Hemingway: A Text Editor That Cares About What You Write

by Natasha Postolovski. Writer, coder, traveler.

“Write the best story that you can and write it as straight as you can.”

Ernest Hemingway

I first discovered Hemingway (free to try in the browser) via a Hacker News post titled: Hemingway Makes Your Writing Bold and Clear. The first version was a browser-based markdown editor — one of hundreds. Hemingway is different: it's opinionated about how you should write. If you haven't played with Hemingway yet, I suggest you take a minute to try it out.

Writing is at the core of everything we do at Envato: whether it's communicating with each other and the world, describing a new feature, or writing great software. One of the reasons we chose Ghost for Inside.Envato is the simple and focused writing experience it offers. Hemingway offers the same, yet takes the experience even further. It's a simple, beautiful markdown editor with a voice.

“The road to hell is paved with adverbs.”

Stephen King

Hemingway's algorithms detect when sentences are hard to read and when they could be simpler. The app is also great at picking up passive voice. Hemingway highlights adverbs and recommends using only a few (though adverb detection can be turned off). Ernest Hemingway's own maxims for writing well form the basis of these rules.

If I started to write elaborately, or like someone introducing or presenting something, I found that I could cut that scrollwork or ornament out and throw it away and start with the first true simple declarative sentence I had written.

Ernest Hemingway

The app is also opinionated about readability. Up to Grade 10 is 'Good', while writing with a higher ratio of complex sentences is just 'OK'. The app gives you a rating of 'Bad' for Grade 17 and above. Most academic writing would tip into this 'Bad' rating. Complex, elaborate and verbose writing is poor writing, at least according to Hemingway's algorithms.

“I didn't have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.”

Mark Twain

Created by brothers Adam and Ben Long, Hemingway is "an easy way to help people realize when their writing is too dense." Adam (25) is a Product Manager, and Ben (22) is a copywriter. They built the app together on evenings and weekends. Free in the browser, the brothers have just released a desktop version.

"After spending our days writing, we realized a common mistake: sentences grow to the point that they became difficult to understand."

“The worst part is we didn’t realize we were doing it. Our text was more clear and persuasive when we kept it simple.”

The desktop version of Hemingway has two modes: 'Write' and 'Edit'. The write mode focuses only on the text, fading the app's warning highlights into the background. It allows you to write without Hemingway's judgment. 'Edit' mode brings the app's feedback into view. It shows your Readability rating and sentences Hemingway has highlighted for revision.

Hemingway is so opinionated that writing in 'Edit' mode can be tough. As sentences get more complex they're highlighted yellow, and then red. It's easy to want to fix the sentence as you're writing it, though many writers recommend writing first, editing later. The ability to switch between 'Write' mode and 'Edit' mode is a nice touch. It represents the mental shift between the writing mind and the editing mind.

When I rewrite according to Hemingway's suggested edits, the result is always stronger writing. Not every suggestion will match the tone or type of content you're trying to write, but most will result in clearer sentences, and stronger ideas. And yet, even portions of Ernest Hemingway's own writing fail to please the app's algorithm. You have to know the rules before you can break them, and there are no penalties for ignoring Hemingway's recommendations.

The app is excellent for editing plain text, but also works as a markdown editor. You can preview your markdown as HTML at any time, and export it. I noticed that the performance of the app slowed when writing with the HTML preview window open.

One thing Hemingway lacks is focus mode (as seen in apps like Writer Pro and WriteRoom), a way to remove the toolbar and focus solely on the words. The app does not currently support full screen mode. I'd guess that this feature will be coming in a future release.

I ran into a few visual bugs while writing this post. Text would occasionally overlap, and words and sentences would pop up out of place. I'm hopeful that the developers will resolve this with updates to the software. I like Hemingway enough to ignore the bugs for now.

“Just write every day of your life. Read intensely. Then see what happens. Most of my friends who are put on that diet have very pleasant careers.”

Ray Bradbury

There are many text editors that make the experience of writing more enjoyable, but few that help to make your writing better. Hemingway is worth a look.

See also: How Writer Pro Could Be More Awesome (imho)