Ernest Hemingway's writing style can help you write better and sell more.
You’re a great writer when other great writers say so. Writers are cocky insecure creatures and when they find it in themselves to say something good about another writer (whose not dead), the world should listen.
But, besides Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway’s writing style has been revered by novelists, poets, bookworms and even marketers for its distinct flair. It’s punchy yet ever-flowing. It’s simple yet endless in depth. It’s Hemingway.
The great writer’s prose has become so popular there is even an app that exists, the Hemingway Editor, that indirectly claims to help users write like Hemingway, by editing their writing to be both “bold and clear”.
Side note. The New Yorker ran Ernest Hemingway’s own writing through the app and found it only scored a “15” which is like a D+.
Oh, the irony.
While the Hemingway Editor proves that it’s downright silly to believe any of us could ever develop the level of skill Hemingway had with the pen, it doesn’t mean we can’t learn a thing or two from the reigning king of twentieth-century American Literature.
There are a number of elements in Hemingway’s style that can and should be modeled.
How to write like Ernest Hemingway.
Being that I write primarily about marketing and copywriting, I will be mostly exploring Ernest Hemingway’s writing style in how it pertains to… yes, you guessed it… marketing and copywriting.
But, please know, I believe studying Hemingway can make all of us better writers and communicators… and believe the observations I share in this article could be valuable to most everyone. Now, let’s begin.
Ernest Hemingway writing style tip #1: Use one syllable words more often than not.
No matter how many times I read it, I’m still blown away…
“In the late summer of that year, we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and the plain to the mountains. In the bed of the river, there were pebbles and boulders, dry and white in the sun, and the water was clear and swiftly moving and blue in the channels. Troops went by the house and down the road and the dust they raised powdered the leaves of the trees. The trunks of the trees too were dusty and the leaves fell early that year and we saw the troops marching along the road and the dust rising and leaves, stirred by the breeze, falling and the soldiers marching and afterward the road bare and white except for the leaves.”
What you just read was the epic first paragraph of Hemingway’s “A Farewell to Arms”. In its four sentences, you’ll find one hundred and twenty-six words (one hundred and three of which only have one syllable).
It’s a stunning introduction that paints a picture, yet it doesn’t use a single word a ten-year-old child couldn’t understand. It’s the ultimate example of how clear, concise and simplistic language can be extremely powerful.
As a writer who certainly struggles with using more flowery language, I look back at this paragraph often, to remind myself that simplicity almost always gets the job done.
One way to accomplish simplicity in your writing is to use more one-syllable words versus two and three syllable words.
Instead of, “Our enterprise has been in existence for approximately fifty years” try “We have been at work for longer than most folks have been alive.”
While the second sentence is obviously longer, it feels punchier because it uses one and two syllable words versus never-ending words like “enterprise” and “existence” and “approximately”.
And, speaking of longer sentences, that brings us to our next Ernest Hemingway writing style tip…
Ernest Hemingway writing style tip #2: Use shorter sentences.
One copywriting tip I write about often is starting your copy with a short first sentence. Joseph Sugarman, arguably one of the greatest copywriters of all time, called this tactic the “slippery slope”.
Long, lengthy, flowery sentences can discourage the reader from reading the remainder of the ad, email, blog post or sales page. So, to make it easier on them, you write the first sentence so short the reader can read it in a split second.
It turns out, Hemingway was also quite the fan of the short sentence, too. He would frequently scatter short sentences throughout the passages in his books to add a punchiness and rhythm that feels almost as if it is pulling and tugging the reader along.
Let me attempt to apply Ernest Hemingway’s writing style to the two sentences you just read, beginning with “It turns out”. Let’s see if we can’t make them punchier by using shorter sentences.
Hemingway adored the short sentence. He scattered them throughout his books. Their punchiness and rhythm felt as if they were pulling and tugging the reader along.
As many of men have said before, I’m no Hemingway, but hopefully, you can see the difference in prose. Take number two certainly reads better, crisper.
Ernest Hemingway writing style tip #3: Write using positive language (not negative).
I’m not lying to you.
When you read those words, they might raise some suspicion. Even though the word “not” is present in the sentence, the reader still subconsciously focuses on the word “lying”.
Instead of “I’m not lying to you” Hemingway would write, “I’m telling the truth.”
Marketers are notorious for using negative words to make positive claims about their brands, products or services.
Our new products are flawless.
Our services are pain-free to use.
You won’t lose sleep working with us!
A better way to write these positive claims in a way for them to actually sound positive would be…
Our new products are superb.
Our services are smooth and easy to use.
You’ll sleep like a baby working with us.
Ernest Hemingway writing style tip #4: Slice away the fat (a.k.a the ‘-ily’ adverbs).
Guilty as charged. I am notorious for using ‘-ily’ adverbs in my writing. And, while I’m trying to cut back… they’re like cigarettes. They’re addicting.
For those of you who don’t know, adverbs are words that describe a verb, an adjective or another adverb. I’ve included some examples down below…
The man walked calmly.
The girl screamed loudly.
The cat clawed harshly.
The squirrel climbed rapidly.
While I couldn’t tell you exactly why great writers despise -ily adverbs, if I were to take a wild guess it’s because they’re often times placed awkwardly in sentences and perhaps even come across as a bit redundant.
Take the girl screaming for example. If a girl were to scream, one might imagine that it would be loud. So, there is probably no reason why a writer would need to share that the girl did not only scream but also screamed loudly. Does that make sense?
In marketing and copywriting, this goes back to writing with purpose and respecting the reader or prospective customer’s time.
Now, with that said, there are plenty of exceptional writers like Sinclair Lewis who use -ily adverbs in their writing often (or at least more often than Hemingway). So, if you’re guilty of writing the occasion -ily adverb, don’t beat yourself up… just be sure you’re writing them sparingly.
Ernest Hemingway writing style tip #5: Never use a harder word where a simpler word will do.
Writers who love exploring new words must be careful. It’s easy to get in the habit of using difficult language where simpler language will do.
I tend to obsess over big beautiful words and at times am tempted to use them in my writing but I also must remind myself there is a balance to it all.
Copywriters, writers and marketers make their living first and foremost through effective communication. The reader must be able to fully comprehend what thought or idea the writer is writing about. This is best accomplished through simple language.
With that said, there is always room to add in the occasional 360 between the legs slam dunk, just to keep the reader on her toes.
One iconic element of Ernest Hemingway’s writing style was the simple words he used in his writing.
He wrote lived instead of existed, looked versus gazed, clear rather than translucent and white in place of ivory.
Hemingway didn’t overcomplicate his craft. He pieced together his sentences from a toolbox overflowing with words everyone spoke and still speaks. The farmer or the rocket scientist could read Hemingway and that’s a feat that shouldn’t be taken lightly.
By Cole Schafer.
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