The Writing Tao of Hemingway

Looking for a writer to model your own writing after? Why not the master, Ernest Hemingway? I know, you’re thinking, “I’m not a novelist. I’m a copywriter.” I got ‘cha. But, reach back into your memory and recall the writing style of Hemingway. Are your there yet?

Hemingway didn’t embrace the flowery prose of the literati; he chose to write simply and clearly. So here’s what you can learn from the Tao of Hemingway.

Use Short Sentences

Hemingway was famous for a terse minimalist style of writing. He dispensed with flowery adjectives and got straight to the point. In short, he wrote with simple genius.

Use Short First Paragraphs

Start the same way this blog entry does. Get to the point.

Use Vigorous Language

Vigorous language isn’t weak, limp, lame, or pathetic. No. It’s muscular, forceful. It is born from passion, focus, and intention. Vigorous language is the difference between putting in a good effort to move a boulder … and sweating, grunting, and straining your body to the point of exhaustion and actually moving the freaking thing!

In All Things, Be Positive, Not Negative

Hemingway wasn’t the cheeriest guy in the world, right? So what could this mean? Simple. Say what something is rather than what it isn’t.

You see, when you say what something isn’t, you are being counterproductive since it is still directing the mind, albeit in the opposite way. Use economical instead of inexpensive; inexpensive instead of cheap; pre-owned instead of used. You get the point.

Never Have Only Four Rules

Actually, Hemingway did only have four rules for writing, and they were the ones he picked up as a cub reporter at the Kansas City Star in 1917. But, as any copywriter knows, four rules will never do.

And now, as a bonus for reading this entire entry … Hemingway’s most important writing tip of all:

“I write one page of masterpiece to ninety-one pages of shit,” Hemingway confided to F. Scott Fitzgerald in 1934. “I try to put the shit in the wastebasket.”

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Know What You Mean, and Mean What You Say — Dangling Participles

Dangling participles, sometimes called dangling modifiers, have to be one of my all-time favorite mistakes, if only because the resulting sentences can be so funny.

To brush the dust off of your college grammar lessons, dangling participles are those descriptive words, phrases, or clauses suffering from separation anxiety. You’ll find them at the beginning of sentences, perfectly happy to modify, or describe, the closest imposter that happens to get planted right smack next to them, casting a shadow of doubt on your writing. Check these examples out:

•    Having been thrown in the air, the dog caught the ball.
•    After rotting in the cellar for weeks, my brother brought up some oranges.

Would anyone really launch a dog in the air? Well, maybe, but not in this case. The sentence just doesn’t read right. It was the ball, not the dog, that was thrown in the air. The sentence has been constructed improperly and simply needs fixed to make sense:

•    The dog caught the ball that was thrown in the air.

The same thing with the second sentence: it’s not the brother who has been rotting in the basement for weeks; it’s the oranges.

•    My brother brought up the oranges from the cellar, which had been rotting down there for weeks.

Dangling participles are often funny, but they also are distracting and inaccurate, and easy to fix. Simply revise your writing.

To determine if you are dangling your participle, try this trick: take the participial phrase and place it after the sentence’s subject (The dog, having been thrown in the air, caught the ball). If it doesn’t make sense, you’ve dangled your participle. Revise immediately.

Is It Affect, or Effect?

More in the way of grammar trip ups … affect vs. effect. In order to get this one right, you have to know the difference between each word; there’s simply no other way around it.

“Affect” is a VERB, as in “Your inability to write correctly will definitely affect your income level.”

“Effect” is a NOUN. “The effect of your words on the target audience should persuade them to take action.”

Easy enough, right? Think of “effect” in terms of “the effect.” You can’t stick “the” in front of a verb. Don’t believe me? Try it. Can’t be done. And while some people do use “effect” as a verb, these people are usually lawyers, and you should therefore ignore writing like them if you want to write in a way that most of us use the English language.

“At the End of the Day” It’s Not Only Empty, It’s Done to Death

As a talented writer, you have the creative drive to craft your message in a way that is easily understood. What you don’t have is an innate quality to follow the herd and write like everyone else.

When you have something to say, you don’t need to rely on trivial phrases such as “at the end of the day” to make your point. You’re a professional. You know what you want to say. You make your point with real content, get your message across, and move on well before “the end of the day” ever gets here. Otherwise, you’ve already lost your audience’s attention.

Copy that relies on filler doesn’t say anything. Meaningless phrases could just as easily be stripped away from your copy and you wouldn’t even notice; so what does that tell you? And yes, these phrases are everywhere. And that’s the other problem. Not only are the words empty, they are done to death. Trust me, your audience is tired of hearing them, so just don’t use them. Ever.

Here’s a list of some of the more common useless phrases used to fill in the gaps. Check it out and see if you recognize any of them. If you do, remove them from your writing arsenal immediately and don’t let them sneak their way back in ever again:

At the end of the day
That being said
It is what it is
Think(ing) outside of the box
Tabled for later
I personally
Run it up the flagpole
Fairly unique
At this moment in time
With all due respect
Shouldn’t of (and that’s just grammatically incorrect, too!)
It’s not rocket science
A chain is only as strong as its weakest link

There Blog Isn’t Their Anymore – What?

More in the way of the most common mistakes writers make: there versus their.

Not quite sure why this one trips up so many people; I assume it’s due more to a typo than actual error. And like most grammar errors I’ve blogged about earlier in allyah’s INKWELL, this one won’t be caught by spellchecker but by your keen eye. Proof your work. Read it out loud. Check to see if it makes sense.

And now for the grammar lesson:

“There” is used to refer to a place, as in “yo, let’s go there.” “There” is also used as a pronoun, as in “there is always hope.”

“Their” is a plural possessive pronoun, as in “their blog rocks” or “their opinions are right on target.” When using “their” always take the “that’s ours” test. Are you talking about more than one person? Do they possess something? If you can answer yes to both questions, “their” is what you should be using; not “there.”

And that concludes today’s lesson.

Get Wild: Discover your Poetic Side

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I’m so excited; April is National Poetry Month and to celebrate I thought I would share.

My favorite poet is Emily Bronte, and in particular, her poem No Coward Soul Is Mine. And now for the sharing part—an excerpt:

“No coward soul is mine
No trembler in the world’s storm-troubled sphere
I see Heaven’s glories shine
And faith shine equal arming me from fear.”

So go out and celebrate; search the Internet, find your favorite poet, and discover your poetic side.


A Return to Jane

I don’t normally write about my personal likes and dislikes here, but I’m breaking that unwritten rule to tell you that my latest passion concerning the written word is for books, and as such, has me revisiting all things Jane Austen.

I know. Jane’s not for everyone. Many of you will let out an almost audible groan as you recall reading her back in the day, but let me remind you that reading Jane in high school is not the same as reading her now, when you can appreciate Jane’s writing and way of telling a story.

Jane Austen wrote six novels, which continue to captivate adult readers, if not younger ones, more than 200 years after her death. These titles include Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, Northanger Abbey, Mansfield Park, Emma, and Persuasion.

My goal is to read all of them … again. And I’m looking forward to something a little more cultured, something well written and poetic for a change.