Ernest Hemingway on writing

July 2, 2019 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: writers, writing.

The spare writing style of Ernest Hemingway has been often analyzed — and too often imitated — by many observers and commentators.

It is unique. There is nothing like it in the English language, and when Hemingway emerged as an important and eventually well-known writer in the post-Great War era of the 1920s, the style was both praised and panned.

One of the techniques of Hemingway’s writing is the heavy reliance on the simple sentence — the subject-verb-predicate sentence without subordination. One study showed that 70 percent of Hemingway’s sentences were simple sentences.

Hemingway wrote like a reporter who was composing for a telegraph message that charged by the word. Every word had to mean something. Every word had to pull some weight. Lavish adjectives and adverbs were likely not only to waste time but to be inadequate for what the writer was trying to convey. What was important, Hemingway argued, was what was omitted, and he compared his writing to an iceberg:

If a writer of prose knows enough of what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an ice-berg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water. A writer who omits things because he does not know them only makes hollow places in his writing. (Death in the Afternoon)

Another device that Hemingway used was something the ancient Greeks used: polysyndeton. This is the technique of stringing together sentences or phrase with the use of “and” rather than what we would call the serial comma. For instance, Hemingway wrote:

“I said, ‘Who killed him?’ and he said ‘I don’t know who killed him, but he’s dead all right,’ and it was dark and there was water standing in the street and no lights or windows broke and boats all up in the town and trees blown down and everything all blown and I got a skiff and went out and found my boat where I had her inside Mango Key and she was right only she was full of water.” (After the Storm)

This techniques conveys an immediacy to the subject and allows the writer to juxtapose a startling image in the midsts of a mundane description. Many writes before Hemingway, such as William Shakespeare and Charles Dickens, used it, and the technique is common in the King James Bible, particularly in the Old Testament.

And, as you might expect, polysyndeton has an opposite: the more commonly used and heard asyndeton. Remember this sentence from John Kennedy inaugural address:

We shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardships, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty.

Hemingway was well aware of what he was doing and of the techniques he was using. His quest was to write “the one true sentence.”

All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.” So finally I would write one true sentence, and then go on from there. It was easy then because there was always one true sentence that I knew or had seen or had heard someone say.

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