The internet is filled with sites that supposedly help us become better writers. Some are better and more reliable than others. Out there on the vast internet is a website called the Hemingway app. Last week I read about this app on another blog post by another writer and thought it interesting enough to share on my Facebook page. The idea of the site is sound but the results I thought were….peculiar.
Basically what this app does is analyzes a piece of writing looking for things like adverbs, phrasing, that dreaded passive voice and how hard or easy sentences are to read. It grades the piece on a readability scale from 1-20(I think 20) as a whole. The closer to 1 the better the writing is…apparently. The app says you want to aim for a grade level of LESS than 10 for “bold, clear writing”. I take this as meaning grade level in school based on other suggestions the app gives you…which is disturbing on its own.
In the previously mentioned post the author used a piece by Ernest Hemingway himself who the site is named after and had it graded. The quality of Hemingway’s writing is probably debated in literature classes in every college now just as much as it was when it was first published. (So I found it’ ironic that a site which judges other writing carries his name.) He also used the ending of The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald which is arguably one of the best American novels of the last 100 years (I am not much of a fan personally) but the piece IS a work of art. You can check his blog out if you want (yes you should) but I’ll tell you the gist of it. That fine piece of American literature only was graded at 14, a mere “good” according to this sites algorithm.
PUTTING HEMINGWAY TO THE TEST
I decided to test the Hemingway App on my own writing. I used the Prologue from my first novel Running Northwest and the last chapter of the same novel. Below are the grades my own published work received. It was short enough so I posted the Prologue in as a whole, the final chapter I will not.
Prologue: Running Northwest
On the side of a dark and desolate Oregon coast road, Thomas James stood hidden in the shadows alone and lost in thought. Eventually, he crumpled to the ground, the weight of his frame and the night’s events too much for his legs. The past few hours were replaying like a bad movie in his mind. About two hours prior, he got a phone call from the county police. It took him barely five minutes to get to the accident…she was almost home.
Flashing lights and stares bore into him as he pulled himself from his pick-up, almost as if he was in slow motion. On any other night, there was virtually no traffic at one o’clock in the morning, but tonight the road was closed causing a backup. The line of cars held up was not only those traveling through, but also onlookers from the small town who heard the news and came to see for themselves.
Thomas pulled the collar of his pea coat up to shield against the driving rain as he walked from his truck to the mass of flashing lights. The rain was coming down harder than when he left his small beach house a few minutes north. People were standing by the police tape as he approached, most of which were holding umbrellas. He looked to the right of him seeing a news van parked on the side of the road and growled under his breath at the sight of them. He did not care the rain had soaked his hair and continued to hit him and run down his face. His heart was beating out of control in his chest. He walked through the small crowd of nosey onlookers, recognizing some of the faces.
Thomas felt a hand on his shoulder and barely heard the faceless voice say something that was probably meaningful and heartfelt, but it did not register as he pressed on. He paid no attention to a young officer yelling at him to stop as he ducked under the yellow police tape.
An older officer approached Thomas with a grim look on his face, shooing away the younger officer that just caught up to him and grabbed his arm.
“He’s fine Jackson, I’ve been waiting for him.” the older officer said as he stuck out his hand out to greet his friend.
The younger officer’s face went slack as his authority was shot to hell. Thomas shot him a glare then looked towards the older officer and nodding at him.
“Gary.” Thomas said reaching out to shake the sheriff’s hand. It was then that he realized how badly his hands were shaking – and not from the cold October breeze.
“Hey Tom.” Gary said looking down at Thomas’ large hand, also noticing the shaking…and the glazed look in his younger friends eyes.
Thomas could feel more stares, this time from the other officers, EMS, firefighters, nosey bystanders, and a few friends. It felt like they were all trying to read his thoughts and sense his feelings.
“Gary, what happened?” he asked.
“We can talk about the details later, partner. Just know that it is bad. “It took us awhile to get Sarah out of the car; just did in fact.” Gary said.
Thomas nodded his head in a silent response. He looked over to what was left of her car and the wreckage of the semi, shocked at how bad it was.
“Can I see her, Gary?” Thomas asked, “I really need to see her.”
“I don’t know Tom, I don’t think…I don’t know if you really want to do that.” Gary replied.
“Please Gary … I … I have to.” Thomas pleaded looking directly into the sheriffs eyes.
Gary looked into Thomas’ eyes, studying them, trying to see if his young friend had the strength to see her in the condition that she now was in.
“Yeah, of course, sorry Tom…follow me.” Gary sighed rubbing his dirty hand down his face, nodding for Thomas to follow him.
The two men walked silently towards a pair of EMS personnel who were standing next to a stretcher that was lowered near the ground. Thomas stopped short and looked at the sheriff who also stopped, realizing that Thomas was going to say something.
“She didn’t suffer did she, Gary? I mean, how long did she fight for?” Thomas asked quietly.
“Tom, we can talk about that later.” Gary said.
“No Gary, I need to know RIGHT NOW!” Thomas yelled, suddenly agitated as his emotions began to show openly. He quickly apologized for the outburst. Gary turned and smiled as he patted his friend on the shoulder; his way of saying it was all right.
“She was gone by the time we got here Tom, but your girl was tough; I think she fought for a while.” Gary said.
“How…do you know that?” Thomas asked, an eyebrow beginning to rise.
“A hunch, but don’t worry about that now. Go see your girl and I’ll tell you later.” Gary patted Thomas in an urging manner.
Thomas nodded his head again in response, his mind a blur. The two men continued walking towards the stretcher; as they got closer, Gary walked over to the EMS crew. “Hey guys, give him a bit with her, okay?” he said. The two EMS personnel nodded in response, leaving the giant of a man alone with his dead girlfriend.
He stood, briefly looking down at the stretcher, a single dirty, rain and blood soaked sheet hiding her body. He walked closer, and then fell to his knees in the mud and water. His breathing was heavy and hard; it felt like the air was being sucked right out of his body. Despite the chill, he felt hot and nauseated. He took his coat off and covered her body with it; she deserved more than a sheet. He only had a black t-shirt on underneath which was already soaked through.
Thomas pulled back the sodden sheets from over her face and shoulders. He leaned forward and put his hand on the side of her face. He gently rubbed her cheeks with his thumb and ran his fingers through the hair on the side of her head that was soaked with water and caked with dirt, trying not to pay attention to the blood mixed in. He leaned down putting his face next to hers, their cheeks touching. The rain erasing the tears that were now pouring down his face.
He was not the type of man who easily showed his emotions. Tonight however, in the driving rain and wind, everything Thomas hid from the world, except from her, came out. Tonight he held the broken body of the woman he had spent his whole life hoping for, in his arms. The woman who had made him believe in anything and everything; the woman who made him believe there was still a reason to hope when he thought all hope was lost. More than anything, she was the only woman who had ever truly believed in him.
She believed that he could walk away from the bad things that haunted him from his past. She was his best and truest friend, she was everything to him. She brought everything together, made it all beautiful and amazing. She was the missing piece of the puzzle of his heart and life. Now that she was gone, he felt as though the best part of his life was gone. He felt empty, broken, and lost as he sat next to his love who was covered by a dirty and soaked sheet.
After a few minutes, his tears turned to thick, deep, full-bodied uncontrollable sobs and he made no effort to conceal his pain and heartbreak. He cried hard enough so that even God and his angels certainly must have heard what he was going through.
Still on his knees but now leaning over her, he grabbed her small hand holding it with his own. He brought their entwined fingers to his lips and kissed them gently, as he had done so many times before. He cried harder than he ever had in his entire life.
Suddenly, as if on cue from Hell itself the rain came down heavier and the wind blew harder as it rolled off the Pacific Ocean a hundred yards away. The forces of nature made the huge trees around the area sway; the leaves and small branches blew all over. People began to scatter to escape nature’s fury. Nevertheless, Thomas stayed by his girlfriend’s side, not noticing anything.
Although Gary, the other police officers and emergency crews were only twenty or thirty feet away they could hardly see Thomas and the lifeless body of his girlfriend. The wind and the rain were now nearly drowning out Thomas’ heavy guttural cries and screams. They were frightening to those who were able to hear him.
Again, Thomas put his hand on the side of her face, gently stroking it with his large fingertips. He leaned over and looked at her face – dirty, wet and cold but still beautiful. In his heart, she was still alive and smiling. He lightly and tenderly rubbed his thumb over her lips then leaned closer and kissed her one last time. In his mind, he saw the life that in a few weeks they would have begun together. A life they had wanted practically since the day they met over a year before. One of fulfilled hopes and dreams, adventures, long walks on the beach, campfires, and long talks through the night. A life filled with wild and passionate love; a life that would never happen now, not the way they had both hoped and wanted. Thomas stopped kissing her and gently rested his forehead on hers.
At Thomas’ rented beach house were two empty plates and a burning candle on the kitchen table. Next to them was a small box with a diamond ring inside. It was waiting for a woman who would never hold it, never see its sparkle in her eye or enjoy the look of it on her hand.
As the crying continued through the rain, there was a flash somewhere in front of him but he hardly noticed, let alone cared. Thomas closed his eyes, still clutching her small, lifeless hand in his. Feeling alone in the downpour, through his tears, he whispered quietly the words Sarah loved to hear him say.
Thomas kissed Sarah’s forehead one last time. Then he pulled the soaking sheets back over her. He slowly lifted his large, but now weak body off the ground and looked over towards his friend Gary. Thomas nodded to him to come over to where he was standing. As Gary approached, he managed a sympathetic smile to his friend.
“Thanks for that, Gary.” Thomas said. His voice was hoarse, “I just needed to say goodbye in my own way.”
“I get it, Thomas; you don’t need to thank me. And for what it’s worth bud, I’m really sorry.” Gary said.
“Thanks.” was the only thing Thomas could say.
“Um, Tom we should get her out of here now, okay?”.
Thomas only nodded in reply and stepped a few yards away from Sarah’s body. Gary waved the EMS crew back over and told them to go ahead and take her away. A few minutes later Gary turned and looked over at Thomas who was standing deathly still nearby.
“At least he put his coat on again.” Gary thought to himself.
Thomas did not move except to breathe and Gary could see his friends’ eyes follow and watch everything, every move the EMS crew made with her body. After she was put into the back of the ambulance, Gary walked over to his friend, and put his hand on the man’s large shoulder.
“Hey man, it’s late. Why don’t you take off, there’s only cleanup now.” Gary said.
Thomas turned, looked Gary in the eye and said, “I’m going to stay here for a while if that’s okay. I’m just not ready to leave yet.”
Gary nodded and in his gravelly voice said, “Okay, Thomas, that’s fine. I’ll stop by the house tomorrow afternoon and we can talk then. Sound all right with you?!? I mean, if you’re going to be there at least.”
“Yeah…that’s fine.” He was distracted and lost in thought, staring off at nothing.
“Okay then, I’ll leave you alone, buddy.” Gary turned and walked away to assist with the rest of the cleanup.
The tow trucks and cleanup crew were already at work, clearing the road of the devastating carnage from the wreck. By three o’clock, everything was cleared and cleaned up. The road was open again and vehicles occasionally went by going to or from somewhere; the drivers having no idea what had transpired just a few hours prior on that very spot. The police and onlookers had long since left and Gary was the last officer to leave about 40 minutes ago. However not before making sure, Thomas was going to be okay.
Now Thomas James sat alone on the lonely dark road. The rain had stopped for the most part, the heavy fall wind still blowing hard. As he sat staring at the spot, where Sarah’s body had been; a single lonely and final tear streamed down his bearded cheek. He must have sat there for at least an hour with a thousand thoughts going through his mind, a hundred feelings pouring from his heart and soul.
Quietly he said, “What am I going to do without you, Sarah?”
After a few more minutes, Thomas stood and slowly walked to his pickup in silent agony. He blended with the shadows, feeling like a wraith as he walked, emitting sadness and darkness with every step. It was time to go home, or what was left of it. Knowing now, it was just a place; Sarah had made it a home.
Back at Thomas’ rented beachside cottage, there was more to deal with than the dinner that would never be eaten as well the reminders of Sarah scattered all over the house. A small boy was there, asleep and being watched by Thomas’ best friend, Derrick. The boy only five years old had just unknowingly lost his mother in a car accident. As Thomas drove north back up the coast, through the silent and sleeping towns of Tillamook and Garibaldi, he wondered what to say to Daniel. How would he tell the little boy that his mother was dead? Thomas wondered what would happen next.
Then just for the giggles and shits of it I decided to use a chapter from my next novel All the Roads Home that I am currently writing. This novel hasn’t even seen the whites of my editor’s eyes yet and isn’t even done being written. Here are the results from that grading.
Then for even more obnoxious fun I had the site analyze my very first WORDPRESS blog post that I wrote almost 5 years ago! I wrote it before Running Northwest was even halfway done being written. Before I was ever took a class at Grand Valley State, writing or otherwise. Before I lost my dog harley and long before I gave a good fuck about my blog and used it as part of my nifty author platform. Here is a link to that silly post. (I just noticed I did’t even use correct grammar in the title of that blog HA!)
REALLY! OK! A 13! WTF
Now, as a writer what do I learn from this app? What should I take from my surprisingly decent scores? It showed me certain areas where I could improve yes. I do love a good adverb and passive phrase. Does it mean that I, Michael J Melville am a better writer than Papa or Fitzgerald because I scored just as good or better? F%^K no it doesn’t. Does it I mean I am close? Yes…but about as close as thousands of other writers so I’m like a snail racing other snails to see who is the fastest snail. In the end many of us will always be snails. SNAILS ARE OK! SNAILS DON’T GIVE UP!
For me, I guess there are 2 things I feel like I can learn from this site. 1 is that I finally found a decent editor in Casie. And 2 that my writing has indeed improved in many ways. I suppose it depends on if you actually think Fitzgerald or Hemingway were in fact good writers; many disagree on that.
The other interesting thing is that when you paste in a piece of your own work and have it graded it tells you, by sentence where the piece fall in terms of hard to read or very hard to read.
If you hold the cursor over Hard to Read it gives you this.
I understand this is meant to be helpful but I find it almost insulting at the same time. What is wrong with writing something that people need at least a college education to read? I read my own writing and I don’t think you need a college education to read most of it…if not all. But even if THAT was my intention why is that a bad thing? One thing this app doesn’t seem to analyze or grade is punctuation and other grammatical errors. That would be something I would find useful. Also when you paste your piece (or another) into the app it doesn’t take formatting into account.
The fact my first blog scored the same overall as the ending of The Great Gatsby is a little disturbing. The fact I and other writers are apparently supposed to tailor our writing to a level of a sophomore in high school is almost insulting. However after seeing the latest scores on how well American kids are testing in reading this isn’t really surprising. I know of one person, a trashy broad, who likes to call me illiterate on her Twitter. According to this website though she is very wrong indeed….not that I needed a website to tell me that. I think if you take the Hemingway App at face value it might offer some decent incite for writers and help show us what we do well and what we don’t. That is if you buy into the grading algorithm. In general I think this might be one case where you don’t want to be #1. If you haven’t already give the Hemingway App a shot and see what you think.
Oh and just in case you wondered how this post graded when it was all said and done look below……..