From Hemingway and other professionals: how to stop writing like an amateur

by Aman Majmudar

Much of what you learned about writing in high school is wrong. You were told to avoid starting sentences with but and because. You were taught to avoid repeating the same words in a paragraph. These rules are bad advice.

In academia, we’re urged to sound smart. We think that if our writing is hard to read, it conveys how bright and exclusive our ideas are. But the best writers write differently.

Ernest Hemingway, for example, used simple and direct language—his novels can be read by a fifth-grader. Hemingway and other Nobel laureates, according to Andrés Marroquín and Julio Cole at the Universidad Francisco Marroquín, use shorter and more monosyllabic words. Why? Such words register faster to the reader and make prose powerful.

Hemingway’s prose is strong also because he seldom used adverbs and adjectives. Here’s a quote from his Pulitzer Prize-winning “The Old Man and the Sea” that I sprinkled with adjectives and adverbs (I followed some high school writing advice):

“However, man is not really made for stupendous defeat,” he said. “A man can be violently destroyed but not completely beaten.”

Now here’s the original:

“But man is not made for defeat,” he said. “A man can be destroyed but not defeated.”

Notice how my version avoids using the word defeat” because “it’s repetitive” and starts with however. My version really confounds and distracts from Hemingway’s very profoundly thought-provoking message. What if my article were filled with sentences like that previous one? You would click away. Avoid adjectives and adverbs to avoid confusing and irritating the reader. You should use them only when it modifies the meaning of the sentence.

Another difference between professional and amateur prose is how coordinators and conjunctions are used. In her book, “Grammar As Style,” Virginia Tufte observes that professional writers prefer simple coordinators at the start of their sentences: and, but, yet, so, and for. Professionals rarely use the longer conjunctive adverbs: however, consequently, nevertheless, likewise, therefore, and so on. But amateurs often do. Sift through The New York Times—it’s difficult to find a sentence starting with however.

So, what can you do right now to improve your writing? First, use but instead of however, and instead of additionally at the start of sentences. Second, avoid using adjectives or adverbs for emphasis. You’ll achieve the opposite because lengthening the sentence will detract from what you want to say. Finally, use simpler words instead of more complex ones when the latter only serves to make you sound smart.

Why follow this advice? To make your writing clear and easy for the reader since that’s a writer’s job.

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