Silicon Valley obsesses over automation and efficiency. If you have the money, the tech industry is happy to deliver the recipe and ingredients for French toast as well as provide a lift to work. Automated reminders on your phone keep you focused and efficient at work, while your calendar (synced with the office’s, of course) keeps you updated on important meetings. Worried about your fitness? Smart watches can remind you to stretch and keep from sitting static. These technology trends pervade modern life, offering automated structure for almost everything. Why should writing be any different?
According to the Hemingway writing editor, the paragraph above is written at a 9th Grade reading level, and has one sentence that’s hard to read (hint: it’s the one with the parentheses). The editor suggests adverbs to replace, passive voice to erase, convoluted language to be simplified, and—of course—difficult sentences to be pared down. With a focus on its namesake’s bare bones approach to language, it’s not hard to imagine who this app (and the many like it) is designed for: young professionals, looking to improve their writing skills, perhaps to master the art of the business email. And for clear and concise language, these automated writing tools could prove useful prompters.
However, where’s the fun in that? Using Hemingway to edit the first paragraph, the program pressed me towards simple sentences, devoid of difficult language and tricky structure. This is excellent for constructing the professional email that must be painfully clear, simple, and quick to read. Yet for all the quotable ease of a laconic, pithy phrase, it is but one tool in the writer’s set. Staccato sentences may flash like news bulletins to evoke rapid changes in action or dialogue. Conversely, complex, slogging sentences are better at dragging the audience into characters and their inner turmoil. People don’t think in subject-verb-object simplicity. We add commas and hyphens where we shouldn’t. Our literature should reflect that, especially when our emails will not.
I must add an amendment to this: technology has changed and will continue to change the art of writing. My parents still recall when typewriters evolved from mechanical clicking and clacking to the sleek, quick electronic varieties. They are still in awe at the pace of technological change, amazed how quickly snail mail has disappeared into email. Within a generation, teaching cursive has given way to computer literacy. As a part of this trend, automated writing editors almost certainly will become more refined and ubiquitous within a decade. But the heart of writing, the imagination and wordplay required to imbue a simple sentence with literary brilliance is human still, and will remain so. Like the word processor before it, these editors will join the writer’s tool set, not define it.