The Hemingway app judges Fitzgerald, Faulkner, and me

Here’s a web site called Hemingway that judges prose according to these standards:

  • Short sentences
  • No passive voice
  • No adverbs (it tells you to aim for “0 or fewer”, which suggests that it wants you to be better than perfect–damn computers!)
  • Short words (for example, use “use” instead of “utilize”)

Paste in your prose, and it highlights your mistakes and gives you a grade level for readability.

Fair enough.  So what does it think of, say, the ending of The Great Gatsby:

Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. . . . And then one fine morning—
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

It likes this excerpt.  Fitzgerald gets a Grade 8 for readability, which Hemingway deems Good, and the only thing it complains about is the adverb ceaselessly.  I’m troubled, though, that it didn’t flag the word orgastic.  What kind of weird word is that?  (Borne also looks to me like it’s passive, but that’s probably a tough one to notice.)

How about Faulkner, from The Sound and the Fury:

When the shadow of the sash appeared on the curtains it was between seven and eight o’ clock and then I was in time again, hearing the watch. It was Grandfather’s and when Father gave it to me he said I give you the mausoleum of all hope and desire; it’s rather excruciatingly apt that you will use it to gain the reducto absurdum of all human experience which can fit your individual needs no better than it fitted his or his father’s. I give it to you not that you may remember time, but that you might forget it now and then for a moment and not spend all your breath trying to conquer it. Because no battle is ever won he said. They are not even fought. The field only reveals to man his own folly and despair, and victory is an illusion of philosophers and fools.

This gets a Grade 11 in readability, which Hemingway thinks is just OK.  One adverb (excruciatingly), no passive voice, but Hemingway marks those two interior sentences for shortening.

So with some trepidation I handed Hemingway the first paragraph of the novel I’ve been working on:

I got off my bike and stared at the guy in the brown robe.  The guy in the brown robe stared back at me.  He was sitting at the front of a cart piled high with apples, pumpkins, squash, and other fall produce; half a dozen dead turkeys hung  from hooks at the back of the cart.  I figured he was about seven feet tall, although that was probably an exaggeration.  But definitely big, and definitely scary, with small black eyes, long stringy hair, and a scraggly beard that was interrupted by a deep scar on his left cheek.

Hemingway gives this a Grade 9 in readability, which merits a Good.  Yay! However, it considers two of my sentences to be too long.  Plus, it flags two adverbs–probably and scraggly.  But hey, scraggly is an adjective–I demand a recount!  (Although maybe I shouldn’t–a recount might notice the two uses of definitely, which are definitely adverbs.) Finally, I get dinged for the passive voice in the phrase “was interrupted by”.

Will I change anything in that paragraph, in response to Hemingway’s criticisms?  Nah.  And if I were Fitzgerald or Faulkner, I wouldn’t change anything either.  Except maybe orgastic  and reducto absurdum.  They can do better than that.

Rule 7: Learn all them grammer and spelling rules

Here is some prose Ernest Hemingway scribbled on the envelope of a letter he wrote to F. Scott Fitzgerald:

What about The Sun also and the movies? Any chance? I dint put in about the good parts. You know how good they are. You’re write about the book of stories. I wanted to hold it for more. That last one I had in Cosmopolitan would have made it.

(The letter itself is wonderful, and you can read it here.)

I dint put in?  You’re write?  Of course, Fitzgerald was a notoriously bad speller himself.

If you are as good a writer as Fitzgerald and Hemingway, you can spell however you please.  Why are you paying any attention to me?  Go back to your novel!  But if you’re not, do yourself a favor and learn how to spell.  And learn the rules of grammar, even if you choose to break them.  Clearly I’m still learning.  But this stuff matters.  The site I linked to above says of Hemingway:

Whenever his newspaper editors complained about [his poor spelling], he’d retort, “Well, that’s what you’re hired to correct!”

But editors aren’t doing that anymore!  The editors didn’t pick up the Pulitzer-Prize-winning Harvard English professor’s misspelling of “Ptolemy.”  No one noticed the grammatical errors and the misspelling of “rarefied” in Lisa Randall’s Knocking on Heaven’s Door.  I was looking at the résumé for a technical editor a few months ago, and I noticed he had misspelled the name of the college from which he had graduated.  “Rutgers” just isn’t that hard to get right!  Even when their spelling is OK, some of these editors don’t seem to notice when they use the serial comma in one sentence and don’t use it in the next.  Make up your minds already!  Microsoft Word helps, but notice that its spellchecker wouldn’t have picked up “dint” or “write” in the Hemingway quote.  (It did pick up “Rutgars” though — the “editor” didn’t even bother to spellcheck his own résumé!)

Writers are pretty much on their own nowadays, particularly if they are going the self-publishing route with ebooks.  And that means it’s up to them to get the basics right.  If they don’t bother, they better hope they are as talented as Hemingway and Fitzgerald.