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Saturday, April 13, 2024

Why Hemingway’s Advice is Outdated

If you’re anything like me- on the surface, this concept was a huge disappointment. For writers who relied on lush imagery and rich language, Hemingway’s aftermath threatened to destroy our style. We were thrown out of vogue and declared obsolete.

But here’s what we’ve always known: styles flicker in and out of the mainstream all the time. 

And there’s always space for new styles. There’s always room for a different approach.

Authors like Madeleine Miller and Tommy Orange have seen startling success in the mainstream, despite writing in styles that had their foundation on lyrical language and poetic imagery.

In just half a year, I grew my readership from 0 to 20,000 readers writing in a style that’s considered outdated: the prose-poem.

The black-and-white advice given to all writers doesn’t make sense. We can’t all be Hemingway. We don’t need to be Hemingway.

But as artists, we have a duty to adapt to the world, and our readers today. People who don’t bend, break. We’ve always known that.

So here are five shifts you can make to your writing to stay true to your style while catering to modern readers:

  1. Focus on the trivial details, not the big picture

How often do you find yourself looking at the sky and saying:  the skies are a sapphire-blue dome that stretches interminably over us, casting a pale overtone on the land, with clouds stuck like cotton to its azure wreath.


Readers are sick and tired about hearing how the sky looks. We’ve heard it all.

And I might be presuming here, but your characters aren’t obsessed with figuring out that exact shade of blue the sky was that night either.

Writing paragraph after paragraph on description about the landscape- unless it’s the highlight of your scene- is not only a slip of character, it’s also a guaranteed way to bore your readers and send them skimming.

Save your imagery for the trivial details.

Forget about the big picture. Focus on the trivial details.

An easy way to do this is to look to your thoughts. There are times when you’ll register the oddest of details without even trying.

For instance, I remember noticing one day, how the light from the television reflected off my nails, colour scattering off the surface.

A writer’s job is to record these off-hand thoughts, and present them in a way that gives your character- and your scene-dimension.

In ‘The End of Something’, even Hemingway does this:

The fire-light went as far as the water. They could both see the two steel rods at an angle over the dark water. The fire glinted on the reels.

It’s simple language, but powerful imagery. Which brings us to our second point:

  • If you have to search up the meaning of a word, don’t use it:

I used to hate it when people said this to me. It made no sense at that time: if a word exists, why can’t I use it? Isn’t it a way to show them how proficient I am with the language?

But the problem with complex words is that they jolt your readers off the page. It’s hard enough to get immersed in a scene you know is fiction, feel emotion for a story that is a blatant lie.

When you use a word that your readers might not be familiar with, you’re only giving them an excuse to detach themselves from your story.

Even worse, you’re making them feel inferior. You’re being disdainful. It’s a surefire way of chasing away the people who choose to give your art a chance.

I don’t personally agree with demonizing the thesaurus- there are times when a word is just at the tip of your tongue but you can’t reach it, and it’s helpful to search it up during these times.

But as a rule of thumb, if you wouldn’t use the word in your mind, don’t use it on the page.

  • Aim for impact, not grandeur.

Let’s get this straight: you don’t write to tell yourself a story.

No matter how much you say you only write for yourself, you can’t be an artist with no audience. A tree falling in an empty forest just might not exist.

So don’t make your writing about you. Don’t write to tell people you’re a great writer. Your job as an artist is to disappear. Let your prose speak for itself.

You can’t afford to be indulgent; don’t lust over literary grandeur. Aim for impact. Raw, emotional impact.

The most powerful pieces are the honest ones. Stories we can relate to, characters that make people go: I would have done that too. Thoughts that resonate.

Saying: ‘she couldn’t feel.’ is more striking than saying ‘she was overwhelmed by an intense wave of hollowness that resulted in her unable to discern any emotion.’

The first sentence communicates exactly what you would think when you feel hollow. It resonates. The second sentence is an indulgence. It sounds false.

When you write, ask yourself: would I have thought this? Is this the way I speak to myself?

The point of fiction is to convince your readers that it happened. That this is real. And the only way to do that is to base as much as you can off your own world.

Stay true to your style, but let it speak for emotions and thoughts that are honest. Realistic. Ground your fallacy in the real world.

  •  Use cadence for beauty.

How do you let your prose shine? Cadence.

The rhythm of a piece affects the way it reads more than you’d think. If done right, it can hypnotize your readers, draw them into your prose.

Cadence is the difference between a piece that simply ‘works’ and one that doesn’t. The professional and the novice.

So treat your piece like it’s poetry. Read it out loud. Do you stumble? Does something seem off? Clunky? That’s the cadence right there. The rhythm of a piece, the beat. The play on syllables, the alliteration.

Gary Provost said it best:

This sentence has five words. Here are five more words. Five-word sentences are fine. But several together become monotonous. Listen to what is happening. The writing is getting boring. The sound of it drones. It’s like a stuck record. The ear demands some variety. Now listen. I vary the sentence length, and I create music. Music. The writing sings. It has a pleasant rhythm, a lilt, a harmony. I use short sentences. And I use sentences of medium length. And sometimes when I am certain the reader is rested, I will engage him with a sentence of considerable length, a sentence that burns with energy and builds with all the impetus of a crescendo, the roll of the drums, the crash of the cymbals – sounds that say listen to this, it is important. So write with a combination of short, medium, and long sentences. Create a sound that pleases the reader’s ear. Don’t just write words. Write music.

Write music.

Like all art, writing music isn’t something you learn, from a set of rules or a textbook. It’s something you absorb, something you infuse. When you read a good piece, ask yourself why it reads so well. Read it out loud. Consciously lose yourself in its rhythm.

A great way to do this is to read your pieces out loud and record them.

Then, listen. Not just hear- listen.

Notice where the rhythm falters. Notice where there are hitches in the flow. When you paused to take a breath, did your prose reflect on that? Did you take the chance to transition to the next paragraph there? Small things, but they make a huge difference.

Edit. Record. Listen.

Again, and again, and again, until your prose is seamless.

  • Find beauty in connections, not description.

We could all do with a little beauty in our lives. And art, at its root, is the confluence between expressing and beauty, this is what it offers the world.  A lens to see the breathtaking in the mundane.

So here’s a comforting thought: no matter how far we go, beauty is never going to be outdated. It only expresses itself in a different way.

And it’s my belief that today, instead of finding beauty in meaningless description, we’re learning to find beauty in connections.

Margaret Atwood, in her novel: The Handmaid’s Tale, does this best:

We were the people who were not in the papers. We lived in the blank white spaces at the edges of print. It gave us more freedom. We lived in the gaps between the stories.

There is a poetic element to this expert, but the intensity of the idea behind it makes it acceptable to indulge. Notice the alternation of long sentences with short ones, complex thoughts with simpler ones: it’s all there.

When you read the book, you’ll notice she’s careful not to overwhelm, but she doesn’t shy away from the prose either:

Waste not, want not. I am not being wasted. Why do I want?

. . .

But who can remember pain, once it’s over? All that remains of it is a shadow, not in the mind even, in the flesh. Pain marks you, but too deep to see. Out of sight, out of mind.

The language couldn’t be simpler, but the ideas behind it- the connections she makes- it gives her prose a subtle beauty that is unique to her.

And this is how beauty expresses itself in language today. Through connections, through analogy. We might have moved away from description-oriented writing, but make no mistake: the art in writing is still there. It just manifests in a different way.

 There can be no black-and-white in writing.

The market is just too big for that. No matter what your style, there are always going to be readers for you. All you have to do is meet them halfway.

You don’t have to sacrifice your personal style, but you can’t sit on a high-horse either. You need to make your concessions and learn to love them.

I don’t agree when people tell you to write for yourself. That’s an indulgence. Writing for yourself makes you a journalist, not a writer. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

But there are people out there who want to hear what you have to say. Because you do have things to say. That’s why you’re here. That’s why you’re reading this right now.

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