Write Like Hemingway

August 27, 2015

A friend of mine just took a brain-killer of a test, one those exams smart people study for and still flunk.  None of the test is easy but she dreaded the essay portion.  These essays test a student’s knowledge of the subject and his/her ability to communicate on paper.  My friend put a great deal of time and effort into her preparation and I won’t be surprised when she passes but the only advice I could offer on the essay part was, “Write Like Hemingway.”

Of course I didn’t mean she should write about hunting big game or creating a reason to live.  (Frankly, Ernest’s, machismo and existential angst is part of what sours me on his novels.  Half the time I want to yell at him to drop the attitude and pick up the baby – nothing cures existential woes like caring for somebody else.)  No, I admire Hemingway’s style, how he stitched together phrases and words.  If I didn’t like everything he had to say, I still love the way he said it.

Direct, the man was direct.  Hemingway started out as a journalist, wedded to the simple sentence and the fewest details that paint a picture.  This excerpt for his short story “Soldier’s Home” shows what I mean

“There is a picture which shows him on the Rhone with two German girls and another corporal. Krebs and the corporal look too big for their uniforms. The German girls are not beautiful. The Rhinedoes not show in the picture.”

Four sentences about a photograph, three of which describe it but what do they tell you?  Two men serving in a foreign country meet women from a different land. (If they were local, the girls’ nationality would not be identified.)  This sounds like it should be an adventure.  But if you look again, everything’s out of kilter.  The uniforms don’t fit.  The girls aren’t pretty.  Even the scenic river is invisible.  Without ever saying it, Hemingway makes it clear: this journey was a big disappointment.

The story may be apocryphal but this anecdote says a lot about Hemingway’s style.  Supposedly, a bunch of writers were competing to see who could pack the most story into the least number of words.  Ernest came up with this:

“For sale: baby shoes, never worn” 

Everything’s in a single sentence. The hope, the heartbreak and the aftermath of a loss, all in six little words. If this sentence doesn’t really belong to the man, it should.

Hemingway’s sentences are short and rhythmic, he leans on nouns and action verbs.  Adjectives are few and far between, adverbs even further.  He doesn’t use a lot of exclamation points, even when a herd of buffalo are charging and each one he uses has extra meaning.  That is the essence of Hemingway’s style.  Each word is deliberately chosen and placed to create appropriate impact.

So how does this relate to everyday writing?  Can Hemingway be a touchstone in regular correspondence?

A boss of mine thought so, years ago.  After I typed out the law firm’s usual two-paragraph letter that started “I-filed-my-document-requests-in-the-above-referenced-case-XX-days-ago…” the lawyer crossed out mumbo-jumbo and wrote the kind of business letter I love.  Here, without the identifying info, is the text:

Dear So-and-so:

Where’s my damn discovery?



If you want to get the point across, write like Hemingway.

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