“All our words from loose using have lost their edge.”
– Ernest Hemingway, Death in the Afternoon
As this year is the fiftieth anniversary of Ernest Hemingway’s death, I’ve been thinking about his writing and what I could learn from it.
I’m not Hemingway. I don’t consider myself a good writer, although I work with quite a few good writers at Adaptive Path. However, like many of you reading this, I need to write for a living.
Designers write proposals, reviews, presentations, specifications and dozens of other forms of written expression. The common “I’m-just-not-a-writer” attitude in our industry doesn’t fly. If your job involves writing, you are a writer. We need to think of ourselves that way. Get used to it. Get better.
Hemingway said, “I always try to write on the principle of the iceberg. There is seven-eighths of it underwater for every part that shows. Anything you know you can eliminate and it only strengthens your iceberg.”
We can draw some lessons from the iceberg theory, also known as ‘the theory of omission’:
Stronger words, fewer words. Communicate your ideas in as few words as possible. Achieve depth by omission. The more words you cut out, the greater the importance of the words that remain. Replace adjectives and adverbs with stronger nouns and verbs. Nouns emit power when expressed without adjectives. Without adverbs, verbs leap off the page.
Focus on your argument. Hemingway on symbolism: “No good book has ever been written that has in it symbols arrived at beforehand and stuck in. That kind of symbol sticks out like raisins in raisin bread. Raisin bread is all right, but plain bread is better.” As designers, we may not use symbolism in our day-to-day writing, but we can still learn from this. Focus on your main argument or point. Distractions are raisins. Make the bread itself better.
Show, don’t tell. Hemingway once said “The hardest thing is to make something really true and sometimes truer than true.” Individual stories move people to act more than statistics. Consider an example from Nicholas Kristof’s book Half The Sky. He cites a study showing that people were more willing to donate money to one African child with a story, than to 21 million hungry people. Grounding ideas with examples helps make ideas more understandable and human. Why abstract and obscure that? We want to add a human element to our language because that’s what we do in our design work.
Edit, edit, edit. Hemingway on editing: “I write one page of masterpiece to ninety-one pages of shit. I try to put the shit in the wastebasket.” We have another way of saying this: Murder your darlings. If you’re falling in love with the words, you’re short-changing the idea. Delete.
Some other tips beyond the iceberg:
Don’t bury the lede. Our time is precious. When a writer wastes my time, I’m going elsewhere. In my far-off journalism days, we used the inverted pyramid: lead with the most important thing, then trickle down to the least important aspect of the story. When writing a functional specification (I don’t think I need to say here that these are not my favourite), I still need to get to the point right away, and minimise the time it takes to read. When the most interesting fact is three paragraphs deep in a proposal, you’ve lost at least half your readers. Respect your reader by respecting her time.
Sentences can always be shorter. Long sentences are evil. I’m always tempted to cram more into a single sentence than I should. Lately I have used this rule of thumb: one idea, one sentence.
Avoid jargon. A recent thread at Adaptive Path discussed use of the term “the ask,” as in “make the ask“. Girl, please. If you won’t say it to someone who isn’t your boss, don’t use it. Jargon dehumanises our language, obscures what we’re saying and makes us all sound obtuse. We should write the way we’re designing: in a human-centered way. Why say”utilise” when we mean “use”? Also, check your “verbing” at the door.
For more heinous business jargon, don’t forget to go to unsuck-it.com.
Oh, and one last thing. Whenever you confuse “your” with “you’re” a cape buffalo dies.