A Farewell to Apps

Last week Alasdair Murray and I had a brief Twitter discussion about something we both hate. The rise of apps that are supposed to improve your writing. The app in question is called Hemingway, and it gets lots of love from the sort of people who believe everything they read on various “A-List” blogs.

I’m here to tell you to steer clear of apps like this. And not because I’m a luddite who’s afraid of robots taking his job.

It’s because Hemingway is shite.

Why You Should Bid Farewell to Copywriting Apps

Before I continue, let me clarify that last sentence. Hemingway the app is shite. Hemingway the writer isn’t my personal favourite (I like likeable characters, interesting concepts and a style that accepts the existence of flair), but he was good at what he did. What he did was not writing marketing copy.

Despite this, a number of people have leapt on Hemingway’s style as the way to write copy. Short sentences. No adverbs. Using ‘positive’ words like cheap instead of ‘negative’ words like inexpensive (try explaining to a client that cheap is a positive word. I’ll wait).

The inevitable result is the Hemingway app – the leading copy editing app that promises to “make your writing bold and clear.”

I don’t like it. Alasdair doesn’t like it. And it’s nothing personal against the team who made it. I just think copywriting apps are a waste of time.

1. They Make Copy Dull

The thing about apps is that no matter how clever they seem, they’re actually quite stupid. They give good scores to text that fits their narrow criteria. In effect, they’re training you to write in a way that they like. And that way is pretty dull.

If you take the copy from the average accountant’s website, Hemingway will love it. It’s short, to the point, and with a neutral, professional tone of voice.

Drop Innocent Smoothies’ about us page copy in there, and you see swathes of red.

Some people don’t like Innocent’s brand of “wackywriting.” I don’t. Not really. But it’s instantly recognisable, fits their brand perfectly, and hasn’t put off their millions upon millions of paying customers.

An app doesn’t think like a client. A client won’t be impressed by “We make good juice.” That’s dull. Boastful. Devoid of any brand storytelling or any evidence.

Hemingway bloody loves it. And Hemingway wants you to write like that all the time.


2. They’re Not Actually Helpful

I’m not stupid enough to claim that I write copy that’s 100% brilliant all of the time. Just ask my clients – most of them will say that the final draft is pretty superb, but that there is at least one round of suggestions and amendments needed to ensure that the content is exactly what they want and need.

While you’re asking them, ask what kind of suggestions they gave to get that superb copy.

They’ll say things like “I wanted to soften the tone here to reflect the way we talk to customers” or “I asked Andrew to focus a little more on this particular benefit after thinking about what my clients respond to.”

They don’t say things like “this sentence is too long” or “this word has a shorter synonym that doesn’t flow well but any word longer than five letters is the very devil.”

They don’t say things like that, because things like that don’t help.

And speaking of unhelpful, apps can’t even recognise downright hopeless copy.

The worst, generic copywriting sentence I can write is this:

We provide turnkey solutions that help you achieve your business’ objectives. Even if you don’t know what they are.

Hemingway rates that as good and offers no suggested improvements.

Jesus wept.

3. They’re Based on a Stupid Premise

The whole point of Hemingway is that writing like Ernest Hemingway is something to aspire to. That he’s the best writer of all time, and that his prose is somehow perfect, crystalline sales copy. Even though it isn’t.

Ernest Hemingway’s not the best writer of all time.

He’s not the best copywriter of all time. He’s not even a great writer who used to be a copywriter. Kurt Vonnegut was, and nobody tells copywriters to write like him. So it goes.

Yes, there’s a certain brutal muscular beauty to Hemingway’s work, but if you want to speak to a specific audience, you can’t just rip him off. Because some people won’t respond to Hemingway.

Some people respond to Shakespeare instead.

Here’s what his cover version app says about my favourite Shakespeare piece:

I have of late—but wherefore I know not—lost all my mirth, forgone all custom of exercises, and indeed it goes so heavily with my disposition that this goodly frame, the earth, seems to me a sterile promontory; this most excellent canopy, the air—look you, this brave o’erhanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted with golden fire—why, it appears no other thing to me than a foul and pestilent congregation of vapors.

Delete all of it with extreme prejudice. Especially the adverb. Which is apparently, as I mentioned above, poison.

Somehow, that’s not quite as bad, really bad, vastly, hugely mind-bogglingly bad as this re-written sentence from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

Space is big. You just won’t believe how big it is.”

If you want to be a better writer, do what the best writers do. Read more, listen more, write more, and steer clear of robots.

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