A Short Course in Writing
Ernest Hemingway was a powerful, original writer and anyone who puts words to paper can benefit from learning about his writing style.
He was such an excellent writer that it is easy to get lost in his stories and forget to look at their construction. He is best known for The Sun Also Rises, For Whom the Bells Toll, The Old Man and the Sea, and The Snows of Kilimanjaro. He won the Nobel Prize for fiction in 1954.
Hemingway was known for his sparse, dynamic writing style. He learned that style at his first job as a reporter for the Kansas City Star. Here are the writing principles he applied to all his work.
1. Use short sentences. If you look at 18th and 19th century books you will see that the pages are filled with long sentences and paragraphs that extend over many pages. Oscar Wilde’s, The Picture of Dorian Gray, comes to mind in that regard. The second paragraph of that book contains a single sentence that is 127 words long. Hemingway was instrumental in changing that tedious style in the 20th century and it came about because he applied a journalistic style to literary work.
How long should a sentence be in the 21st century? The shorter the better. If sentences you write are longer than 25 words you will probably want to edit your work to make them shorter. Delete unnecessary words or break long sentences into shorter ones.
2. Use short first paragraphs. People are reading more than ever these days, thanks to the Internet. However, the Internet is the source of a lot of bad reading habits–people are more likely to graze than actually read, so you must grab their attention instantly if you want them to read all that you have to say.
How long should a first paragraph be? The 3 to 5 sentence range is probably best. Besides being short, your first paragraph needs to grab the reader’s attention. Readers will not continue if you do not arrest their attention in that first paragraph. Once you’re happy with your opening paragraph, edit it some more. A polished first paragraph is so important that it deserves all the time you can give it.
3. Use vigorous English. What is the source of vigorous language? It springs from the passion you have for your topic. To be vigorous, language must be highly focused. How do you achieve that? It is not in the writing, but in the editing of your work. Upon his completion of The Old Man and the Sea, Hemingway wrote his brother and said that he had edited the story so thoroughly that he did not believe there was a single wasted work in the book.
Too many writers today think only in terms of completing a first draft. Once it is finished they think their work is done. That is far from the truth. The real writing begins after the first draft has been completed.
4. Be positive, not negative. This rule of writing is especially important to Christian writers. In our personal testimonies we write about all the bad things that happened to us before we tell about how Christ changed our lives in a positive way. Christian fiction writers often start with some conflict. Nonfiction writers can be very polemic in the Christian world, attacking the bad before they get to the upside of the issue.
The best writing is positive even when discussing negative things. How is that accomplished? It has to do with the words that you use. You want to think very carefully about your vocabulary and whether or not it sends off negative vibes.
Virtually any negative thought can be translated to place the emphasis on the positive. For example, you might write that something is “painless,” but still the word “pain” is very dominant. There is a different mindset required for positive writing, and sometimes that is a major shift in thinking for writers, particularly Christian writers. When you edit your manuscript, find ways to eliminate the negative and accentuate the positive.
If you want a short course in writing, read Hemingway. Analyze his methods and apply them to your own work.