Hemingway’s 4 rules for writing well

7 04 2011

Simple genius.

That’s the best way to describe the writing style of Ernest Hemingway.

Some writers love to fill their prose with flowery adjectives or complex descriptions that run on and on, but not old Ernie. He wrote simply and clearly, and reading him is like eating a meal of meat and potatoes that tastes better than anything you could order at a five-star restaurant.

A key moment in Hemingway’s development into one of the great American writers came in 1917. Then a fresh-faced reporter at the Kansas City Star, Hemingway was taught four basic rules of writing that he would carry with him the rest of his life.

Because the list of rules is so short and yet so insightful, it’s a must-read for anyone interested in writing effectively:

1. USE SHORT SENTENCES

Short sentences are easier to digest. They make it easier to follow each point of an argument or story.

Your job as a writer — or editor — is to make life easy for your audience. Forcing the reader to navigate through a bunch of long, complex sentences is like forcing him/her to hack through the jungle with a machete. Create a nice, tidy path with plenty of short sentences.

2. USE SHORT FIRST PARAGRAPHS

See opening of this post.

3. USE VIGOROUS ENGLISH

Copywriter David Garfinkel describes it like this:

“It’s muscular, forceful (writing). Vigorous English comes from passion, focus and intention.”

This rule is really a reminder to do your homework and fully understand what you are writing about. It is impossible to write with “passion, focus and intention” without having a real grasp of the subject.

In most cases, if you’ve done your homework, you will write with authority and vigor.

4. BE POSITIVE, NOT NEGATIVE

Basically, “be positive” means you should say what something is rather than what it isn’t.

– Instead of saying something is “inexpensive,” say it is “affordable.”
– Instead of describing something as “unclear,” say it is “confusing.”

This might seem like a small point, but it’s actually quite important. Being “positive” makes your writing more direct. Whether they realize it or not, readers are turned off by “roundabout writing.”

So, there you have it: eminently practical writing tips from one of the masters — or more accurately, from the Kansas City Star.

“Those were the best rules I ever learned for the business of writing,” Hemingway said in 1940. “I’ve never forgotten them. No man with any talent, who feels and writes truly about the thing he is trying to say, can fail to write well if he abides with them.”

Image credit: rarelibrary.com

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3 responses

14 05 2011
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6 12 2011
Nailah I

Hemingway wrote without wasting a word! That’s what I love most about his writing. I tried that style in my first novella Pick of the Crop (Heinemann 2003) and must have been somewhat successful since one critic saw and commented on the similarity of style.

And no! I’m in no way comparing myself to Hemingway (the mere idea is laughable!) just saying he was one of my literary mentors.

Many thanks for this, Alex.

23 03 2012
skimhenson

Sharing this link on my blog and applying it to living, as well as writing. Thanks for an informative article.

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