They teach the greats in English class but nobody writes like that anymore. Fitzgerald? Too much doom and subtext. Chekhov? Roundabout and talky. Joyce? Who has the patience. Hemingway? Well, back up a bit. Hemingway was actually the father of modern literature. While others took chapters to warm up, explore characterization and slow-start their plots, Hemingway’s sparse make-every-word count style served as a bridge away from the rambling tomes that preceded him. He was the first to chop the unnecessary, to hone till he found his “one true sentence”. Today’s writers are closer to Hemingway, than Dickens. Here’s why.
What you didn’t say counted more. He was the master of the right word. He saw the power in the few. Unlike Proust who could writhe on the floor for hours pulling and pushing words from his brain, Hemingway’s short stories prepared him to get the most out of the smallest space. He turned away from overblown, dense styles like Melville and went to work as a newspaperman writing copy for the Kansas City Star. He learned to be succinct and to shoot for clarity. He adapted the Star Style and adhered to the guidelines without fail.
Hemingway’s Star Style, 1915
•Use short sentences. Use short first paragraphs. Use vigorous English. Be positive, not negative.
•Eliminate every superfluous word as “Funeral services will be at 2 o’clock Tuesday,” not “The funeral services will be held at the hour of 2 o’clock on Tuesday.” He said is better than he said in the course of conversation.
•Be careful of the word also. It usually modifies the word it follows closest. “He, also, went” means “He, too, went.” “He went also” means he went in addition to taking some other action.
•Don’t say “He had his leg cut off in an accident.” He wouldn’t have had it done for anything.
•”He suffered a broken leg in a fall,” not “he broke his leg in a fall.” He didn’t break the leg, the fall did. Say a leg, not his leg, because presumably the man has two legs.
That’s the house in Key West. I step into the little writing studio out back near the salt water pool. I’m told by the guides who give the tours that Hemingway and his wife, I think #3 had frequent fights over the pool. It was a pain to clean and haul the sea water in. I imagine as I walk the grounds, Papa strides to his studio at dawn, locks the world out until noon, heads into town over to Sloppy Joe’s for a few. I wonder at how he is able to live life to the fullest with his hard-drinking, womanizing reputation. And I know he heads to Bimini next for big game fishing, and the evening will end, perhaps 90 miles away at the Tropicana. I see him get up and do it all over again, with a massive hangover, knowing how his story will end, but focused on the now, while still cranking out the greatest novels ever written.
Then I look at the Star Style.
#1. Use short sentences.