What Hemingway Can Teach You About Web Writing
William Faulkner once said, “[Hemingway] has never been known to use a word that might send a reader to the dictionary.”
Hemingway responded: “Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words?”
No surprise here if you’ve read my review of The Sound And The Fury, but I stand in Hemingway’s camp on this one. To me, the best writing is clear, simple, and to the point.
That’s why I think anyone who writes web copy, whether it’s a blog, an article, and especially any form of marketing content, should look long and hard at Hemingway’s writing style.
As a guy who spends all day writing for the web, I’ve probably been subconsciously using Hemingway’s style for years. With that, here’s what I think Hemingway can teach you about writing for the internets.
Short sentences are swell. This doesn’t mean you need to write like a second grader: “I like vegetables. They are nice.” The point is that a sentence riddled with 8 commas, a semicolon, and a couple of em dashes doesn’t make for a pleasant web reading experience—even if it’s grammatically sound.
Short paragraphs are even better. I’m amazed at how many websites with great content choose to format a 600ish word article into four long paragraphs. In web speak, those are “walls of text,” and they are painful to read. There’s no quicker way to lose a reader than to have giant blocks of text on your page. Your eyes need a break. Paragraph breaks are your friend. Use them!
Short dialogue is pretty cool, too. Hemingway was the master of engaging short dialogue. If your copy includes dialogue, consider this type of conversation from The Sun Also Rises as an example to follow:
“How did you go bankrupt?” Bill asked.
“Two ways,” Mike said. “Gradually and then suddenly.”
“What brought it on?”
“Friends,” said Mike. “I had a lot of friends. False friends. Then I had creditors, too. Probably had more creditors than anybody in England.”
“Tell them about in the court,” Brett said.
“I don’t remember,” Mike said. “I was just a little tight.”
“Tight!” Brett exclaimed. “You were blind!”
“Extraordinary thing,” Mike said. “Met my former partner the other day. Offered to buy me a drink.”
“Tell them about your learned counsel,” Brett said.
“I will not,” Mike said. “My learned counsel was blind, too. I say this is a gloomy subject. Are we going down and see this bulls unloaded or not?”
“Let’s go down.”
Short articles are a great option. This isn’t a hard and fast rule. Most of my posts are in the 300-400 word range, with the actual book reviews running about three times that long. It’s all about context and expectation. Some writers can get away with writing enormously long content because they have a dedicated audience who reads their work religiously and expects it. But, as a general rule, the shorter you can make your articles/posts (while still making your point), the better. At least that’s my opinion.
Subheads are also super cool to use. Okay, Hemingway didn’t use subheads. But, in a way, he did. Instead of subheads, he wrote short chapters as another way to give the reader a breath. Subheads are simply bolded “mini titles” that allow you to make easier transitions and break up your copy. They’re usually better suited for longer articles. And, honestly, I’m terrible about using them. But Brian Clark at Copyblogger isn’t. He wrote a great piece about subheads.
In sum, the web has made us all ADD.
According to Neilsen Norman, the average webpage visit lasts less than a minute. We read a few words of an article—maybe even just the headline—and if it doesn’t pull us in right away, we’re on to something else.
That’s why the above tips are important. You can have the best content in the world with awesome advice and powerful insight, but if you make it hard to scan and difficult to read, no one will read it.
I know I’m not breaking any new ground here. These tips aren’t anything you couldn’t read over at Copyblogger or many other sites on the web.
It’s just that Hemingway was on to this stuff long before any of us. He knew how to keep readers engaged with his writing, and as he so aptly told William Faulkner: Big emotions don’t have to come from big words (or sentences).
Well said, Ernest. Well said.
(Image: Wikimedia Commons)