Sparkling Words

“Use short sentences. Use short first paragraphs. Use vigorous English. Be positive, not negative."

These and other rules from The Kansas City Star’s style manual governed Ernest Hemingway’s writing. The journalist-turned-novelist earned a place among the great names of literature partly through his succinct, pointed prose, which has set the standard for modern literature. Unfortunately, many writers fail to grasp the depth in Hemingway’s style of writing, leaving them with lifeless, unappetizing text.

First, as Hemingway’s rules suggest, good writing must be carefully edited and structured. This requires more than simply fixing grammar errors and adhering to a standard format. A good writer, like Hemingway, gives his or her piece of writing a distinct flavor using specially selected words and meticulously molded sentences.

People often seem to reserve treating words like paint or clay for poetry or fiction writing, but there is no reason why artistry cannot be employed by non-fiction writers as well. There is an art to selecting precisely the right words and the best structure to draw an accurate picture of the facts. Indeed, sometimes deliberately constructed prose is more important in non-fiction than it is in fiction.

Second, good writing must say something worth writing. No matter how deftly the writer has crafted his or her work, if it does not communicate anything substantive, it is meaningless. Most readers do not read a work solely to appreciate its structure but rather because the subject of the work interests them.

There are many elements that make a subject something worth writing about, such as relevance. For example, The Great Gatsby is good writing because it delves into the depths of human nature and despair. A well-constructed letter to the editor can be good writing if it addresses a current issue that affects the publication’s readers.

Hemingway’s list of rules helped him on the way to greatness, but only because he had meaningful things to write. Had he left out either the rules or the substance, his writing likely would not have been as good. As it is, Hemingway penned specimens of sparkling prose that capture readers’ attention to this day.