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Write Simply: The Lessons of Ernest Hemingway

Ernest Hemingway’s posthumous novel The Garden of Eden contains a passage that perfectly describes the very essence of his writing.

“It had gone so simply and easily that he thought it was probably worthless. Be careful, he said to himself, it is all very well for you to write simply and the simpler the better. But do not start to think so damned simply. Know how complicated it is and then state it simply. Do you suppose the Grau du Roi time was all simple because you could write a little of it simply?”

Subtlety is powerful. The ability to write about or describe complex ideas, emotions, and experiences in only a few words is a difficult skill to master, one that can only serve to enhance your story’s impact on the reader.

Hemingway called this the Iceberg Theory.

“If a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing about he may omit things that will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water. A good writer does not need to reveal every detail of a character or action.”

– from Death In The Afternoon

Simplicity ensures comprehension. It adds intrigue to your writing, leaving pieces out, hidden to be uncovered through more philosophical examination of the text. It creates layers that would not exist had you laid everything down on the table from the beginning.

The writer who describes every emotion, every small detail, burdens their readers with unnecessary facts and excessive descriptions.

But those who write clearly and subtly, and who do not opaquely state what is, take hold of a unique opportunity to more effectively capture their readers’ imaginations.

The key to writing simply, according to Hemingway, is to know enough about what you’re writing. The more you understand your story or topic, the better others will understand you, and the fewer words you’ll require to convey your message.

And remember: just because something is written simply, that does not mean it is simple.

Image courtesy Osccarr.