5 Writing Tips Inspired by Ernest Hemingway

A few summers ago my daughter read A Farewell to Arms, Ernest Hemingway’s World War I novel. She liked it for the most part, 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 Instagram 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 solid instruction for copywriting–or any writing, for that matter. For example, if you ever write dialog or quoted material, Hemingway is worth studying.

In addition, revisiting Hemingway reminded me of his tips I ran across at Copyblogger.com. I share them below because they’re durable little gems that apply to any medium or format.

1. Use short sentences.
Author Larry McMurtry 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.

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 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.

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I’m a Morning Writer

I wouldn’t call myself a morning person, but I am a morning writer. How about you?

I’ve known this for a long time. I was reminded of it today. In the morning, my brain is as bright and fresh as it’s going to be. The coffee is still hot and strong. It’s just easier for me to form ideas and sentences earlier in the day. Easier, but not easy.

I’ve been working on a long-term project that involves writing  after the kids head off to bed. I save it for the nighttime because it’s something I just need to chip away at and I don’t want it to interfere with my workday projects. The problem is that when 10 p.m. rolls around my mind is tired and I don’t feel like writing even a couple of paragraphs. I wimped out last night.

This morning I made up for the lost time and was far more productive than I could ever be while writing with one tired eye on the television. In fact, I finished drafting the first stage of the project.  I’m happy about that.

Out of necessity, I still write in the afternoon, evening and occasionally late at night. But mornings are the best by far.

5 Smart Reasons to Get Outside Writing Help

Reading “5 Situations That Demand You Hire a Professional Copywriter” at copyblogger brought back memories. When I started my freelance writing business many years ago, I published a small pamphlet. The title was something like “7 Reasons Why You Should Hire a Freelance Copywriter.”

The list of reasons wasn’t a new idea. I got it from copywriter extraordinaire Bob Bly, whose books I devoured before and after I set up shop. The seven reasons made for good sales literature. They were also a constant reminder to me of my value as a service provider to businesses and organizations.

The reasons or “situations” as copyblogger calls them to retain a professional wordsmith haven’t change much. So, for your benefit–and as a refresher to yours truly–here they are:

Continue reading “5 Smart Reasons to Get Outside Writing Help”

4 Writing Tips from Ernest Hemingway

Last summer I borrowed A Farewell to Arms, Hemingway’s World War I novel, at the town library.

I’d read “Farewell” before but like to reread Hemingway’s spare prose from time to time because I think it’s great instruction for copywriting. Also, if you ever write dialog or quoted material, Hemingway is a master worth studying.

Not long after I ran across Hemingway tips at Copyblogger.com and 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.

Continue reading “4 Writing Tips from Ernest Hemingway”

Writer John Updike Forgoes Retirement

Writer/novelist John Updike has been at his craft for a half century. And he has no intention of putting down his pen, er, turning off his keyboard.

I recently read about Updike on the books page of the Roanoke Times. In 2008 he published Widows of Eastwick, a sequel to Witches of Eastwick, the bestselling book that became a movie in the 1980s.

Explaining why he is still writing, Updike said, “I don’t know what I’d do with my mornings if I didn’t write in them.”

The man of letters also said he is still learning.

“This is very much an amateurish endeavor, so that the chance of growing in it is still there for a 76-year-old.”

Ah, yes. That rings true, doesn’t it?

“It’s fun to be active,” Updike said. “And it’s a wonderful profession, in that unlike being an athlete, you’re not really age-dependent.”

I smell a bumper sticker. “Writers don’t retire. They just lose their train of … ”

UPDATE: It was an odd and sad coincidence that John Updike died on the day I decided to write a post about him. RIP.

Lively Writing Can Improve Response

In the January edition of The Levison Letter, direct-response copywriter Ivan Levison offers five tips for writing it right in 2009. All solid tips, one, in particular, caught my eye:

#3. Keep it lively.

Hey, it isn’t a crime yet in this country to have a little  enthusiasm or a sense of humor. If your marketing materials  are flat or boring, bring a little personality to the party. You  know, your sales letters, email, Web copy, etc., need to communicate more than features and benefits. They have to truly engage the reader and connect at some emotional level. So don’t  be afraid to write with a little punch. The spark you or your  writer brings to a project can make all the difference!

I agree. Obviously, you can’t get too wild, but most B2B audiences are just regular folks who will respond to some well-placed personality and enthusiasm. Try it and track the results.

Facing the White Bull

Does the blank screen or page ever paralyze you? Would you rather edit a piece than write a first draft?

If you’re like many human beings, the answers are yes and yes.

Ernest Hemingway called the blank page the white bull. I like that. One time when asked why I get out of bed in the morning and go to work, I said, “For the thrill of facing the white bull.”

The white bull isn’t for all thrill seekers, though.

“This bull has probably intimidated people for centuries,” wrote a fellow copywriter, “ever since early man stared at a blank stone tablet with chisel at the ready, scratching his prominent forehead.”

So how do you defeat the white bull? What’s the secret?

Continue reading “Facing the White Bull”