Friday, December 11, 2015
Writing in the Fast Lane
Your writing most likely has a slower pace—the speed at which a reader reads it—than it probably should. This is the result of what you learned in school. Traditionally, most academics believe that the longer you make your sentences, the more intelligent you seem. That’s why the majority of textbooks are such slow reads.
Ernest Hemingway learned this same writing style when he was in school, but when he began to write professionally, he realized that it slowed down his writing. Throughout his career Hemingway experimented with style and, like any professional writer, constantly learned new techniques. This style persisted in most of his writing and changed the way many writers work today.
At the core of Hemingway’s style were short sentences. And while he’s known for simplified, direct prose, most writers don’t know that he worked hard for these effects and that he had a reason for using them—clarity. When he wrote for newspapers, clarity was his objective. Even today, newspapers continue to use a clear, direct style. USA Today took this style to a new level by producing tight, clear text that could be read in a much shorter time, most often with a person’s morning coffee.
Hemingway wrote sentences that were straightforward and clear so that his readers could understand the points he made even if they were skimming quickly through his articles. You, too, can achieve a similar clarity by writing shorter, more direct sentences. This is especially helpful to keep in mind when rewriting your work. Don’t hesitate to break up long complex thoughts into bite-size morsels for added readability. But clarity wasn’t the only reason for Hemingway’s brevity.
Another reason too use shorter sentences is for dramatic effect. In “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” when the lead character is nearing death because of a gangrenous leg, Hemingway writes: “All right. Now he would not care for death. One thing he had always dreaded was the pain.” Here the short sentences have a cumulative effect, pounding home the idea that the hero is nearing death. Try to achieve a similar effect in your writing by stringing together a series of short sentences when you want to stress a point or add dramatic punch to your prose.
Still another use for short sentences is to add variety and music to your writing. Hemingway often mixed longer and shorter sentences for a more rhythmic effect. In The Old Man and the Sea, he told his readers the thoughts of the old fisherman: “Then he was sorry for the great fish that had nothing to eat and his determination to kill him never relaxed in his sorrow for him. How many people will he feed? he thought.” The first sentence contains two conflicting thoughts: the old man’s sorrow for the fish and, in contrast with this, his continued determination to kill it. The next sentence suggests the old man’s motivation for fishing, namely to get food. The change in sentence length lends a musical quality to the writing and adds pleasing variety.
So how else did Hemingway speed up his sentences? First, he chose shorter words and second, he often omitted commas.
Although Hemingway used commas in his writing, he often achieved his greatest technical innovations by omitting them in compound sentences. A compound sentence contains two or more independent clauses. The clauses are usually joined by a comma and a coordinating conjunction, such as and, but, or, nor, for, so, or yet. By far the most common coordinating conjunction is and.
An example from The Sun Also Rises. The narrator is hoping to see the bulls run at Pamplona, Spain. Joining a crowd of spectators he rushes ahead with them to the bullring. At this point Hemingway speeds up the pace: “I heard the rocket and I knew I could not get into the ring in time to see the bulls come in, so I shoved through the crowd to the fence.” The absence of a comma before the word and increases the tempo, conveying some of the feeling of being in the crowd.
But omitting commas can sometimes make sentences confusing, so you don’t want to overuse this technique. But when you come to a section of your story where the action needs to move at a quicker pace, you may wish to try Hemingway’s trick of speeding up your sentences. Follow these tips and you’ll be writing in the fast lane.