Shit I've Forgotten Writing

I just found a bunch of stuff in an old file that I can't remember writing. Good god. Either I'm getting old, even more stupid or this happens to professional writers a lot. I'm thinking a little of all three:

Muscular Prose and How it can Aid Your Blogging

If you read fiction being published today and compare it to that published 100 years ago, you’ll notice a significant difference, on the whole, in the way it is written. Fiction tended to be florid, full of graphic imagery and detailed description of mood and feeling. Then Hemingway’s muscular prose came along and led a charge to change all that. Can his approach can be adopted to increase the efficiency of writing your own blog?

Eschew Obfuscation, Espouse Elucidation
A phrase popularized by English teachers and professors since Hemingway helmed the paradigm shift from flowery to brusque, it directs the target to shun ambiguity and embrace clarity, thereby communicating the message more effectively.

Hemingway started out in 1917 at the Kansas City Star, and was apparently issued four writing rules for his reporting:

1. Use short sentences
Hemingway was renown for dispensing with gratuitous verbiage and cutting straight to the short, simple genius of word choice.

2. Use short first paragraphs
See #1.

If you ever do some professional copywriting, you’ll notice most “marketing gurus” ask for their copy to be written in short sentences and paragraphs, as if any Tom, Dick or Harry can reproduce the Hemingway effect. What they colossally fail to understand is the words are the important thing. Sticking periods closer together and randomly separating prose into more frequent chunks does nothing save make both the writer and the guru look stupid. Word choice is king. Be conservative, but be on point.

3. Use vigorous English
Employ words with drive and verve.

4. Be positive, not negative
Don’t say what something isn’t, say what it is. Focus on the positive, no matter how negative the message. A visit to the dentist is “fairly comfortable” rather than “painless”. A product is “affordable” rather than “inexpensive”.

Hemingway said about these rules: “Those were the best rules I ever learned for the business of writing. I’ve never forgotten them. No man with any talent, who feels and writes truly about the thing he is trying to say, can fail to write well if he abides by them.”

Compare these two passages, the first in the verbose style of a century ago:

The late summer sun peeped over the liquid horizon, decided the coast was clear and stretched into the morning sky. I watched it emerge and glaze the rippling sea with jaundiced quicksilver. It was a crisp clear morning, the dewy grass soft underfoot, providing pleasing moisture to counter my desiccated innards. A brisk sea breeze brushed foam from choppy wavelets, blowing salt-scented air overland to season the stench from a nearby swine-pen and thus compound my gastrointestinal in-brawling.

the other in muscular prose:

The sun paved a path over the sea. It was a crisp, breezy dawn. I harbored my hangover near the pigpen.

Clumsy alliteration aside, the difference is obvious, but the same information (essentially) is being conveyed. What remains unsaid in the second piece is concluded in the imagination of the reader. We naturally fill in the gaps, which allows us to contribute an element of ourselves. This makes the piece not only personal, but elusively abstract. Ambiguity and individual perception are, after all, the relative cornerstones of art.

Hemingway said of himself: “I write one page of masterpiece to ninety-one pages of shit. I try to put the shit in the wastebasket.” So one can surmise he wrote in the same way most people do, but then prĂ©cised the prose down to the simplest form he could and still communicate the same meaning.

Most popular fiction writers nowadays write with a similarly sparse style, leaving the reader to fill in the blanks. The writer regarded as the current champion is Cormac McCarthy, author of No Country for Old Men, and recently The Road.

Here’s an excerpt from The Road:

With the first gray light he rose and left the boy sleeping and walked out to the road and squatted and studied the country to the south. Barren, silent, godless. He thought the month was October but he wasnt sure. He hadnt kept a calendar for years. They were moving south. There’d be no surviving another winter here.

Powerful stuff, hence the nomenclature muscular. It’s also sometimes known as lean, but, to me, there’s a difference between muscular and lean. Muscular denotes pronounced brawn, whereas lean more describes the absence of excess fat; I fancy it connotes a lack of substance that muscular does not similarly project. You’ll also notice a conspicuous scarcity of punctuation. There’s a lot of information to be inferred from that little paragraph.

So muscular prose is far from the wordy stream of inarticulate drivel you find in a lot of blogs. If more bloggers could consider the importance of each word, and lovingly craft each sentence and drench each phrase with meaning and impetus, the internet would be a much more interesting place to browse.

So What Lessons can We Take from Hemingway et al?
Unless you possess the talent of a Hemingway or McCarthy, I’d suggest staying away from abrupt sentences unless you’ve got a steady handle on a well-chosen vocabulary. Additionally, such structure loses its impact if every sentence is a handful of words long. The staccato becomes monotonous, and without the talent to enrich the composition with words befitting the style, it’s probably better to write in the way that makes you feel comfortable. Marketing gurus be damned.

That’s your voice.

Can I Write Quicker in Muscular Prose?

The amount of work a writer like McCarthy produces is actually quite small. Ten novels, four screenplays and two plays over a forty-five year career is hardly prolific. All he’s ever done is write, which suggests his process is quite slow. However, we’re not trying to pretend we’re artists of the caliber of a Cormac or a Hemingway; we’re trying to streamline our blogging.

The acute importance of word choice is why readable muscular prose tends to elude the grasp of the ineloquent. But if you think yourself a good enough writer, give it a go. Maybe you’ll find a comfortable groove that other people find compelling to read.


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