Death and Syntaxes

Two new apps conflate the act of writing prose and writing code.


Last week, a writing app called Hemingway made the rounds. Like its namesake, the tool encouraged writing that is “bold and clear” by highlighting adverbs, instances of passive voice, and sentences that are difficult to read. On the top right of the screen, Hemingway gives the text a readability score, rated by reading-grade level — the lower the better. The clearest writing, according to the app, is for grades 10 and below. (This article gets a grade 12, earning an “ok” from Hemingway.) Several sites poked fun at the app by plugging in the author’s own work into the app and seeing how he fared (a paragraph from For Whom the Bell Tolls reads at a fourth-grade level while the opening paragraph from the short story “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” scores a grade 15.)

Basically, Hemingway is a writing tool with a syntax highlighter, which identifies word types and sets them in different colors. This is a long-standing feature in text editors built for coding; it makes programming languages more readable and errors easier to identify. That is to say, Hemingway’s feature set is less indicative of how writers actually write and more about how a developer-centric mindset would view writing: treat prose as code.

The conflation of writing and code pre-dates the Hemingway app. The mantra behind WordPress, the the blogging platform that supports over 60 million sites (including this one), is a prominent example: “code is poetry,” a motto that rests at the bottom of the WordPress landing page. WordPress founder Matt Mullenweg is often quoted saying, “We are much better at writing code than haiku.” There’s never any context around why those things are similar, but my best guess is that Mullenweg is praising the notion of efficient and clean code — tight and compact, like the rigid form of a haiku.

But it’s facile to treat code as literature. In a post for his blog Giga Monkeys, developer Peter Seibel recognizes that good code is dense, whereas strong writing is easy to comprehend (at least the kind Hemingway would’ve preferred, or the kind the Hemingway app’s creators think he would’ve preferred). “We don’t read code, we decode it,” Seibel writes. “We examine it. A piece of code is not literature; it is a specimen.”

This mistake is best exemplified by Writer Pro. Last December, design firm Information Architects released the second iteration of their minimalist text app Writer. The Pro version touted a new feature called Syntax Control, which allows users to highlight all of the nouns, adjectives, verbs, and conjunctions in their text. Like Hemingway, Writer Pro encourages writers to break down paragraphs and sentences by their elements. In a pretentious “making of” video, Information Architects director Oliver Reichenstein proclaims that “Syntax Control is what you always wanted and never dared to ask for… This helps you to single out weak verbs, unwanted repetitions, all those pesky adjectives that find a way to sneak into your text.”

I’ve been using Writer Pro for a month (I’m reluctantly using it right now) and I have not once found Syntax Control helpful. Look at the previous paragraph in Writer Pro with the feature turned on for adjectives, nouns, adverbs, and verbs:


Writer Pro’s Syntax Control dissects sentences by each word. It recalls “sentence diagramming,” an exercise popular in elementary school English classes to teach basic grammar. But what am I supposed to learn from having all my adverbs pointed out to me? Writer Pro suggests nothing; it only acknowledges their existence. At least Hemingway coaches a certain writing style, even if it does so by applying obtuse formula to each sentence. If syntax highlighting in code helps identify errors, Writer Pro at best helps spot grammatical errors — a problem that can be best solved by simply re-reading the text. The greater implication of Syntax Control is that writing well is merely about following grammar rules.

Similarly, Ben Brooks didn’t see “any benefit from using this functionality.” In his review for Macworld, Kirk McElhearn wrote, “I’ve never felt the need to see all the nouns or adjectives in anything I’ve written, and I don’t see how it will help me write or edit. Good writing isn’t about the number of nouns or proportion of adjectives you use; it’s about sentences and how they flow. Syntax Control does nothing useful to that end.”

Despite the affection for the original Writer app, the launch of Writer Pro was nothing short of a disaster. People balked at the app’s $20 price tag — the price of the Mac and iOS apps each — and the company drew much-warranted criticism after threatening to sue other developers who wanted to implement a feature similar to Syntax Control into their own writing apps. (On top of the negative press from the threats, it’s unlikely Information Architects would have been able to enforce them anyway, since the company only had a provisional patent on Syntax Control.)

Even though Hemingway encourages a bland style of writing, it admirably commits to its philosophy of what good writing should be; Hemingway is built to encourage it. It’s not hard to imagine a more advanced iteration of the app that generates notes and edits that are actually useful.

The greatest disappointment of Writer Pro is that it has no idea how strong writing is constructed. It makes the assumptions that a writer’s needs, process, and output resemble those of a developer’s. Reichenstein even said it himself: Syntax Control is a feature no one ever asked for. Though there is certainly room for better writing apps, why should they resemble tools for developers? What writer wants to treat their work like code? Who needs to be told what a noun is?

Kevin Nguyen is a founding editor of The Bygone Bureau. His only marketable skill is an above-average knowledge of European geography. He has been useless since the introduction of the atlas in 1477. Reach him by email or follow his Twitter account.