It’s become common to hear the writing advice, “You need to write more like Ernest Hemingway!”
The writing expert usually means your writing should be more concise, with more muscular verbs. Sometimes the advice is simply guidance to trim overwriting.
There’s good sense in this. You certainly risk losing your audience if you aren’t clear and understandable. However, one can’t help but wonder, is that really the best/only way to write?
Is Hemingway or Joyce better?
At the other end of the writing spectrum is James Joyce.
Joyce’s writing is everything Hemingway’s isn’t: long-winded, digressive and abstract. Be sure to have a dictionary handy if you’re going to try to tackle one of his books.
Does this mean that Joyce’s writing is somehow “wrong” or “bad” or even “unideal”? According to popular, modern advice: yes.
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Then again, in the Modern Library’s list of the 100 best novels, Joyce has not one, but two novels in the top 10 (In fact, he holds the No. 1 spot with his novel “Ulysses”). Hemingway’s best novel “The Sun Also Rises” comes in at No. 45.
It’s all subjective, of course, but it’s fair to ask: what’s the deal? Why should we emulate No. 45 rather than No. 1?
When it comes to copywriting, there’s good reason to copy Hemingway more than Joyce.
Fiction versus copywriting
When you’re a writer, you like to believe that you can “write anything.”
Perhaps you can—with plenty of consideration, experience, observation, guidance and failures along the way.
If you’re used to writing fiction, then you’re used to taking as long as you want to meander in and out of various themes. Plots, subplots, observations, characters’ beliefs and motives — all of these are major points of your story which you hint at and expound upon throughout tens of thousands of words.
However, with a company blog (or another piece of owned media), you’ve got about 1,000 words to explain one concept. Blogs don’t have subplots, hidden meanings or philosophies. A blog must have one—and only one—story to tell. If you have another story to tell, then you have another blog.
Blog titles versus book titles
Consider the title of this bestselling novel:
The Handmaid’s Tale
(by Margaret Atwood)
Is it a great book? Yes. Should you read it? Yes (if you think you can stomach it).
However, do you know anything at all about the book based on that title? You can deduce there’s a character in it who’s a handmaid, and it seems she’s got a story to tell. Otherwise, you don’t know anything about the book based on the title.
This is fine for a book. You cannot do this with the title of a blog or a press release.
A blog’s title (or a release’s headline) must tell the main point of the story in less than a sentence.
Consider this blog title:
The science of surprise: How to make your work unforgettable
(by Hilary Weiss – check it out here)
Just by reading those 10 words, you already know what you’re getting into with this blog. You know what Weiss wants to explain. You don’t know her full explanation yet, but you know exactly the type of thing you’ll learn by the end of the blog.
Take a look at the opening passage from her blog, which will shed a bit of light on this topic:
Every day, two million blog posts are published online.
Of the few that actually get clicked, 55 percent of readers spend fewer than 15 seconds reading. Factor in that the average reader gets through 250 words a minute, and you’ve got a measly 62 words to grab someone’s attention.
If it’s true that we have about 62 words to grab someone’s attention, then the first 62 words need to be loaded with exactly the right information. This begins with the headline.
If you think boiling down your story into less than one sentence for your headline is too difficult, consider this powerful answer to the challenge “write a story in six words or less”:
For sale: Baby’s shoes, never worn.
See how much meaning you can convey in just a few words?
(Urban myth attributes this six-word story to Hemingway, but research suggests otherwise.)
If you’d like a less grim take on the six-word story, check out this great tweet:
genie: please no
millipede: more legs
— Tami Cru (@TamiCru) August 29, 2017
Write like yourself
Even better than writing like Hemingway is write like you.
Unless you’re the newest publisher of Hemingway’s books, your brand has its own products, services and messages. You have a story, and you need to tell it in the way that only you can. You know what you do better than anyone else. You know what your brand is about, what makes it tick, and how all the pieces fit together.
People are attracted to genuineness.
This means the safest bet is to simply be sincere. Tell your story with pride, but without arrogance. Explain what you do without overpromising, nor being too modest. Use words that you and your readers already know, without either of you needing a thesaurus.
Being succinct like Hemingway and sincere like yourself is the best way to maximize the impact of your copywriting, blogging and overall marketing.
Aaron Searle is a PR Newswire senior customer content specialist. A version of this article originally appeared on the Cision blog.