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Still Listening to "Papa" Hemingway?


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A well-meaning Hemingway fan checks off his primary writing "rules" and thus provides a future meal for the Algonkian Film and Video Crit Board. "Short sentences," eh Papa?... No, Papa! Don't punch me! Stop drinking! Yes, yes, Fitzgerald was stupid! Okay!

Michael Neff
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Guest Richard Hacker

I’ve always liked Hemingway, more as a writer than an alcoholic misogynist, so these four principles do have some merit. However, I’m not a fan of rules like short sentences and short paragraphs, unless the intent is to see how using them, and breaking them, impacts your writing and your characters.  Length and pacing live along a broad spectrum. To limit writing to the short frequencies removes many of the tools at hand to create tension and energy.

Of the four, the one I do gravitate toward has to do with revision. I’ve often run into writers who let themselves be trapped in their initial draft, trying to make the draft perfect, rather than using it as a starting point. A great novel is not simply words on a page, but structure and pacing and many other elements. A novel based on a first draft is a bit like a potter slamming her fist into a mound of clay and calling it a pot.

Of course, if the goal is to compete in a Hemingway short story contest, then here’s your map to success. 

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These rules to writing that Hemingway has come up with are certainly interesting. I'll give him that.

I can appreciate that his first rule about using short sentences helped changed novel writing today. Now we can use long and short sentences interchangeably to create different types of pacing in our stories when we need to. However, I also think he created this rule because he had his own personal contention with the style of writing during his time. It's certainly not one that I would suggest that writers adhere to now.

As for the other three rules, well...

Whether you watch this video or not, that's up to you. I, for one, didn't find it to be all that helpful.

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I think that, while these tips are generally interesting with some thought-out logic behind them, they're lukewarm. Despite what the narrator (and apparently Hemingway himself) believes, these tips alone aren't going to turn bad writing into good writing. To me, this video radiates an inflated sense of importance and isn't nearly as crucial as the tone might suggest.

Is this to say the opposite of these tips are true? Not necessarily, but the vast majority of the ideas described in this video are highly subjective beliefs about what makes good writing. It's short and sweet, so there's little harm in watching it...just try to maintain some perspective. Best not to get drunk on Hemingway's reputation and take his word as gospel.

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Like everyone above, I think there's something to be said for these tips. Basically, it boils down to writing in the clearest, most energetic way possible. There's a temptation among writers to lean into the "artistry" of writing in ways that detract from the story, which is never a good idea. Pretty prose can be a plus, but story is king, and aiming to convey that story in the most straightforward manner possible can help new writers get out of their own way.

However, I'm not sure I'd use this video as any kind of training tool. I think it's "rules" aren't great as a foundation and shouldn't be taken as edicts so much as recommendations under the umbrella of "write/revise the way the story demands." Not all books require short sentences and first paragraphs, just like how not all books benefit from "positive thinking" or Hemingway minimalism. Every concept requires a different approach and a good writer can tailor their work to fit the reader experience that is promised by the high-concept idea.

As Joe said, the video wasn't wrong, just perhaps not as comprehensive as it wants to believe.

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