trying to write is legible work email, or cookie-cutter marketing copy, or whatever, an electronic nanny can probably get you across the finish line.

Quite so. I suppose I lament the idea that you can become a good writer whilst shortcutting reading a large corpus of good literature. There are many ancillary benefits to reading good literature, and losing them makes education as formation that much harder.

It's a much more important example of the phenomenon that children who are glued to phones or movies on long car trips instead of playing the license plate game are missing out on some implicit geographical education.

Why is that a worry? What's wrong with being machine-like?

I feel like this attitude reflects a bias against machines and machine-like people that could lead to discrimination against them.

My particular objections to people being made machine like are rooted in a Christian conception of the inherent worth of humans as being made in the image of God (who is not a machine). Being machine-like impedes our progress towards our telos.

TBH, it would seem to be our telos, the way things are headed.

I have used similar editors in the past and since stopped. But, I found that the way these tools tend to train you to write has a long term impact. One of my newer colleagues often seems to choose the most complex words possible. I'm not sure if it's an imposter syndrome thing, maybe they feel the need to overcompensate, or they actually never learned the benefits of simpler word choice. I wish more people would learn the art of Writing Like You Talk.


People should not write as they speak, nor, usually, speak as they write. That they should is a favorite fallacy of schoolteachers. The written and spoken versions of a language are slightly different dialects; what works on the page is often less than optimal to the ear, and the tricks and colloquialisms of conversation are out of place in most written contexts.

I shudder to think what this electronic nanny would make of the prose of Nabokov or Poe. The former author described Hemingway as a “writer of books for boys.”

Sorry but no. The dominant perspective on writing in academia teaches people to do exactly what you are saying. This is what is taught in undergraduate English classes. The unconventional wisdom is to Write Like You Speak. So it's more about unlearning popular things like "bureaucratese" and corporate speak. Poetry and literature aside, most of us are better off writing in plain English if we want to do well professionally.

The Plain English Campaign lays it out well:

"The main advantages of plain English are: it is faster to write; it is faster to read; and you get your message across more often, more easily and in a friendlier way."


> This is what is taught in undergraduate English classes

This pedagogy says more about undergraduate writing capabilities than ideal writing standards. Most students entering college need to be taught basic writing fundamentals so that they can then learn to violate them appropriately as maturing writers. The same is true for any art or craft: you develop foundational skills and learn strict rules to understand when it is appropriate to break them.

The Plain English campaign is much more persuasive for the workplace, where being easily understandable is a very high priority, but Plain English is not appropriate for all writing.

> The dominant perspective on writing in academia teaches people to do exactly what you are saying.

Dominant perspective among whom? Surely not the entirety of Academia. Very few academic writing I've seen are written in plain (let alone "as you speak") English.

Complex sentences, peppered generously with subordinate clauses and participle phrases, are common throughout STEM, social science and the humanities alike. Passive voice is likewise used throughout. Obscure vocabulary ("The mercurial Spaniard") is perhaps considerably more common within humanities.

Yes, many (perhaps most?) English Writing instructors are advocating a certain form of plain English - one which is typified by your quote. This school of thought dates at least as far back as The Elements of Style. And you'll find most of the admonitions the Hemingway Editor throws at you in there: Write short sentences, shun the passive voice, purge your adjectives and adverbs.

And despite this particular school of prescriptive linguistics (let's call it the Strunk and White school) being dominant in English Writing teaching in the US[1] for over half a century, little came out of it.

It's rather ironic that at the very same time that the Strunk and White school gained foothold with English teachers and the public, English departments in American universities have embraced post-structuralism to such a degree that the very concept of "English departments" became synonymous with "postmodernists" for many people. This post-structuralism is the driving force behind most of the entrants of the Bad Writing Contest: http://webcache.googleusercontent.com/search?q=cache:www.den...

Now, even if I were to agree that the Strunk and White school I described above is really dominant in practice (and not just in theory), I don't think that the plain English they advocate for is "spoken language". GP has claimed that spoken and written language are two, slightly different, dialects. I would venture further and say they are vastly different.

First, the medium: Spoken language is carried over multiple channels: the phonemes themselves, tone, loudness and rhythm[2]. Out of the channels above, writing only replicates the phonemes (with letters) and an extremely limited approximation of rhythm (with punctuation). Of course, written language has its own unique properties such as division into chapters with headings and paragraphs and styled text: italic, bold, underlined and so on.

The different medium creates a different dialects in practice. Taking your quote from above, I think a more faithful rendition of something that naturally appears in speech might be:

"So, the main advantages of plain English are: yeah, obviously it's faster to write and read; and you also get your message across a lot more, it's a lot easier, friendlier, you know."

I'm not a native speaker, so my rendition is probably not as natural as it could be. And the punctuation doesn't even begin to do any justice to all the missing prosodic elements. But this how spoken language really is.


[1] I haven't delved into this deeply myself, but I'd dare to guess that the UK English Writing instruction landscape was originally more influenced by Fowler's Modern English Usage than by Strunk and White.

[2] All the non-phonemic elements of speech are often collectively referred to as "Prosody" or sometimes Suprasegmentals.

Most of your comment makes me think I should write more like I speak.

I tend to write and speak pretty similarly depending on the situation. Something informal like a comment thread, I write a lot closer to the way I actually speak. Though...I probably swear a lot less.

Formal writing though is something totally different.

Whatever kind of writing you have to think of the audience and the tone you want to convey.

When I want to write conversationally, I try and emulate the way I talk, when I want to write in a different way, I change the tone of my writing.

This comment went more towards the formal, explanatory style in the end I suppose.

I've always found context matters the most for the tone of writing though.

Sometimes a natural, conversational style emulating the way you speak is good, sometimes not.

But it's the same for speaking as well. Speaking in front of people or in some kind of formal situation is a totally different kind of speaking than chillin' with your friends at a party.

You don't speak the same way in those two situations, it's the same with writing. It always depends on the audience and the context.


I find that the best writing is kind of conversational. It obviously depends on what it is (technical document, memoir, Medium tutorial), but I find the kind of writing you're doing here reminds me of a college admissions essay. It's like a teenager in a button down shirt and tie. I respect the effort, but I don't take it seriously.

I think Obama's recent book is a good example of rich but not overly done writing.

> I shudder to think what this electronic nanny would make of the prose of Nabokov or Poe.

You want fun, just try feeding it some actual Hemingway.

To communicate best, you should like the reader speaks.

I completely reject the idea of simple word choice. Synonyms are not exactly synonyms; the more complex word can convey a substantially different idea in subtle ways. When speaking, we are forced to reach for simple words to keep up with the real-time pace of conservation. This restriction to the same few words homogenizes verbal semantics and limits our abilities to express nuanced ideas with speech. The very advantage of writing is that we don't have to write like we speak, and can instead take a minute to consider whether "berate" or "accost" or "chide" or "admonish" best communicates our ideas. Like all freedoms, this advantage is double-edged and gives writers the chance to bury their prose with flowery language, but I should hope that we can rise to that challenge and write more precisely than we speak.

The following was written using Hemingway App:

I bought this app a while ago.

It's nice, but note it will make your writing succinct. Sometimes more succinct than it needs to be. I also wish the app had basic features like find and replace, which it lacks.

This writing is all approved, but if I write a longer sentence, it will give me a yellow line. This means that if I write a sentence in my normal length, about some topic that necessitates a longer sentence, it will give me a red or yellow highlight. This highlight makes it hard to read the text.

And that's why I don't like this concept. Let's be honest, that passage sounds like crap. I'm all for brevity, and I think nowadays people tend to write with too much formality and bureaucracy, but this app is not the way to go about fixing the problem. Arbitrarily capping sentences to ~20 words (I assume that's what they do) makes your writing really choppy and more verbose, ironically. That last paragraph probably could have been just 1 long yet focused sentence.

What about something like google-docs-highlight [0].

It's inspired by the Gary Provost quote "This sentence has five words. Here are five more words. Five-word sentences are fine. But several together become monotonous. Listen to what is happening. The writing is getting boring. The sound of it drones. It's like a stuck record. The ear demands some variety. Now listen. I vary the sentence length, and I create music. Music. The writing sings. It has a pleasant rhythm, a lilt, a harmony. I use short sentences. And I use sentences of medium length. And sometimes, when I am certain the reader is rested, I will engage him with a sentence of considerable length, a sentence that burns with the energy and builds with all the impetus of a crescendo, the roll of the drums, the crash of the cymbals - sounds that say listen to this, it is important."

[0]: https://github.com/ojoven/google-docs-highlight

That quote is fantastic. I could feel the pace and rhythm change.

Sometimes I wish poetry other than rap music was popular. I know no one I can share poems with or equally show me their finds like we do with music and memes. I’m forever sending an mp3 or Spotify link to friends and vice versa.

Nobody ever iMessages a sonnet.

That's interesting, but also kind of underwhelming. I mean, if you understand the concept, why doesn't it provide:

a) A paragraph-level analysis to account of sentence length variety

b) A document-level analysis of the same type

c) Suggestions for where sentence length needs to be varied, for example where long sentences should be broken, and so on.

There's a LOT of books with guidelines to improve writing, but it seems like 99% of the tools are only brushing the surface at best.

It's better thought of as a guide for writing in an effective style. Not a guide for writing well. Or properly.

Most people have never consciously changed their writing style. That exercise has value in itself. And there are worse styles one could imitate than Hemingway.

> And there are worse styles one could imitate than Hemingway.

Certainly, including the one promoted by the app, which doesn't imitate Hemingway's style; at best it imitates a naive application of a maxim Hemingway reported as being influential early writing advice that he had received.

Yes. The app seems very useful in that regard. But I would like it to emphasize the style aspects of it, not some objective standard of "too complicated sentences".

Well, it's called "Hemingway Editor", not "Faulkner Editor".

Turns out, the Faulkner Editor is MUCH harder to implement well. And for most most practical purposes, the distinction between writing in the style of Hemingway, and talking like a robot, is ignorable.

> And for most most practical purposes, the distinction between writing in the style of Hemingway, and talking like a robot, is ignorable.

Writing != Talking.

No native English speaker would talk like Hemingway speaks.

The genius of Hemingway's writing can be lost if you look only at his writing style and ignore everything else.


And yet more and more people talk like robots.

The following was written by the actual Hemingway; the Hemingway Editor thinks it is okay except that it has 4 adverbs and should aim for “0 or fewer” (not sure how the “or fewer” works) and “1 of 1 sentences is hard to read”:

That something I cannot yet define completely but the feeling comes when you write well and truly of something and know impersonally you have written in that way and those who are paid to read it and report on it do not like the subject so they say it is all a fake, yet you know its value absolutely; or when you do something which people do not consider a serious occupation and yet you know truly, that it is as important and has always been as important as all the things that are in fashion, and when, on the sea, you are alone with it and know that this Gulf Stream you are living with, knowing, learning about, and loving, has moved, as it moves, since before man, and that it has gone by the shoreline of that long, beautiful, unhappy island since before Columbus sighted it and that the things you find out about it, and those that have always lived in it are permanent and of value because that stream will flow, as it has flowed, after the Indians, after the Spaniards, after the British, after the Americans and after all the Cubans and all the systems of governments, the richness, the poverty, the martyrdom, the sacrifice and the venality and the cruelty are all gone as the high-piled scow of garbage, bright-colored, white-flecked, ill-smelling, now tilted on its side, spills off its load into the blue water, turning it a pale green to a depth of four or five fathoms as the load spreads across the surface, the sinkable part going down and the flotsam of palm fronds, corks, bottles, and used electric light globes, seasoned with an occasional condom or a deep floating corset, the torn leaves of a student’s exercise book, a well-inflated dog, the occasional rat, the no-longer-distinguished cat; all this well shepherded by the boats of the garbage pickers who pluck their prizes with long poles, as interested, as intelligent, and as accurate as historians; they have the viewpoint; the stream, with no visible flow, takes five loads of this a day when things are going well in La Habana and in ten miles along the coast it is as clear and blue and unimpressed as it was ever before the tug hauled out the scow; and the palm fronds of our victories, the worn light bulbs of our discoveries and the empty condoms of our great loves float with no significance against one single, lasting thing—the stream.

(From Green Hills of Africa)

It considers a line break to break up a sentence. If you move the whole thing to a single line, it will naturally consider it to be far too long a sentence.

I came across a decent writing tip using Hemingway: try to "balance" yellow and red sentences instead of eliminating them. Readers should be able to handle some yellow and the occasional red, but try not to bombard them.

This is a good example. Thank you for posting it.

I feel better informed after reading your comment. I would like to express my appreciation.

Your last sentence was too long.

What I don't like in this text is the sentence without verb "Sometimes more succinct than it needs to be."

This was enforced by Hemingway. I originally wrote "Sometimes it forces me to be more succinct than I need to be", but that was flagged as a "confusing sentence" for some reason.

<pedantic> I think you meant "without a predicate". </pendantic>

As far as I can tell, "Sometimes more succinct than it needs to be" is grammatically incorrect because it lacks a predicate.

It's unreadable because the proper use of adverbs gives context. If the adverb "succinctly" was not flagged by this ridiculous app, the sentence would sound natural.

No, it wouldn't. It would just be a freestanding adverb phrase rather than a freestanding adjective phrase.

> the sentence without verb

What's "be" if it's not a verb?

> What's "be" if it's not a verb?

The phrase “to be” is an infinitive verb, and in this “sentence” is a component of the adjective phrase “more succinct than it needs to be” (which is modified by the adverb “sometimes”, remaining an adjective phrase).

When talking about the basic parts of a sentence (or, more generally, an independent clause), the required “verb” (the predicate) is more precisely a finite verb, which this phrase does not have. It also lacks a subject. And, for that matter, an object, though that's not generally required. It's just a freestanding adjective phrase.


> the required “verb” (the predicate) is more precisely a finite verb

You mean every "sentence" must have a "finite verb"? Do you have a good url explaining that?

Well done.

This reminds of the technical writing education I received in college. While I understand the goal of this guidance is to make technical communication as clear and concise as possible, I also feel like it leads to a world of boring writers. And (IMO) boring communication actually should be recognized as worse communication, in comparison to communication that combines technical detail with human deliverance.

The problem is all the more exacerbated when the guidance uses a checklist-like rubric such as:

-"this sentence exceeds X word count, consider splitting"

-"this sentence uses passive voice, use active voice".

I remember "revising" parts of my senior design to score higher against a similar rubric, despite being confident that the revision was overall worse.

Writing quality is inherently subjective, maybe to the chagrin of engineering types. Even though there are horrendous emails and documentation in the wild, I still think teaching people how to write with tools like this isn't the solution.

When I was a child learning to write, so many of these rules bothered me so much. I'd get notes like that on my papers, and I'd think, "Yeah, but my way sounds better..." But so often that point is met with a blank stare, as if how the writing comes out doesn't matter at all compared to whether the "rules" were followed.

I'm sure a lot of it was me just being a headstrong young person, but I also know that according to grades, I was much better at writing than most of my peers, and I also continually felt like I was writing worse than I could have been, in order to satisfy teachers.

The goal of all writing classes is to make the grader happy. For a good writing class, making the grader happy and writing well are in close alignment. For the overwhelming majority of writing classes the two are mostly orthogonal.

The above paragraph is obvious to many, but wasn't to me as I'm not great at picking up on social cues. What finally made it click was comparing grades with a friend for an assignment that had a rubric. Each category could get a "+" a "" or a "-" (in descending order of "goodness"). My friends marks were strictly worse than mine, he got a B, I got a D.

Usually it's less blatant than this, but this particular teacher had it in for me (though not without cause).

The passive voice one is a common misunderstanding. Passive voice isn't bad but it's primary purpose is to allow flexibility in word order.

A good rule of thumb is to have something familiar at the beginning of a sentence and something new at the end of a sentence. Further, to create flow what was the new part in the previous sentence should become the familiar part in the current sentence. Subject verb object pattern in the active voice often requires the object performing the action of the verb to be at the beginning of the sentence . This is often not desirable if that object is indeed the new thing you want to introduce at the end of a sentence.

In French, passive voice is used to redirect the spotlight on meaningful bits.

In their example & imho, "Phrases in green have been marked to show passive voice." communicates their intent better than "We marked in green phrase using passive voice". The 'we' is useless.

You can replace "have been" with are in these sorts of cases. So "Phrases in green are marked to show passive voice." Or even shorter "Phrases in green use passive voice".

You've perfectly demonstrated the problem with these kinds of revisions. "Phrases in green use passive voice" removes the passive voice, and in doing so, completely alters the semantic content of the sentence. The passive voice expressed a meaningfully different notion.

> Phrases in green are marked to show passive voice.

That's still flagged as passive voice by this abomination of an editor.

> Phrases in green use passive voice.

The meaning of that is less clear than the original. The phrase isn't using anything. We are talking about how it was written: facts about its construction that happened to it. The only way we can do that honestly and concisely is with passive voice because the phrase is only passively involved.

Rules like these are toxic nonsense.

> In French, passive voice is used to redirect the spotlight on meaningful bits.

True in English, too.

It's a common bad-writing problem in English that it is frequently used improperly so that it obscures meaningful bits while being excessively verbose. Thus, common neophyte advice is “avoid passive voice”, and some people get super religious about this without understanding what problem the advice aina to solve.

I think both are worse than: "To show passive voice, phrases are marked in green."

that is definitely worse than either of the other examples. your version doesn't specify which phrases are marked in green.

You're right. I see the problem :) It is subtle, but nice catch.

>Passive voice isn't bad but it's primary purpose is to allow flexibility in word order.

Maybe we're reading different things but from everything a I see, passive voice is way overused. Most writers are not deliberately sequencing their word order in the sentences which results in passive voice. Instead, most writers are omitting the active agent because it's the easier default. Unfortunately, this overuse of passive voice lacks punch.

Example of a classic passive voice sentence: "Mistakes were made."

Writers love hiding behind passive constructions like that. With no explicit agent, there's nobody in specific to point blame at nor offend. But the reader wants to know _who_ made the mistake. If possible, write the agent into the sentence: "Nixon made mistakes." or "Kissinger made mistakes."

There was a writing style book that compared 10-K annual financial reports from companies that got hit by accounting scandals (Enron, Worldcom) vs clean companies (Berkshire Hathaway & Warren Buffet). There was a significantly more passive voice sentences in the dishonest companies. In contrast, Warren Buffet writes in a lively active-voice style ("I invested in this. We lost money on that.") I just checked the BH's most recent 2020 10-K and Warren Buffet still writes in active voice.

(I wonder if there's a hedge fund that uses text analysis software to scan 10-K filings to quantify which company is overusing passive-voice as a parameter to their models.)

For technical reports like "post-mortem of website outages"... the heavy use of passive voice is understandable since it's just trying to explain the problem and eventual solution and not focus on _who_ fat-fingered the command-line with incorrect config to cause the outage.

> trying to explain the problem and eventual solution and not focus on _who_ fat-fingered the command-line with incorrect config to cause the outage.

Yes! It's important for the newspapers to hold Nixon accountable. The rest of us have stuff do so we can afford to buy papers that tell us whose fault that is.

I would agree it's overused and often a sign the writer lacks clarity into what they are trying to communicate (aside from the more nefarious uses to obfuscate).

But I think it helps to understand it's purpose instead of to say it's just bad.

> Mistakes were made

You can be just as evasive in the active voice. Someone made a mistake. An error caused the deletion of your data.

Most uses of the passive have nothing to do with being evasive.

>You can be just as evasive in the active voice. Someone made a mistake.

Yes, but by explicitly adding the word "someone [...]", the hiding/concealment is calling attention to itself. It's an unusual and awkward construction of a sentence -- or -- the writer was trying to write a mystery/crime novel.

On the other hand, if the writer doesn't want to name the agent without drawing attention to the writing style, the overuse of passive "to be" verbs instead of active verbs is the way to do it. Passive voice is the hallmark of government bureaucratic reports and they're boring and lack punch.

>Most uses of the passive have nothing to do with being evasive.

I agree.

I think we see passive voice a lot in technology because we're frequently describing actions and outcomes. The actors are either irrelevant or continuous and unambiguously implied.

In the example we'd have to keep referring to 'Hemingway' or 'the application' in order to maintain active voice, which adds no value. E.g. 'Hemingway marks phrases green to show passive voice'

Passive voice allows us to switch focus to the object that is being acted upon, which is much more relevant.

Yes, the passive voice is an information packaging construction. There are several others: existential clauses, it-cleft constructions, preposing and postposing, etc. It's just one of the many ways we can adjust the construction of English clauses to suit our purposes.

Sounds fascinating, I'd love to see some examples.

A common pitfall when trying to humanise technical content (particularly error messages) is to add folksy cutesy whimsical flourishes which are cute and funny and whatever to some of your audience, but might be a barrier to others (particular those who do not share your cultural background or have English as a second language).

I think it's part of a larger trend of infantilization of the end user, which I find disturbing.

What is a better solution? For business writing, just consistently considering the active voice would improve many writers’ output.

“It was decided that we’d lower shipping prices.” versus “Chris decided to lower our shipping prices.”

I don’t know if writers choose the former because it feels fancier, because they notice other writers doing it (maybe because they struggled to read what was written and took notice of the pattern?), or because they don’t know or don’t want to commit to what actually happened, but it’s incredibly frustrating to read a sea of passively voiced sentences about what happened.

In your example, the primary difference for me wasn't so much active-vs-passive, but attribution. I've seen the passive voice used to great effect for softening statements and avoiding the assignment of blame/other undesirable attribute.

Instead of "Chris and Jack disagreed during the discussion", one could say "No agreement was reached during the discussion". One may say this is mealy-mouthed, but it seems to me that managing emotions is a supremely important part of being a good communicator and being a consensus-builder. Avoiding the use of language that triggers "fight-or-flight" responses is very useful in many situations.

Passive voice can be used to omit the doer of the action, which is preferable when the action itself is the focus. The choice between active and passive voice should be based on this choice of focus. You can’t say categorically that the active voice is better than passive, classical rule of thumb notwithstanding.

Yeah, but to people who see what you’re doing, it’s clear that you’re dodging responsibility. Like, focusing on the action is preferable because it takes emphasis off the doer. I prefer that folks just say “we did the thing” instead of saying “the thing was done”. We know who did it, trying to shade that fact away with grammar just looks suspicious.

Go for it. Meanwhile those of who like having clients will avoid directly blaming them.

>Passive voice can be used to omit the doer of the action, which is preferable when the action itself is the focus.

Behold, the most important thing to know about business writing:

>Chris broke the build.

>The build was broken.

"The team decided to let chris break the build." ;)

Still to finger-pointy. Try "a build breakage occurred".

"The set of broken expanded to include the build."


We Chrises can never get a break... unless its the build. -_-

For the simplest of communications, like an IM or short email, maybe using checklist rules does impart more good than bad.

But I think in larger writing pieces, including those technical in nature, these rules produce low quality writing. In my experience it produces extremely curt, choppy writing with overall bad flow. It almost feels like a bulleted list converted to a paragraph, with a sprinklings of "and"s, "so"s and "because"s. And while "flow" sounds like a wishy-washy concept, I think it is effectual and worthy of first level consideration. It shapes how well your ideas synthesize together, and ultimately how well you communicate your thoughts, ideas, and feelings.

> but it’s incredibly frustrating to read a sea of passively voiced sentences about what happened.

Tolstoy's War and Peace would frustrate you to insanity in that case.

This "rule" against passive voice doesn't exist in every language.

What looks like good writing in English may look like childish, repetitive prose in other languages.

The "rule" doesn't exist in English either.

Most of the people complaining about the passive have either serious trouble identifying a passive at all, or can't construct an argument why it's bad to save their lives, as amply demonstrated by Geoffrey Pullum. http://www.lel.ed.ac.uk/~gpullum/passive_loathing.pdf Section 2 is a bit technical, but the rest is a great read.

The former allows hiding or diverting blame for an action, which is part of why it's so popular with corporations and law enforcement.

> This reminds of the technical writing education I received in college. While I understand the goal of this guidance is to make technical communication as clear and concise as possible, I also feel like it leads to a world of boring writers. And (IMO) boring communication actually should be recognized as worse communication, in comparison to communication that combines technical detail with human deliverance.

The site says this sentence is very hard to read, and I will get lost trying to follow your meandering. :)

I totally agree, I disabled all predictive text. The feature in Gmail is the worst. It's like, no thanks Google, I don't need you to tell me what I'm going to say, or how to say it.

90% of the time when I give feedback reviewing other people's work that they use passive, it's not using about active for the sake of active. It's that in choosing to use the passive, the writer leaves ambiguous who is performing an action.

Depends on if you prefer a longer time to launch using training wheels or a shorter time to launch by crashing and burning repeatedly.

Given the low resilience of most people, training wheels is going to win out, and the beauty of it is that they are removable.

To be fair, active voice makes a huge difference over passive voice. It's good to avoid passive voice in all of one's writing.

And the LAST thing I want to see is people reverting back to the obnoxiously wordy and flowery styles of writing that were common a hundred years ago+

I love this app so much that I'm sometimes reluctant to share it with people. I'm afraid if it becomes too popular they'll add new features and ruin it.

My process of writing anything goes through this tool. I write in a plain text file to avoid distraction. Then run it through this app to simplify the writing and make it more legible. Then I pass it through scribens, another tool in my pipeline to catch mistakes. Since I can never find someone to read and edit my work, I convert it to audio and using a TTS reader.

It drastically improves my writing.

I can relate to your feelings for sure.

I'm using Workflowy to brainstorm and capture ideas and Ulysses for writing. I appreciate both products for being clean and simple to use and not bloated with unnecessary features.

This reminds me a lot of the coaching given by the Yoast SEO plugin for WordPress. That actually did help me become a better writer as I blogged, but I really think this methodology is limited.

PERFECT Grammar is optional. (edited from "Grammar is optional" because people didn't recognize the hyperbole. My bad)

Sure, you have to have the basic grammar that everyone understands so that your writing can be understood. Beyond that, style takes over. I learned this from a newspaper columnist years ago. He didn't follow the Exact Rules. He made up some of his own, and his writing was better for it!

And so it is with me. I write to be understood and hopefully easy to read, and maybe, just maybe, be entertaining. Grammar is only part of the equation for me.

So what do I tell people? Use these tools (Grammarly, Hemmingway, etc) to become a better writer, and when you feel like you've met your goal, toss them. They're good for the purpose, but will limit you in the long run.

> Grammar is optional.

Grammar is mandatory. Following a specific style guide is optional.

I really, really wish more people understood the difference between grammar, which is how a language works, and style, which is how a specific organization or person has decreed that language must be used or else they will become very, very cross with you.

English flexible very. Grammar optional. Convey much thinkings philosophy attitude deliberate dissonance. Education class wealth signifiers == code switching; academic pretense.

Audience knowledge crucial. one style !fits all.

This is why grammar is not optional. I have no clue what you said or are trying to convey. Yeah english is flexible, but that doesn't mean you can just drop articles and sentence structure.

Leading to the question of whether "understanding" is the responsibility of the speaker or the listener.

In a world where every other fact is contended, it's unlikely there will be agreement about that either.

You broke my compiler!

> English flexible very.

Syntax error: verb required.

> Grammar optional.

Syntax error: verb required.

> Convey much thinkings philosophy attitude deliberate dissonance.

Syntax error: clause contains too many nouns.

> Education class wealth signifiers == code switching; academic pretense.

Syntax error: verb required. Punctuation not recognized: "==".

> Audience knowledge crucial.

Syntax error: verb required.

> one style !

Syntax error: verb required. Warning: sentence is uncapitalized. Warning: space exists between last word and final punctuation (french mode not enabled).

> fits all.

Syntax error: subject required. Warning: sentence is uncapitalized.

Your compiler was broken; I didn't break it:

Verbs are not always required:





"Just no."

Contains too many nouns is not a thing. Your compiler should have errored on a mismatch between discrete and continuous quantities (much thinkings should either be many thoughts or much thinking) and then on a compound noun without hyphenation.

Creative punctuation is normal; really, we've only standardized on punctuation since the mid-1700s or so.

Capitalization is, again, stylistic: e.e. cummings, notably, was against it. So was Archie.

And you broke on == and !fits, but the context of reading Hacker News ought to equip your parser with adequate sidechains.

Without grammar, you have words being used completely at random. Using words the way you are, with reduced syntactic structure, is still using grammar, even if you use more punctuation instead of words; that said, the difference between punctuation & word is somewhat blurred even in formal writing.

> Audience knowledge crucial. one style !fits all.

And this is the essence of style.

I understood the ideas you're trying to convey, but the annoyance I experienced with the conveyance was palpable. :)

Then I'm afraid I got my meaning across entirely clearly.

This reminds me of that episode of the office.

Hemingway? Just try pasting the following text there:

In the late summer of that year we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and the plain to the mountains. In the bed of the river there were pebbles and boulders, dry and white in the sun, and the water was clear and swiftly moving and blue in the channels. Troops went by the house and down the road and the dust they raised powdered the leaves of the trees. The trunks of the trees too were dusty and the leaves fell early that year and we saw the troops marching along the road and the dust rising and leaves, stirred by the breeze, falling and the soldiers marching and afterward the road bare and white except for the leaves.

I think Hemingway's style has become a bit of a meme that doesn't really reflect the reality of his writing. The last sentence in that excerpt from Farewell to Arms is a great example. Each individual clause is simple enough but he likes to connect them all together to create one connected image. The results from the Hemingway app can be disjointed and lack that flow.

Agree. Hemingway is more about poetry, which is when you manage to say a lot using relatively few words, put in the right order.

Haha, I tried the same thing with For Whom The Bell Tolls, and got similar results.

I have built a similar tool to help me edit my PhD thesis a few years back: https://expresso-app.org/. It helped me improve my writing but was also picked up by some English teachers to use as a scalable way for providing initial feedback to students, so they can later focus on deeper feedback in their own grading. So I now keep the tool running for the small community.

This is a wonderful tool, thanks for making this available.

Oof. Doesn't redirect to HTTPS. If you load the link (www. prefixed) with HTTPS, you'll get a certificate only for the bare domain.

This is probably over-indexing, but I don't think I'd trust a software company with all of my communications if the they can't get HTTPS right on their homepage.

I think Hemingway (the website) is several years old at this point and not under active development.

Kind of interesting to feed it actual Hemmingway excerpts - which it sometimes complains about.

Surprisingly I'm finding it complains about Cormac McCarthy and Hemmingway equally, at least based on the very small sample of excerpts I'm giving it. But then you throw in something like this from All the Pretty Horses and it's got strong opinions...

"In the evening he saddled his horse and rode out west from the house. The wind was much abated and it was very cold and the sun sat blood red and elliptic under the reefs of bloodred cloud before him. He rode where he would always choose to ride, out where the western fork of the old Comanche road coming down out of the Kiowa country to the north passed through the westernmost section of the ranch and you could see the faint trace of it bearing south over the low prairie that lay between the north and middle forks of the Concho River. At the hour he'd always choose when the shadows were long and the ancient road was shaped before him in the rose and canted light like a dream of the past where the painted ponies and the riders of that lost nation came down out of the north with their faces chalked and their long hair plaited and each armed for war which was their life and the women and children and women with children at their breasts all of them pledged in blood and redeemable in blood only. When the wind was in the north you could hear them, the horses and the breath of the horses and the horses' hooves that were shod in rawhide and the rattle of lances and the constant drag of the travois poles in the sand like the passing of some enormous serpent and the young boys naked on wild horses jaunty as circus riders and hazing wild horses before them and the dogs trotting with their tongues aloll and footslaves following half naked and sorely burdened an above all the low chant of their traveling song which the riders sang as they rode, nation and ghost of nation passing in a soft chorale across that mineral waste to darkness bearing lost to all history and all remembrance like a grail the sum of their secular and transitory and violent lives."

I want to highlight that apps like this one (or Grammarly) are very useful for those of us who don't speak English as a first language but use it every day. By the way, we are a lot!

I get that they tend to foster a very specific writing style that can be boring, but most comms are not about fun but about conveying a message. I would not write a novel following their advice, but they are useful to replace a few words or add a comma here and there.

If you're on the fence about this, go find some writing you love and copy paste it into here. I pasted the first chapter of some of my favorite authors' best books into it and each of them got assessed at Grade 3 writing level, even Rothfuss. And it lit up a bunch of clear sentences as hard to read.

What makes a long winding sentence hard to read is the switchbacks and nested bits. You want to keep moving without doubling back.

If you split up clauses, having things modify other things across long distances with other ideas in between, it can get complicated.


It can get complicated if you split up clauses, having things modify other things across long distances with other ideas in between.

Both are flagged by the app, but the latter takes up less working memory and can be "parsed in constant space" as the sentence grows.

Academic writing is littered with this issue.

>If you split up clauses, having things modify other things across long distances with other ideas in between, it can get complicated.

I found this version easier to read. I think because with the other one I have to remember the beginning part of "It can get complicated" and try to apply that to all the conditions that come up throughout the rest of the sentence. I prefer to build up the picture of 'split clauses', 'long distance modifications' etc and then classify this as complicated afterwards rather than start with the classification.

Yeah, with just a few splits/nestings, it can go either way. It's only when you get a whole bunch that it gets difficult. I think I came up with a poor, lazy example.

i'm really struggling to find a great work of literature that this app doesn't think is terrible. the idea is conceptually neat, and the UX is nice though

constructively, think a lot of these decisions are too strict, for example 'perhaps you already know this' is asked to be replaced with 'you already know this'. Even murakami, who writes in the very clear way the app looks for gets flagged up:

> Both elbows on the table, I covered my face with my palms. Inside that darkness, I saw rain falling on the sea. Rain [softly](<-- 'use a forceful verb') falling on a vast sea, with no one there to see it. The rain strikes the surface of the sea, yet even the fish don’t know it is raining.


> Until someone came and [lightly](<-- use a forceful verb) rested a hand on my shoulder, my thoughts were of the sea

Honestly, that's a good thing.

I assume this is targeted mostly at a business communication use case, similar to Grammarly and others. Clear, unambiguous, and standardized communication is far more important in this context than in literary fiction.

If someone at work sent me a design doc and it read like Ulysses, I would not be pleased.

I think Hemingway wrote in a terse manner because it helped him to convey a certain atmosphere and notion of depth beyond what the bare words presented, not because he was trying to simplify things so that people who lack high-level English skills could follow what he was saying.

>If you see a red highlight, your sentence is so dense and complicated that your readers will get lost trying to follow its meandering, splitting logic — try editing this sentence to remove the red.

Some readers. Not everyone writes with the intention of reaching the largest possible audience. Of course many people do write with that intention, and in many contexts that is a very good intention, but it seems to me that to associate such simplification with Hemingway the writer is misleading.

I'm sure someone has done this before but Hemingway app ironically has a lot of feedback for this random passage I pulled from the Old Man and the Sea.


This is really only going to make your writing "bold and clear" if you prefer one specific style of writing, something perhaps akin to how Hemingway wrote.

I pasted in the first line of 100 Years of Solitude by Garcia Marquez, considered to be one of the greatest opening lines of 20th century literature, and was warned for its length and complexity.

Writing which has aesthetic appeal cannot be boiled down to a heuristic which prizes one element (simplicity) over all others. You can develop interesting writing, and even beautiful writing that way. You can notice bad habits and avoid them. But writing is not so simple as to have one expressive path which creates "boldness" and "clarity."

As a writer I hate these types of apps. As others have pointed out, when you put real popular works in them, they light up like christmas trees. But very few have touched on why.

One thing you learn as a writer is you want varied sentence structure * . Also good prose has a sort of rhythm, both in the words used and the lengths of the sentences (this is also imo why translations rarely compare to the originals). If you make all your sentences the same length it sucks the rhythm out. As for everything else it highlights, they're all just tools. A long word or a passive voice used in the right place can work better than the "correct" alternative. Writing is about knowing which tools to use when. In some ways, writing is very similar to visual design. People don't notice why some writing is good. It's just a bunch of tiny choices that all add up, but also if you use comic sans you're dooming yourself to failure.

What do I actually suggest to writers? Read your story out loud (tts can help to pick out errors as well, but rarely rhythm related errors). If you mentally stumble or backtrack reading a sentence, something is wrong. If you feel like you need to pause but there is no pause, something is wrong. Same with the opposite. Finally, put the story away for a month and try it again. Rinse and repeat until polished.

* Like everything, this also just a tool. You can not use it and still have amazing prose that matches the situation (e.g. one long run-on sentence to emulate a stream of consciousness).

I've used it for years. It's a good tool.

But it'd be better as a Google Docs plugin. My workflow goes from Gdocs => edit in Hemingway => paste back in Gdocs => export to Markdown.

Grammarly has that plugin. I'm not sure how they both compare though (I never have time to give Hemmingway a try before my Grammarly payment renews!).

This is exactly my workflow!

I thought the desktop version allowed "save as .md?"

This reminded me of an idea that circulated within the consulting group of one of my previous employers, Blackboard. The idea was to build something like this app, but to run in the background of the LMS analyzing and rating every student input (email, wiki, forums etc.). That would generate analytics for the student, faculty and administration. Interesting for regions like Latin America where control over the native language, even in higher-education, is not always a given.

These are good guidelines for producing the kind of sterile content technical folks might end up writing. Ambiguity, hedge words and verbosity can definitely hurt in that context.

That type of writing can be a negative in other contexts. In creative contexts it ends up producing very monotonous text that's tiring and uninteresting. In casual conversation (email, slack, etc.) it tends to feel inauthentic and/or cold.

That said, this tool handles all of this well. I think the UX is terrific.

I think the app follows largely with the suggestion in "On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft". Using active voice instead of passive, avoid adverb, etc. Steve King writes good fiction IMO.

Does this actually do what it claims, or is it just an illusion?

The sentences highlighted in red in its example aren't particularly difficult to read. If your audience can't understand this:

> If you see a red highlight, your sentence is so dense and complicated that your readers will get lost trying to follow its meandering, splitting logic — try editing this sentence to remove the red.

... the problem probably isn't you, but that you have the wrong audience to start with.

I'm guessing that this is just using a combination of Flesch-Kincaid, for readability scoring, and probably some libraries by Wooorm for detecting complex words and passive voice, among other things. Maybe I'm wrong.

What makes a sentence bad isn't necessarily how complex it is, but how much it is able to communicate with a given density. There's no way that traditional readability algorithms like Flesch-Kincaid can possibly score that. What would be more useful would be something that could detect vagueness of text, but haven't tried to solve this problem in the past, I found no such thing in existence.

This isn't to say that readability scores aren't useful, but they always need to be taken with a grain of salt and be used more as a guide than anything else.

It may be because I’m not a native English speaker, but the highlighted sentence is pretty hard to read. I lose track of the words around half way. After “get lost” I want the sentence to stop. My brain split the sentence right there, meaning the remaing part has no context, it’s just words the fail to belong.

It’s not that I’m a poor reader. I do real slower in English, but I can easily read something like The Economist.

All of this stuff is subjective to some extent. A newspaper columnist, novel author and manual writer will have different principles that apply to their writing.

The sentence you quoted is complex, and may readers will miss meaning, especially if it is presented an instruction.

For sure because, to me, that sentence pales in contrast to the meandering prose in most news stories. Just my opinion.

I have seen it noted by product managers that programmers tend to write with a very dense style that typically includes more context switching (for example, this sentence) than non-programmers.

I also find the "dense difficult sentence" example to be neither dense nor difficult but I think this might be related to the huge amount of my life spent exercising that "writing context" brain-muscle by writing "then" statements while keeping the "if" context in mind.

Edit: The point being, these guidelines are not universal and will have varied relevance among different works/audiences.

> The app highlights lengthy, complex sentences and common errors; if you see a yellow sentence, shorten or split it.

This was highlighted in yellow. I don’t see anything wrong with this sentence. Replacing the semicolon with a period makes the editor happy, but does not seem like a positive change.

> If you see a red highlight, your sentence is so dense and complicated that your readers will get lost trying to follow its meandering, splitting logic — try editing this sentence to remove the red.

This sentence is highlighted in red, and yet it does not seem dense or complex. Even removing the suffix doesn’t fix the red.

This really feels like it’s literally just penalizing you from writing anything other than short sentences. Deleting characters from the end of this makes it turn yellow once i get it to

> … follow its meandering, splitting log

“logi” is red, “log” is yellow.

Who is this editor even intended for? What sort of writing would be improved with these automated restrictions?

I really like the simplicity of using color coded highlights to communicate different errors.

It probably goes without saying that this may make more sense as a browser extension that hijacks textarea etc. The scope increases quite a bit, but it would be far more useful, as nobody wants to edit writing in one place and paste it into another.

I was split between Hemingway and Grammarly and ended up choosing in Grammarly. Hemingway, IMO, makes your writing clear, but it also makes it incredibly boring. Grammarly has modular settings for formality, tone, friendliness, etc which lets me view grammar-based tips while preserving my personal writing style.

At the moment, the tone setting gives you nothing.

"Experimental. How do you want to sound? This helps us build new suggestions and won't affect your feedback today."

The audience, formality, and domain expertise settings definitely work. And the tone settings do actually give feedback on the lower-right-hand side of the text input box in the form of emojis (albeit still experimental).

> And the tone settings do actually give feedback on the lower-right-hand side of the text input box in the form of emojis (albeit still experimental).

That is not my experience. I ran multiple, longer paragraphs through it now, no emojis displayed.

Huh, that's weird. Maybe they're A/B testing this feature. I've had it for a few months.

This is hands down one of my favorite tools.

When advising people on content/blogging/marketing this is the one I always recommend. In building up a content engine the first piece is always around velocity... just practice getting more out there. Get used to publishing two posts a week, and over time it'll come faster. The next step is quality, but using hemingway early on is a good shortcut to level up the quality. I generally recommend a grade level not above 8 for a blog post, and 6 is ideal.

Even beyond blog posts I find it is useful for any communication that goes out to some set of people. If you're spending time drafting an email to your internal team, asking a favor of someone, just about anything where you really want to level up the quality hemingway is a huge positive impact for not much effort.

This reminded me of this blogpost Caterina Fake wrote after discovering a similar tool a while back [1].

As others have mentioned here, this should be seen in context. I applaud governments trying to make explanations for official procedures or legal questions clear, concise, and understandable to laypeople no matter their educational background. I applaud striving to make one's explanations as clear as possible. But I don't think simplistic, dogmatic rules can achieve that, and I don't think it's desirable or virtuous in all contexts.

1. https://caterina.net/2020/08/02/vocabulary-loss-and-the-narr...

First the praise: For learning technical writing where clarity is the ultimate goal this might be really useful as a first draft editor. I'm certain I would benefit from using this tool to improve my writing skills. The UI looks very nice, not just stylish but functional in a non-intrusive way and that is a great accomplishment.

But my initial gut reaction after realizing what the app was doing was horror. Hemingway Editor appears to present some fairly opinionated ideas, steering a writer towards being very concise and using a simple vocabulary. But the counter point is that in a world where the written word is the primary mode of communication we desperately need to develop our own voices. Yes, even in technical writing.

I used this for years while blogging. I was frequently complimented on my clear writing style. It really helped with my addiction to long run-on sentences. I think of it as training wheels - eventually I didn't need it, but it was really useful at the start.

I'd like to see other people's solutions. Mine at grade 5 was:

The app highlights lengthy, complex sentences and common errors. If you see a yellow sentence, shorten, or split it. A red highlight is dense, and complicated. Your readers will get lost trying to follow its meandering, and splitting logic. Try editing the last sentence to remove the red.

You can use a shorter word in place of a purple one, mouse over them for hints. Phrases marked in blue are either weakening or adverbs. Please get rid of them, and pick words with force.

Phrases marked in green show passive voice. You can format your text with the toolbar. Paste in something you're working on, and edit away. Or, click the Write button and compose something new.

Maybe there should be an app that turns your Hemingway-style text into corporate-talk. eg "now" -> "at this point in time". "use" -> "utilize". "what it does" -> "functionality"

It looks lovely, but this isn't the audience for this. Who here doesn't already have a favorite editor?

I mean, if there was a command-line tool I could wrap up in elisp in a flyspell sort of way... I'd pay you more than $20.

You know style and diction? https://www.gnu.org/software/diction/

Thanks, I hadn’t heard of those (not OP though). I use proselint (should be packaged for your distro), and writegood’s emacs minor mode is in my repos.

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