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The Hemingway App and Writing Clear Online Content

by Dimitris Polychronopoulos

The other day I wrote an article for an online publication. After having published more than a dozen articles with them, suddenly one of my posts didn’t meet the publication’s standards. I needed to go back and make it more readable. The chief suggested I use the Hemingway App to clean up the article. So downloaded the Hemingway App to my computer. Then I cut and pasted in the article. The app said that I was writing for Grade 12 and that I had a lot of sentences that were very hard to read. Before long, I improved the readability of the article so an eighth grader could understand it.

In the context of helping somebody make an article more readable for online publication, the Hemingway app seems to do the job. Yoast published a compelling article explaining why online content should be clear and easy to read, from a standpoint of search engine optimisation. In this context the Hemingway app helped fix the problem. In other contexts, we would be better off with a human proofreader, especially for academic papers and literary works.

Criteria of the Hemingway App

So what are the criteria that the Hemingway app uses and how did it help me bring my article from a Grade 12 to a Grade 8 reading level? The Hemingway app uses an algorithm with the following measurements: adverbs, passive voice, simple phrases, hard-to-read sentences, and very hard-to-read sentences. Adverbs should be limited to about one per 100 words or so. The app also seeks to limit usage of the passive voice to once every 100 words. As for the other three measurements, the Hemingway App counts them up and suggests that we eliminate verbosity and long sentences where possible.

Just for fun, I tried to use it for Portuguese and Greek to see what would happen. If we use the app in a language that uses Latin script, it will still show which sentences are hard to read and which are very hard to read. The Hemingway app seems to be able to determine how difficult sentences are to read based on the number of words in a sentence. If you don’t use it for English, it won’t feature adverbs, passive voice or simpler alternatives. When I tried it for one of my Greek articles, it must have been all Greek to the app. Nothing at all registered.

Hemingway App and the Jabberwocky

Using the Hemingway app, Simon Ager tried the Jabberwocky by Lewis Carroll. So I also tried the 167-word poem, which includes many made-up words. One of those words, galumph, is now in the dictionary as a combination of ‘gallop and triumph’. Two other words, borogove and uffish, have made it into urban dictionaries. A borogove is a ‘shabby-looking bird with feathers sticking up all around’. Uffish is grumpy. The other made-up words never gained such status. Words such as: brillig, slithy, mome, outgrabe, toves, gimble, and wabe. Despite my calculation that about 12% of the vocabulary in the Jabberwocky is made up, the Hemingway app gave the piece a Grade One reading level. Clearly the Hemingway app’s algorithm doesn’t pick up whether vocabulary is made-up or real.

Some, including Ian Crouch of the New Yorker, have already reviewed the Hemingway app with Hemingway’s prose and concluded that there are times when Hemingway, along with the rest of us, should use adverbs and passive voice. The Hemingway app isn’t suggesting we ban them altogether. The Hemingway seems more suitable for articles that are trying to please Google. On the Internet, if people find something hard to read, they won’t stay on the page. They will click an article away and move on to something else.

Now that I’ve discovered the Hemingway app, I returned to one of my previous posts to see whether I could improve the readability of any of the articles in English on my website yozzi.com. I also wondered how the Hemingway app scale would compare to Yoast’s scale.

An example of before and after Hemingway app

Take a look at these two articles on humour in foreign languages. The first article is after the Hemingway app. When you scroll down the page, you will see the second article is the original before I discovered the app.

Yoast showed the readability of the article before using the Hemingway app to be ‘difficult’, while after using the Hemingway app, the article was listed as ‘OK’.

With the Hemingway app, I wrote the article with shorter, simpler sentences and used fewer words for the entire article.

The original article was 942 words. The revision was 901 words. The original article had only 43 sentences, of which eight were hard to read and 16 were very hard to read. The revision had 67 sentences of which 11 were hard to read and only three were very hard to read.

Hemingway app illustration]

Despite the weaknesses of the Hemingway app’s algorithm, as a polyglot who writes articles on the Internet in several languages, I’d love to have a version of the Hemingway app for other languages. Where is the Voltaire app? Show me the Cervantes app. As it turns out there are several reviews of the Hemingway app in different languages, but there is so far no equivalent of the Hemingway app in these languages. So I checked with the developers, brothers Adam and Ben Long. Adam responded that they are working on other languages.

What other languages have to say about the Hemingway App

Here is what some have said about the Hemingway App in different languages:

FRENCH

Lemonde reviewed the app and tested a paragraph of Hemingway’s writing on the app. The paragraph consisted of 146 words. They found it to be rated Grade 7, which is ‘good’ readability. It still had three adverbs (zero would have been the ideal) and one very difficult to read sentence. An extra ‘adverb’ was included, since somehow the app concluded that ‘I think’ was an adverb!

ITALIAN

An audio books blog reviewed the Hemingway app in Italian. There example shows the problems areas of a sample text highlighted in different colours and categorised.

NORWEGIAN

This post on Medium shows the same sample text in the Hemingway app as the Italian blog. The author suggests the need to develop a version of the app for the Norwegian market. The author writes that journalists, writers, real estate agencies and business people would benefit the most from such an app.

SPANISH

This post in Spanish doesn’t add anything new to explanations already mentioned in French, Italian and Norwegian. It’s fun to read the Facebook comments after the article though, since everybody seems to want a Spanish version. So it’s no surprise that on Quora: somebody asked about any versions of the Hemingway app for Spanish. The alternative suggested is be a Quora user is https://spanishchecker.com On my blog post about writing Spanish better, I suggest Language Tool. Now that I know about Spanish Checker, which I just looked at for the first time, I will give it a go. As I look into tools for Spanish further, I discovered My Stylus and Pro Writing Aid as well. Javier Peñas writes a review of all four Spanish writing tools on his website.

PORTUGUESE

In a poor choice of background and font colour, Pedro Costa writes about the Hemingway app in Portuguese. My favourite part of the page is the comment below reading: Olá! Está muito ruim de ler o seu texto! Esse fundo cinza com o branco é péssimo para a leitura, não consegui terminar de ler porque meus olhos começaram a doer. Fica essa sugestão, caso queira que seus leitores voltem para o blog.

Indeed I also had a terrible time looking at the text, but at least managed to read the entire post. Pedro links to a fun analysis of the Hemingway app by Mark Lieberman. He goes beyond LeMonde’s test, by putting several pieces of Hemingway’s prose through the test, as well as F. Scott Fitzgerald’s prose. He concludes the app is nonsense, since these famous authors do not necessarily score well with the app. In the comments, we read how others say the point of the app is to help people write clear marketing and technical texts. My opinion is that it is all about balance. When we write, we should be humble enough to admit that we can be guilty of verbosity. There are times to be terse. There are times to be colourful.

CHINESE

This post in Chinese suggests a variety of tools to help inspire writers and help them organise. It mentions Buzzsumo, Web Clipper, Blinkist, Evernote, Hemingway and Grammarly. The article doesn’t go into too much detail. It says that anything beyond Grade 10 reading level is likely to lose readers on the Internet.

GREEK

As it turns out, I didn’t find a Greek review of the Hemingway app. So I decided to write one myself. Greek speakers, please take a look and let me know what you think.

Don’t leave out the Human Proofreader

In conclusion, while I feel the Hemingway app is helpful for writing clear web content, I still feel a human proofreader is vital as well.

How about you? Have you used the Hemingway app before? What are your thoughts about it? How do you feel the algorithm could be improved? Do you feel the criteria used are valid? Do you know of other apps to help you improve your writing skills? Do you know of any methods that can compete with the Hemingway app in other languages? Any guesses as to the readability of this article? The Hemingway app scores it at the 7th grade.

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