When I was an undergraduate student, a new listing popped up in course catalogs across the country: Writing for the Web. At the dawn of the internet age, these classes appealed to forward-looking marketers and tech-savvy English majors (like me) who understood that the way we communicate was about to change.
Today, these classes have all but disappeared. Writing for the web has become, simply, writing.
What does it mean to write for the web?
It means writing for perpetually shrinking attention spans. It means writing in a way that it is visually appealing as well as verbally appealing. It means writing what you mean to say in 140 characters or less — which is much harder than merely writing what’s on your mind in 140 characters or less.
It means writing clearly, concisely and compellingly. (It also means avoiding adverbs.)
Prose is architecture, not interior decoration.
— Hemingway Quotes (@HemingwayQuote) May 11, 2014
One master of this writing style died before the web was even a glimmer on the horizon. His keyboard of choice was a sturdy Remington typewriter, and when his hands weren’t wrapped around it, they were likely wrapped around a bottle, a woman or a gun.
Or so the legend goes.
Ernest “Papa” Hemingway’s prose is celebrated for its power and precision:
“…it’s the terse richness of Hemingway’s voice that makes him stand out among crowds of other writers. His style was built upon the hard sentence, sharpened to show the exactness of each word.”
Write Like Hemingway: Writing Lessons You Can Learn from the Master by R. Andrew Wilson
Writing like a reporter
The seed of Hemingway’s style was planted during his years as a reporter for The Kansas City Star, where he learned to strip his writing down to a finely muscled core. His editors knew the daily paper would be consumed in skinny columns of text between gulps of morning coffee. The reporting had to be punchy and pointed.
Working under the same philosophy, Hemingway would later write dialogue that felt custom tailored for the silver screen: understated but dramatic, modern yet familiar.
Hemingway, in short, was writing for a world that looks a lot like our world today. Good teachers rightly hold up Hemingway’s writing as an example to be followed. It’s something I still strive for in everything from emails I write in a rush to novels I can’t seem to finish.
Now I have a little help.
There’s an app for that
While Hemingway himself would have probably abhorred the use of assistive technology beyond his trusty typewriter, Hemingway Editor is an interesting coach for the rest of us.
The software examines your writing and highlights issues preventing your prose from achieving the bone-clean strength of Hemingway’s. As you make edits, the Readability score instantly lowers (a good thing), spurning you to achieve Papa-like perfection.
If you’re imagining Microsoft Word’s underwhelming grammar checker, don’t. Unlike the obsequious Clippy gesturing towards irrelevant tips, Hemingway Editor is focused and transparent.
It’s dead simple — and fun.
Your voice, bolder
Of course, as with any writing coach, you should feel free to ignore Hemingway’s suggestions.
While you could treat the app as a word processor, I prefer to run my nearly complete drafts through it before publishing them. It serves as a sober companion, checking my verbal flights of fantasy and wagging a finger when necessary.
A writer’s style should be direct and personal, his imagery rich and earthy, and his words simple and vigorous. The greatest writers have the gift of brilliant brevity, are hard workers, diligent scholars and competent stylists.
Invariably, there will be people who feel apps like this will rob them of their individual voice as a writer. This complaint is often rooted in a deeper fear of technology in general.
But Hemingway Editor is not a cookie cutter. It’s a barrel-chested editor puffing a pipe, shooting you meaningful glances over surprisingly delicate bifocals. If your voice is strong, it’ll only make it stronger.
- The in-browser version of Hemingway Editor is free.
The recently released desktop version will set you back $7 USD.
Header image credit: Yousuf Karsh via Wikimedia Commons