This summer my daughter read A Farewell to Arms, Ernest Hemingway’s World War I novel. She liked it OK, which I consider a compliment to the old master since he has to compete with J.K. Rowling and other modern authors who hold sway with the Facebook generation.
I intercepted “Farewell” from my daughter’s book stack because I like to reread Hemingway’s spare prose from time to time. It’s great instruction for copywriting–or any writing, for that matter. For example, if you ever write dialog or quoted material, Hemingway is worth studying.
Revisiting Hemingway reminded me of his tips I ran across two years ago at Copyblogger.com. I share them below because they’re durable little writing gems that apply to any medium or format.
1. Use short sentences.
Author Larry McMurty once wrote this about the first sentence (although it’s sound advice for any sentence): “Hold the philosophy, hold the adjectives, just give us a plain subject and verb and perhaps a wholesome, nonfattening adverb or two.”
2. Use short paragraphs.
I think Hemingway actually suggested short first paragraphs, but apply this tip to all paragraphs, especially if persuasion is your communication goal.
3. Use vigorous English.
Word choice and, specifically, verb choice, are a key to vigorous writing. Infuse copy with strong noun-verb combinations that carry the reader along.
4. Be positive.
Yes, keeping it positive is standard operating procedure in the marketing world. The “catch more flies with honey than with vinegar” proverb applies.
Hemingway’s tip “be positive” refers to word choice, not tone or perspective. For example, instead of saying “he did not win,” say “he lost.” Instead of saying “his writing was not clear,” say “his writing was vague.”
UPDATE: Following is a correction on this Hemingway tip from a commenter named James.
Hemingway’s tip to “be positive” refers to word choice, not tone or perspective. For example, instead of saying “he did not win,” say “he lost.” Instead of saying “his writing was not clear” say “his writing was vague.”
It’s more powerful to tell readers to what something is than to tell them what it is not and asking them to choose from the remaining possibilities.
5. Break a rule.
Sometimes breaking a rule is the right call. Hemingway was certainly a man and writer who went his own way.