The Hemingway Rules

Ernest Hemingway is a writer who needs no introduction. But here’s one anyway:

Hemingway revolutionized the way fiction was written in the early to mid 20th century. His economical and powerful style arguably made its mark on all fiction that followed. (Try this experiment: Pick up and read the first few pages of any novel published before 1920. Then, do the same with any novel published after 1930. The shift from long-flowing prose to short, on-point copy will be obvious.)

He is widely regarded as one of the most-influential writers of the modern age and is one of only 15 American writers to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature.

But Hemingway actually started his writing career as a journalist — fresh out of high school, with The Kansas City Star. In his first days on the job, he was handed a stylebook to learn and follow. Hemingway would later regard that stylebook as “the best rules I ever learned for the business of writing.”

Some of those rules include:

  • “Use short sentences.”
  • “Use short first paragraphs.”
  • “Use vigorous English.”
  • “Be positive, not negative.”
  • “Eliminate every superfluous word.”

So, why am I writing about Ernest Hemingway on a marketing blog? Because great writing is great writing. And the lessons Hemingway learned at The Kansas Star in 1917 can still, it turns out, be extremely useful as a guide for the development of great copy today.

Adapt these rules for the modern context and what do you get? Something like this:

Lead with the “lede.”
Avoid gradual lead-ins and languid prose. Get to the point with your opening sentence.

Use short sentences.
This rule remains true 100-plus years after it was written. If a sentence rolls out longer than 30 words, you better have a really good reason. Otherwise, tighten it up.

Use short paragraphs, period.
When your paragraphs break frequently, it keeps the reader anticipating the next part. (This is why bullet points and “listicles” work so well.)

Remember the mobile experience.
Nobody wants to scroll on and on to get through your rambling — especially on a tiny phone. Remember your audience. They may be reading you while standing in line somewhere, or waiting for a meeting to start, or stopped at a red light. Keep it moving. And be thoughtful about how you’re using their time.

Make every word count.
Every reader is consuming your content “in the wild.” Which means they can bounce as soon as they start to feel bored. You need to earn their attention with every word and every sentence.

The author Kurt Vonnegut once wrote that, in fiction, every sentence should either develop character or move the story forward. You can apply this to your own writing, even if it’s ad copy or a thought-leadership piece. Every word, every sentence, should have a purpose. Writing, when done well, is a more efficient means of communication than casual talking.

Another author, Elmore Leonard, famously advised: “Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.” This can be really hard to do, especially when you’re writing on behalf of a product or brand.

You’ll have clients insisting, regardless of what’s being created (and for what purpose), that certain points/features/benefits have to be included. Most clients are not writers, so they don’t get how this works — that you can’t just pour a bunch of content into the skulls of your audience.

To persuade someone, you have to engage them. And that involves making hard choices on what to put in and what to keep out. But part of your job, as a writer, is to convince your publisher (often, your client) what’s best for the reader. (And, by extension, what’s best for the communication.)

Because, in the end, the reader is everything. It’s not about the writer, nor the client, nor the brand. It’s about the audience. Without them and their attention, all is lost.

P.S. Want some more useful rules for writing copy? Check these out.

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