The Hemingway to Write

When Ernest Hemingway joined The Kansas City Star in 1917, he was given a style sheet that he said contained “the best rules I ever learned in the business of writing.”

Most reporters who started at the bottom, rewriting press releases, composing obits, and covering the police beat, were taught rules like these. Any writer just starting out can consider this a good start in learning the fundamentals of writing clear prose.

The artist as a young reporter.

The original version is available in a PDF format elsewhere on the web, so I took the liberty of typing in this version. It has been edited. Some of the rules are obsolete, such as “The prisoner was electrocised, not electrocuted.” Others are probably obvious even today: “Say Chinese, not Chinamen.” Some shouldn’t be followed at all: “Say crippled boy; but not a cripple.”

The rules that remain emphasize clear and concise writing, are based on good rules of grammar, or both. As you gain experience and read widely, you’ll understand when these rules can be broken, but if you stick with these, you can’t go wrong.

The Kansas City Star’s Style Sheet (Amended)

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

Never use old slang. Such words as stunt, cut out, got his goat, come across, sit up and take notice, put one over. have no place after their use becomes common. Slang to be enjoyable must be fresh.

Watch you sequence of tenses. “He said he knew the truth,” not “He said he knows the truth” “The community was amazed to hear that Charles Wakefield was a thief.” not “was amazed to hear that Charles Wakefield is a thief.”

The style of The Star is 9:30 o’clock this afternoon or this morning or tonight; not 9:30 this forenoon, 9:30 p.m. or 9:30 this evening. Also let the hour precede — not this morning at 9:30 o’clock. He walked twelve miles, not a distance of twelve miles; he earned $10, not he earned the amount or sum of $10; he went there to see his wife, not for the purpose of seeing his wife. He was absent during June, not during the month of June.

Several fountain pens were stolen,” not “a number of fountain pens” — if you know the number, specify.

In reference to specified time the word on is superfluous. Why write on January 16; on Tuesday? January 16 and Tuesday are enough.

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.

‘The police tried to find her husband,” not tried to locate her husband. To locate, used as a transitive verb, means to establish.

“He was ill in February” not “He was ill during February.” During February would mean every fraction of a second of the month’s time. A body may deliberate during the day, but that means no recess was taken in the entire period.

Avoid the use of adjectives, especially such extravagant ones as splendid, glorious, grand, magnificent, etc.

A burglar enters a building where persons are sleeping — use thief or robber in other cases.

Use revolver or pistol, not gun, unless a shotgun is meant.

State things in writing, otherwise say, assert, declare, etc.

Say, “She was horn in Ireland and came to Jackson County in 1874” not “but came to Jackson County.” She didn’t come here to make amends for being born in lreland. This is common abuse of the conjunction.

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 a fall.” He didn’t break the leg, the fall did. Say a leg, not his leg, because presumably the man has two legs.

He was graduated from Manual,” not “he graduated from Manual.”

“None saw him except me,” not “none saw him but me.” Don’t use but as a preposition.

Use or after either, nor after either, as a general rule. Certain deviations from this statement are good English. but extreme care in usage is best.

“None of them is so sorry as myself” not “none of them are so sorry.”

He was “eager to go,” not “anxious to go.” You are anxious about a friend who is ill.

“If I were king,” not “if I was king.”

“The building was partly insured,” not partially insured.”

“He saw more than one thousand ducks flying” — not “over one thousand ducks.” Also say “fewer than” instead of “less than,” when numbers, not quantity, are considered. It is proper to write “He had more than $10.”

“The voters will choose among the several candidates,” “not between” the several.” “Choose between two candidates” is correct.

He died of heart disease, not heart failure — everybody dies of “heart failure.”

In Jefferson City, preferable to at Jefferson City.

Each other applies to two, one another to three or more.

Latter applies to one of two. Where more than two are considered, last is the word.

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