Why Hemingway was a man, not an app

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Harendra Kapur

17. 02. 2014 | 3 min read

Why Hemingway was a man, not an app

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I love good tech. I really do. I remember hearing about Shazam when it was first launched all those years ago and having my expectations of what an app can do totally shattered. It can tell you what you’re humming? Cool.

Google’s made cars that drive themselves? Nice. Evernote’s post-it to note engine? Awesome. Someone made an app that can edit your writing for you?

OK listen.

Maybe I’m being precious about writing because I’m an insecure little bitch who doesn’t want his profession to be replaced by an app; but when I heard about the ‘Hemingway’ app I was immediately skeptical and after some thought, entirely cynical.

Best practice was made to be broken

See that last sentence? 41 words long. It probably wasn’t best practice and if I think about it, it probably shouldn’t be best practice. But I’m not going to break it up into short little sentences because I don’t want to. It doesn’t mean it’s a great sentence and it doesn’t mean it’s a bad one.

But it’s the sentence I want to write. That choice is all I’ve got to show for myself as a writer. And more than the ‘structure’ and the ‘framing’ or whatever, I wrote it because I liked the sound of it. I know it isn’t the most technical of considerations but it’s an important one still.

Great writing has “rhythm, man”. It has a flow. There’s a simple da-da-da-DA-da morse code beat to a good sentence and good writers think about it the same way spoken word poets and stand up comedians do.

It’s what you say, more than how you say it

I really don’t want to come across as some sort of technophobic Luddite. The Hemingway app sounds like a super cool project with a mission statement worthy of great praise (“to make your writing bold and clear”).

And as the New Yorker rightly notes in its review of the app, nobody’s claiming you have to take it as gospel, and it’s always better to know the rules before you decide to break them.

But I think it’s easy to forget that writing is just a way of carrying a thought. And the quality of the thought itself matters way more than the way the thought is framed. Don’t get me wrong, the ‘framing’ of things is huge and determines greatly how well the thought is received.

But when you have something genuinely interesting to say, it makes it that much easier to say it interestingly. As Doug describes in the power of surprise, when a brand says something different and honest, it sticks out.

That makes the headline easier to frame and it makes the rest of your writing flow too, because you’ve got something you’re excited to say. You might be wrong and it might fall flat, but that’s the risk you sign up for whenever you open your mouth.

The thing about Hemingway wasn’t his sentence structure or choice of words. He just had the balls to say what he really wanted to, the way he really wanted to. And there ain’t no app for that.

Published in:

  • blogging

  • content

  • content-marketing

  • copywriting

  • corporate-message-development

  • technology-marketing

  • writing

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  1. Doug Kessler

    February 17th, 2014

    Copywriter vs App… the epic struggle begins.
    Do you think they’ll ever make us obsolete?

    I’ve been chatting with the folks at Acrolinx (http://www.acrolinx.com) about their content authoring software.

    It’s sophisticated tech — I’d love to see if and how it can help brands maintain their tone of voice.

    I start as a sceptic… but I’m open to convincing.

  2. Harendra Kapur

    February 17th, 2014

    They’ll never make US obsolete! And if they do, they can count on angry blogposts from freshly redundant copywriters for free content marketing.

    Acrolinx sound really cool and again, these companies have great mission statements that I’d HOPE to see come to fruition. But in the same way MS Office’s autocorrect functions have gotten me out of a whole lot of holes, there are times when I reserve the right to disagree.

    If these guys can solve some of the problems content creators run into when making those objective choices then great, power to them. My concern is, a slightly insecure writer might make a safe choice because the app told them to, when they should be making a brave choice in spite of what the app told them to do.

    Curious times.

  3. John Goodridge

    February 18th, 2014

    As lit crits have pointed out Hemmingway’s style was uniquely suited to his subject matter, and perhaps little else. Had his sparse prose surface earlier in Russia for instance then The Karamazov Brothers wouldn’t have been the landmark it is.

    Content, context, style, rhythm, audience, expectations are all fertile variables for creativity with language – clarity gets you through the door. Which is why I like the Hemmingway app – anything that makes writers (of any tribe) more conscious of their style is a good thing. It could be customised to enforce a style guide I suppose, but that’s not exactly creating great communications.

    So have something to say, and say it well – that’s a complex task copywriters can help with. Orwell opined in the 30’s that business writer’s problem was not that they couldn’t write, but they had nothing to say. A problem I suspect he would recognise an hundred fold in our age.

  4. Harendra Kapur

    February 18th, 2014

    Thanks for the great comment, John. Prescient as always, Orwell’s opinion of business writers highlights the exact deficiency I was suggesting an app like Hemingway wouldn’t make up for.

    That being said, you’re right that any tool that helps a writer develop their style is bound to be a good thing.

    I’m only realising now that I probably reacted to the app the same way many graphic designers reacted to the launch of Squarespace Logo.

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