Business Writing Skills

I Tried the Hemingway App and It Scared Me—Here’s Why…

After years of resisting, I tried the Hemingway app. It scared me. We already have a lack of good writing skills in the U.S. And I assume the goal of the app is to help make up for that deficit. But I predict this app will only dumb down our writing further instead. Here’s why…

  1. It’s a software, not a human
    It’s incapable of understanding nuance or cadence or richness. Although a dumbed down simplistic formulaic approach to writing works for—and is even necessary for—tasks such as instruction manuals and technical documentation, that is not how we speak or think or want to communicate. (Note: The app says that previous sentence is “very hard to read.” I disagree.)
  2. The results are robotic
    To some, this is a good thing. One writer says “…it’s prone to machine-like suggestions. Blindly following its suggestions will make your writing better.” Wait. Machine-like changes will make my writing better? No. No, it won’t.
  3. Our writing influences our thinking
    If we dumb down our writing, we risk also dumbing down our thinking. Perhaps my reaction is so strong, negative and visceral because I was reading George Orwell’s 1984 at the same time that I tried the app. It occurred to me that adhering to the corrections suggested by the app might be akin to moving in the direction of Newspeak, with language stripped down to bare essentials because a limited vocabulary limits our thinking.
  4. The result is unpleasant to read
    I want to read writing that is lively and engaging. When you strip away all the inessentials, like the adverbs, we will all sound the same. That kind of writing is neither pleasant to write nor to read. Hemingway was known for a terse style. But does that mean all of us should write in a terse style? Hemingway also had four wives and committed suicide. Do we want to emulate his other behaviors too?
  5. It’s not for everyone
    And herein lies my biggest issue: Using the Hemingway app is dangerous for those who lack confidence in their writing. Because they are already unsure about their writing to begin with, they are more likely to blindly follow the suggestions (per the writer quoted above) without becoming better writers. The app becomes a crutch, not a tool, and their writing stays inadequate.

When to use the Hemingway app
That’s not to say the app doesn’t have its place. When one is writing materials that must be stripped down and minimized such as instructions or documentation, the app can make that task easier. Secondly, for confident writers in a hurry, the app can offer a quick check, drawing attention to sentences that need some tightening up. But that’s about it.

Alternatives to the app
You can be a better writer without using the app. Below are just a few suggestions for doing so:

  • Know your audience and write specifically to them.
  • Improve your writing skills. Know when to follow the Hemingway app suggestions and when to ignore them.
  • Read, read, read, read. Read the work of others to learn what works and doesn’t work with the written word.
  • Realize that most writing requires editing and revising. That’s just how writing works.

Trust me. You’re smarter than an app. If you want to use Hemingway as an occasional tool to help you improve your business writing skills, I support that. But if you whole-heartedly plug everything you write into that app and make every change it suggests, you’re going to dumb down your writing and possibly your thinking.

Do we have a writing skills gap in the U.S.? Oh, yes! Do we lose precious time and energy because we can’t write or because writing is so poor we spend too much time trying to understand it? Again, yes. But I don’t think this is the fix. I think the Hemingway app has its place, but I’d much rather see people improving their writing skills than relying too much on a quick fix like this.

P.S. By the way, here’s how this post scored when I pasted it into the app:

Readability Grade 5, Good

10 adverbs. Aim for 7 or fewer.
2 uses of passive voice, meeting the goal of 13 or fewer.
1 phrase has a simpler alternative.
6 of 63 sentences are hard to read.
5 of 63 sentences are very hard to read.

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