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Hemingway Editor: Improved accessibility, or are we just getting dumber?

Caitlin Hall


Hemingway Editor Improved accessibility

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Hemingway Editor is an online app that claims to check, correct, and improve your writing. Its specific aim is to ‘make your writing bold and clear’. Hemingway is similar to the Grammarly website, where you paste or write your text directly into the editor, and it highlights anything you may wish to change. Whilst Grammarly, perhaps unsurprisingly, focuses mostly on grammar and spelling, the primary concern of the Hemingway Editor is readability.

The premise of Hemingway is that ‘less is more’. Its primary advice for dense writing is to either ‘remove needless words’ or ‘split the sentence into two’. In its ‘About’ section, most of the sentences are simple, with just one independent clause (it favours full-stops over commas or semi-colons).

According to Hemingway, if you use its editor, ‘your readers will thank you’. Your audience won’t have to wade through paragraphs of unnecessary information, and your writing will always be straight to the point.

I believe that accessibility should be encouraged in our modern-day society. Closed captions on videos and alternative text on pictures are becoming more and more popular across social media, after people with hearing and visual impairments pushed for greater accessibility online. Certain topics—such as finance, the economy, politics, and global affairs—should be simplified, so that everyone can understand what’s going on in the world. Information should not be restricted to the highly educated, nor limited to dense textbooks and convoluted essays.

In my opinion, however, much of the text deemed ‘too dense’ or ‘very unreadable’ by the Hemingway Editor is hardly incomprehensible. In their own example, the word ‘utilise’ was flagged as ‘complex’, suggesting it should be replaced or omitted. When testing the editor myself, I found that words such as ‘however’, ‘multiple’, and ‘retain’ were also highlighted as perplexing. It also judges words such as ‘perhaps’ and ‘maybe’—it advises you to ‘be bold, don’t hedge’. But what if you’re trying to write a balanced argument or incorporating various points of view?

I pasted previous articles I’d written into the app and it flagged the majority of the text as either ‘hard to read’ or ‘very hard to read’. Perhaps I’m biased, but I don’t think many people would struggle reading the things I’ve produced. I may not use Hemingway’s ‘simple sentences’, but readers of my content wouldn’t feel like they were digesting The Iliad either.

My question, therefore, in the era of social media, is this: are we becoming dumber? Twitter has a 280-character limit, and Facebook and Instagram promote shorter content…are we getting so used to brief phrasing and succinct Tweets and captions that we’d struggle to read anything the Hemingway Editor would deem taxing?

The danger of oversimplifying—in order to improve readability—is that the nuances of certain ideas and opinions won’t translate. The last few years have seen the rise of political infographics, which often pop up on social media sites like Instagram in times of global conflict. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, or the history of the Palestine and Israel conflict, for example, cannot be summed up in an infographic—even if thousands of people choose to share it on their Instagram story. How many social media users believe they’re educated on a subject? How many share their opinions with others and make decisions when they’ve barely scratched the surface? Such situations lead to misinformation and ‘fake news’, which can have harmful consequences.

In its defence, the Hemingway Editor did help me to realise that some of my sentences are a bit wordy, and that I could cut them down or add full stops to make them more punchy and easier to read. The editor also picks up on passive voice, which many people struggle with—for that reason alone, it would be a useful tool for aspiring writers.

Hemingway assesses a piece of writing based on U.S. grade levels; it implies that the lowest grade level is what writers should aspire to if they want their readers to effortlessly understand the text. Apparently, Ernest Hemingway’s work scores as low as 5th grade, which is aligned to the typical reading skills of a 10-11-year-old.

Again, I put to you: should this be our aim? To simplify every piece of writing so it can be understood by 10-year-olds? This may be appropriate when it comes to something like the Harry Potter books, but I wouldn’t expect a child to be reading this article. The editor states that the target for most pieces of writing is tenth grade, as ‘studies have shown that the average American reads at a tenth-grade level’, which is around 15-16 years old. Does that mean we stop learning once we leave school? It’s said that we get wiser as we get older, but the Hemingway Editor doesn’t appear to agree with this sentiment.

The editor might be most useful when clarity is of the upmost importance. Furniture assembly instructions and warnings on medicine labels, for example, or when a word count is limited, e.g. web copy, social media captions, or even school essays. For text with a more creative flair, such as blogs, articles, and novels, using something like the Hemingway Editor might simplify the text too much and dilute/remove the most interesting parts. The Hemingway Editor does acknowledge that ‘rules are meant to be broken’, but also that you shouldn’t ‘think you’re above sloppy sentences’.

The Hemingway Editor’s aim is to make your writing as concise as possible. In the examples I gave earlier, that’s exactly what you’d want. No one needs flowery descriptions when they’re trying to build IKEA furniture, or anecdotes on the back of an Ibuprofen box; most people ignore these kinds of instructions entirely, but for legal purposes, they need to be as straight to the point as possible.

If your aim is to write a compelling story, however, with complex worlds and characters so comprehensively fleshed out that they feel as though they could step off the page, the Hemingway Editor might be more of a hindrance than a help.