Want to Look Like a Smart Content Marketer? Stop Saying This.

Why America’s grizzled literary icon shouldn’t influence your content marketing strategy.

Hemingway aboard the Pilar, off the Cuban coast circa 1950. (Credit: JFK Presidential Library and Museum)

It’s a truth universally acknowledged that a content-creating ‘thought leader’ with aspirations of Medium grandeur must be in possession of a single piece of advice.

(Said advice can be found here and here and here and here and here.)

However little known the feelings of truly educated content marketers might be on first reading this abhorrent advice, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of clap-hungry “creatives” and “innovators” that it’s considered a rightful statement in any content piece:

“Write like Hemingway.”

(Pardon me while I dust off my B.A. with Honors in English Literature.)

Not only does this unoriginal drivel lack context, it’s horrific advice.

Like any decent academic, I had to understand what makes it terrible.

Why Hemingway?

First question: Who decided that Hemingway gets to be the literary god of content marketers?

It can’t be because of his success. Sure, Ernest Hemingway accumulated accolades during his life, but he’s far from the most awarded American writer. The advice would be to write like Toni Morrison or Stephen King if that were the case.

Winning awards does not a content god make.

You know who else won awards? William Faulkner — the classic Hemingway foil and contemporary. (Faulkner’s first literary award was the Nobel Prize!)

Unlike his literary foe, Faulkner never feared lush descriptions. In fact, Faulkner so successfully described his characters that people within his hometown of Oxford, Mississippi quickly discerned who inspired certain characters.

So why Hemingway?

A few theories:

  1. There’s a 95% chance anyone suggesting to write like Hemingway has never actually picked up Hemingway’s books.
  2. The ever-popular “6 Word Hemingway Challenge.”
  3. “Thought leaders” have a knack for repurposing trendy thoughts, slapping on a smug Instagram selfie, and claiming them as their own.
  4. No one questions Hemingway — or faux-intellectualism in general. (But that’s fodder for another style of piece all together.)
“But why is writing like Hemingway a bad idea? Doesn’t it just mean writing short sentences all the time?”

I could write a Melvillian answer to those queries, and it still wouldn’t be long enough. Here are 3 reasons why the phrase “write like Hemingway” should be lost to the seas of poor advice:

1. It devalues instances where longer sentences are needed for effect.

One of the first keys to “writing like Hemingway” is brevity. Short sentences are required. In fact, it’s so associated with the writer that a popular editing tool exists in his name.

The Hemingway App is only the newest in a series of online tools promoting shorter sentences. One of the most popular is the Flesch Reading Ease test. The automated tool estimates the reading level of your content by taking into account number of words in each sentence, the number of sentences, average number of characters per word, and the average number of syllables per word.

The problem with Flesch Reading numbers and similar web tools is that it equivocates comprehension with brevity.

“The cat sat on the mat” and “Mat cat the sat on” will earn a writer the same Flesch score. However, the former is far more comprehensible than the latter.

Contrary to popular belief, readers don’t shy away from longer copy. They’re still taking note of proper grammar. Most people will easily read through a lengthy, more complex sentence provided those sentences are grammatically correct and bookended within shorter sentence structures. Just like that.

Content Marketers: As long as you’re giving readers interesting content, they won’t care about 10-word sentences vs 20-word sentences.

Understanding the nuances of sentence structure is what people need to promote, rather than “Short sentence, good. Long sentence, bad.” Longer sentences — particularly in technical writing or for certain industries — are unavoidable.

2. Hemingway used descriptive language — but he favored particular styles.

One of the worst assumptions to be made when telling someone to “write like Hemingway” is that you’re suddenly writing with a lack of description.

Hemingway avoided “-ly” adverbs. That’s been a well-documented association with the writer for decades. He’s not the first person to utilize this simplicity, nor will he be the last.

He did not, however, avoid descriptions. He leveraged appropriate adjectives, precise nouns, and direct verbs.

Our Bearded Content Hero opted for the “show, don’t tell” method of writing. Here’s a sample of his style from To Have and Have Not to give you a taste for his descriptions:

“At pier four there is a 34-foot yawl-rigged yacht with two of the three hundred and twenty-four Esthonians who are sailing around in different parts of the world, in boats between 28 and 36 feet long and sending back articles to the Esthonian newspapers. These articles are very popular in Esthonia and bring their authors between a dollar and a dollar and thirty cents a column. They take the place occupied by the baseball or football news in American newspapers and are run under the heading of Sagas of Our Intrepid Voyagers. No well-run yacht basin in Southern waters is complete without at least two sunburned, salt bleached-headed Esthonians who are waiting for a check from their last article. When it comes they will sail to another yacht basin and write another saga. They are very happy too.”

In content marketing, never be afraid to ‘show’ your audience how your content/company/services impact their lives — “-ly” optional.

Academic Sidebar: What pseudo-content-marketing influencers might not understand is that their boy Ernest isn’t the master of the anti- “ly” campaign. That belongs to Toni Morrison who, in a statistical analysis of works, used just 76 “-ly” adverbs every 10,000 words compared to Hemingway’s 80.

From here on out, when I advise fellow content creators to avoid abusing “-ly” adverbs, I’ll tell them to “write like Toni Morrison.”

3. Descriptive language IS NOT THE SIGN OF BAD WRITING.

Which of the following gives you the most information about a situation?

1.“What a dumb decision,” she said.

2. “What a dumb decision,” she blurted out.

3. “What a dumb decision,” she blurted out, face red from the thickening tension.

The first is Hemingway-inspired. Hemingway opted for “he said” or “she said” above all else in his dialogue. He often disregarded them completely, leaving the reader to trace through the dialogue, punctuation, and pray they figured out who said what. Here’s another sample from To Have and Have Not:

“‘You know I’m no squealer, Harry.’
‘You’re a rummy. But no matter how rum dumb you get, if you ever talk about that, I promise you.’
‘I’m a good man,’ he said. ‘You oughtn’t to talk to me like that.’
‘They can’t make it fast enough to keep you a good man,’ I told him. But I didn’t worry about him any more because who was going to believe him?”

Language exists for communication. Why would anyone who claims to appreciate language throw away words? And why on earth would someone paid to be a communicator dissuade people against using language meant to more effectively communicate a point?!

Moral of this Story: Write like you, and remember your audience.

If you were hired to a team, there’s a 99.9% chance you submitted samples of your copy before landing the job. That team hired you for your voice — not so you can work as the reincarnation of America’s literary alcoholic.

You’ve invested time in learning about your target audience. You know what content they want to read. You know what copy appeals to their taste.

Don’t sacrifice giving your readers quality content for the sake of being trendy.

A final note using an oft’ quoted line from Hemingway’s The Green Hills of Africa:

“First, there must be talent, much talent. Talent such as Kipling had. Then there must be discipline. The discipline of Flaubert. Then there must be the conception of what it can be and absolute conscience as unchanging as the standard meter in Paris, to prevent faking. Then the writer must be intelligent and disinterested and above all he must survive.”

As content marketers, we don’t exist as dispassionate observers of the world around us. It’s our passions for our clients and our own work that drives us forward. We see the vivacity in our clients. We craft copy to share that voice and story with the world.

We don’t work as grizzled, drunken, bearded seamen, belligerently slurring their tales with surprising brevity.

We write for our audiences.

And the next time someone tells you to ‘write like Hemingway’? Take inspiration from Hemingway’s own lifestyle: hop on a boat to Cuba, grab a stiff drink or five, and avoid that person at all costs.

Shelby Rogers is the Content Marketing Manager for DigitalUs Agency — a digital marketing firm located in Orlando, Fl. When she’s not writing about social media strategy, SEO, or content theory, she runs half marathons, reads lengthy books, and visits Walt Disney World far too often.