By Marcia Riefer Johnston, special to The Content Wrangler
I never loved the English language until it was taken away from me. As an exchange student in Austria during my senior year in high school, my ears were suddenly deprived of familiar words and cadences. Speaking in and listening to German took painfully conscious effort.
During that year, letters from home quenched more than my thirst for news; they plunged me into English. I was a fish back in water.
One day, several months into my stay, I discovered a stash of British and American novels in the school library. I happened to pick up The Hemingway Reader. It was like a letter from home. My commitment to writing traces back to that moment. Years later I came across a used copy of the Reader. It’s one of the books I’d grab if our house were on fire. The observations and excerpts in Charles Poore’s foreword have shaped my writing efforts in journalism, playwriting, fiction, poetry, technical writing, marketing writing … every kind of writing I’ve ever done.
Although the foreword naturally focuses on the aesthetics of creating fiction, many of the principles discussed apply to the craft of writing in general. For example, Ford Madox Ford talks about Ernest Hemingway’s care in selecting words.
You cannot throw yourself into a frame of mind and just write … Your mind has to choose each word and your ear has to test it … Hemingway’s words strike you, each one, as if they were pebbles fetched fresh from a brook. They live and shine, each in its place. So one of his pages has the effect of a brook-bottom into which you look down through the flowing water.*
Our efforts as business communicators may not inspire such lofty analogies, but if our text (video, illustration, etc.) achieves the transparency of a brook, calling attention to what it reveals rather than to itself, we have created something at least useful.
Craft aside, Hemingway felt that a writer needed a certain type of mind.
A great enough writer seems to be born with knowledge. But he really is not; he has only been born with the ability to learn in a quicker ratio to the passage of time than other men and without conscious application, and with an intelligence to accept or reject what is already presented as knowledge.
The ability to learn quickly and differentiate good information from bad is particularly valuable in a today’s business communicator. If you’ve ever received conflicting comments on a review, you know the importance of making decisions about what is “presented as knowledge.”
But a smart communicator is not necessarily wise. Wisdom comes in knowing what to omit. Whether or not you admire Hemingway’s minimalist style, which has generated volumes of praise, ridicule, and imitation, the philosophy behind the style makes sense:
If a writer … knows enough about what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows … The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water. A writer who omits things because he does not know them only makes hollow places in his writing.
While Hemingway’s goal was for his reader to “have a feeling of those things [omitted] as strongly as though the writer had stated them,” a business communicator’s goal is more pragmatic: to avoid burdening his or her audiences with information they don’t need. In Poore’s words, “All that is not essential is burned away.” (In this spirit, I’m leaving out my favorite quotation.)
Finally, in addition to guidance, the foreword has given me consolation over the years. To those who dismiss Hemingway’s style as a matter of simple sentences, Poore says, “Few things are more complex than Hemingway’s simplicity.” If you’ve ever worked hard—researched, analyzed, debated, revised, polished, and polished some more—to bring your material within grasping distance, you understand how difficult simplicity can be to achieve. And if you’ve ever had your hard work dismissed with a comment like “anyone could do that,” well, you’re in good company.
Do you delight in “burning away all that is not essential” in your writing? Join my weekly game, Tighten This!, on my blog at Writing.Rocks.
This article, originally entitled “Hemingway’s Style and the Technical Communicator,” first appeared in slightly different form in the Society for Technical Communication journal, Technical Communication, Third Quarter 1990. Republished with permission.
*All quotations come from Charles Poore. ed., The Hemingway Reader (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1953), pp. xi-xx.