Write short: how to write like Hemingway and Dahl

Whether you’re a content marketer, PR or copywriter, there’s one surefire way to improve your writing and keep your audience happy – write short.

Writing short sentences in a simple, straightforward manner is something a lot of writers struggle with. And over the years, I’ve found a lot of businesses struggle with it too.

When writing copy for a website or creating a blog post as part of your content marketing strategy, it’s understandable that you want to come across as intelligent and professional as possible.

Your content isn’t for you

But what you’ve got to remember is that your content isn’t for you – it’s for your audience. And with so much going on in their busy lives, they want to scan your post as quickly as possible (yes, that post you’ve spent hours on).

It’s long been said that content is king, but as Roy Peter Clark says in his excellent book How to Write Short: “In the digital age, short writing is king.”

Simply put, short writing is much more effective than writing content packed with long, flowery words.

Don’t just take my word for it though. Ernest Hemingway and Roald Dahl, two of the greatest writers to ever live, both knew the importance of writing short, snappy sentences.

Hemingway was famous for his minimalist style of writing and use of short sentences, while Dahl was renowned for his simple, irreverent prose.

I got the inspiration for this post after Jay Williams, Content Director with national news PR specialists 72point.com, tweeted a letter that Roald Dahl sent him when he was a boy.

Letter from Roald Dahl

In the letter, which you can see above, Dahl says:

I have read your story. I don’t think it’s bad, but you must stop using too many adjectives. Study Hemingway, particularly his early work and learn how to write short sentences and how to eschew all these beastly adjectives.

Surely it is better to say “She was a tall girl with a bosom” than “She was a tall girl with a shapely, prominent bosom”, or some such rubbish. The first one says it all.

Learn how to write short sentences

There are so many things to love about Dahl’s letter but it’s his advice to “learn how to write short sentences” that resonates with me.

And as the man himself says, the best place to start is with Hemingway, the master of short, simple sentences.

Hemingway’s minimalist writing style was almost journalistic – crafted as a reporter for The Kansas City Star.

Me outside La Bodeguita del Medio

Likewise, I (pictured here outside Hemingway’s favourite watering hole, La Bodeguita del Medio) honed my writing style while studying journalism at college and university.

By the way, I’m the one with the red shorts, not the guy with the bald head. Or the one with the guitar.

Anyway, here’s just some of the techniques I learned to make my writing as clear, concise and conversational as possible.

Once you’ve absorbed all this advice, see if your writing is as good as Hemingway’s using the Hemingway app. You should aim for a Grade Level less than 10 for ‘bold, clear writing’. For those interested, this post is Grade 9.

If you want more tips on how to write like Hemingway, there’s a brilliant blog post on copyblogger, Ernest Hemingway’s Top 5 Tips for Writing Well.

Want to find out how writing short can improve your copywriting or content marketing? Get in touch, connect with me on LinkedIn, or follow me on Twitter.

Photo courtesy of Florida Keys – Public Libraries under CC BY 2.0

This blog post originally appeared on LinkedIn on January 21 2015.

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