The Protojournalist
9:15 am
Wed March 5, 2014

Hemingway Doesn't Always Live Up To His Code

Originally published on Wed March 5, 2014 5:24 pm

The air was clear. Our prose was not.

We remembered what Scott had told us about a clean, well-designed place called Future of Storytelling. Scott said we could learn from it. He was right and it was good.

Through the website, we discovered the Hemingway App.

In our time, writers need all the help we can get. Many of the great editors, such as Maxwell Perkins and Gertrude Stein, are gone. We have — and have not — sometimes found editing programs to be our paisanos. Still, we write as well as we can and sometimes we write better than we can.

Fighting The Bull

As a test, we shoveled the first paragraph — 13 sentences — of The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway into the Hemingway App. We wanted to see if the Old Man would live up to his own code:

  • Robert Cohn was once middleweight boxing champion of Princeton. Do not think that I am [very] much impressed by that as a boxing title, but it meant a lot to Cohn. He cared nothing for boxing, in fact he disliked it, but he learned it PAINFULLY and THOROUGHLY to counteract the feeling of inferiority and shyness he had felt on *being treated* as a Jew at Princeton. There was a certain inner comfort in knowing he could knock down anybody who was snooty to him, although, being [very] shy and a THOROUGHLY nice boy, he never fought except in the gym. He was Spider KELLY'S star pupil. Spider KELLY taught all his young gentlemen to box like featherweights, no matter whether they weighed one hundred and five or two hundred and five pounds. But it seemed to fit Cohn. He was REALLY [very] fast. He was so good that Spider PROMPTLY overmatched him and got his nose PERMANENTLY flattened. This increased Cohn's distaste for boxing, but it gave him a certain satisfaction of some strange sort, and it CERTAINLY improved his nose. In his last year at Princeton he read too much and took to wearing spectacles. I never met any one of his class who remembered him. They did not even remember that he was middleweight boxing champion.

This is what the app told us.

  1. 3 of 13 sentences are hard to read. In Bold.
  2. 1 of 13 sentences are very hard to read. In italics.
  3. 9 adverbs. Aim for 0 or fewer. Adverbs in CAPS.
  4. 3 words or phrases can be simpler. In [brackets].
  5. 1 uses of passive voice. Aim for 3 or fewer. Phrase between *asterisks*.
  6. The bot picked up Kelly as an adverb — because it ends in ly.

Breaking The Rules

We thought we were gutsy and original. We were not.

In the short time the app has been available, it has been noticed not just by Future of Storytelling, but by the New Yorker, SF Gate and others — many of whom immediately fed lines of Papa Hemingway's work into the app to see how Hemingway the robot would edit Hemingway the writer.

Even the creators of the app — brothers Adam and Ben Long — tried running Ernest Hemingway through Hemingway. "Hemingway is a tool, and like all tools, it doesn't know when you intentionally violate its rules," Ben, 23, a copywriter in New York, tells us. "If you plug in Ernest Hemingway's writing, you'll see that he breaks the rules all the time. The beauty of Hemingway is that you don't have to agree with everything. It just points out things you might fix: complex sentences, tricky diction, passive voice, and adverbs."

So we fixed Ernest Hemingway's prose to satisfy the app. We changed Kelly to Webb. Here is the result:

  • Robert Cohn was once middleweight boxing champion of Princeton. Do not think that I am much impressed by that as a boxing title, but it meant a lot to Cohn. He cared nothing for boxing. In fact he disliked it. But he learned it. And how to counteract the feeling of inferiority and shyness he had felt when other students treated him as a Jew at Princeton. There was a certain inner comfort in knowing he could knock down anybody who was snooty to him. Although, being shy and a nice boy, he never fought except in the gym. He was Spider Webb's star pupil. Spider Webb taught all his young gentlemen to box like featherweights, whether they weighed 105 or 205 pounds. But it seemed to fit Cohn. He was fast. He was so good that Spider overmatched him and got his nose flattened — forever. This increased Cohn's distaste for boxing. But it gave him a certain satisfaction of some strange sort, and it improved his nose. In his last year at Princeton he read too much and took to wearing spectacles. I never met any one of his class who remembered him. They did not even remember that he was middleweight boxing champion.

We think the Hemingway App made the prose of Ernest Hemingway better prose. We wonder if Max and if Gertrude might approve of the revision.

Do not tell Papa. He might take it hard. To say his prose can be improved by machinery may not be good, but it is gutsy. And that is good.

Will all of this lead to finer work by young writers in Paris and elsewhere? Maybe they will keyboard long and well and the result will be BitTorrents of Spring or The Old Man and the C Drive.

Isn't it pretty to think so?

The Protojournalist is an experiment in reporting. Abstract. Concrete. @NPRtpj



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