Spit it Out: 3 Ways to Channel Ernest Hemingway in Your Copy

Ernest Hemingway was known for his terse style—and copywriters should follow his example when it comes to clarity and precision. Here's what we've learned from this American master.

hemingway copywriting 2

Less tends to be more in copywriting. In this post, guest writer William Lewis explores what we marketers can learn from the novelist of famously few words, Ernest Hemingway.

We’ve all read copy like this: “If you want to know about great batteries, look no further. You can keep electronics and appliances working smoothly by stocking your office with Johnson’s extremely economical long-lasting batteries. Buy yours online today at our website www.johnsonsbatteries.com.

Odds are, that brief pitch lost you by the second sentence—because it takes forever to spit out the relevant information. What’s more, wordy copy like this risks confusing readers. And a confused mind almost always says no. Overly wordy, flowery, or vague writing is everywhere, but by channeling the tricks of the king of concision, Ernest Hemingway, you can reduce word count and increase sales. 

Hemingway’s “Iceberg Theory”—as applied to copywriting

As a budding journalist, Ernest Hemingway wrote as a junior reporter for the Kansas City Star, where he developed his famously economical writing style, “the Iceberg Theory.” Based on the Star’s style guide which advocated brevity, Hemingway theorized that a writer should focus on surface explanations and brief language, allowing the unseen elements to come through implicitly.

The result is captivating text that takes up less page space. Despite his origins in journalism and prose literature, Hemingway’s stripped-down writing style can inspire writers of all media, marketing copy included. Here are some tips to get your copy straight to the point:

1. Never use a phrase when you can use a word.

“On a daily basis, many workers are inconvenienced by dying electronics due to the fact that their supply managers haven’t stocked Johnson’s.”

“On a daily basis,” “due to the fact that,” “in the event that,” and “in order to,” are all phrases that writers use to sound formal. All of these, however, can be replaced by single words (“daily,” “because,” “if,” and “so,” respectively). Though it is tempting to pepper hollow phrases into your writing to give off an air of expertise, you risk losing readers with too many words and not enough substance. Comb through your copy to find phrases that use multiple words where one would do. You may be surprised to find that the shorter versions sound more formal than the wordy ones.

2. Cut down qualifiers.

“Most offices face the very frustrating occurrence of dying batteries almost every day. Ideally, you never need to face this extremely annoying situation again.”

Many writers feel the need to use qualifiers to strengthen their claims and to avoid making overly general statements. Qualifiers, however, are often counterproductive. “Very,” for example, has little meaning. Writers include it to emphasize a point, but in fact it waters down copy and delays the point of the matter. There is almost always a more powerful word available: “very large” can become “massive,” and “very small” can be “minute,” for example. 

Other words, like “most,” “almost,” and “sometimes,” mitigate the writer’s point in order to avoid blanket generalizations. The result is less convincing copy. And as with “very,” these qualifiers water down the real substance of your copy, distracting your audience and delaying your call to action.

3. Strip it down.

“Johnson’s batteries come in convenient variety packs, so you can power a remote control toy, a TV remote, and flashlights without the guesswork.”

All marketing materials should answer two fundamental questions: “Why does it matter to me?” and “what can I do about it?” If you are advertising batteries to an office supply manager, it doesn’t matter that you can power a remote control car or a television controller. That extra information wastes page space and leaves your reader wondering “what’s in it for me?” 

The “what can I do about it?” requires a call to action. What good is it to promote a product or service without a clear next step? If you succeed in answering the first question (AKA helping your reader recognize the problem), but omit the second, you could even be giving your competitors an advantage. If you directly answer both questions and cut all extraneous text, you are well on your way to creating effective, concise copy.

Get to the point—and grip your readers

The easiest way for writers to lose their audience’s attention is to create overly verbose, indirect text. Every inch of the page should be used to its full potential in order to pique and maintain a reader’s interest. Hollow diction, long-winded phrases, and irrelevant content gives your reader’s attention opportunity to wander, often never to return.

Ernest Hemingway learned this while writing lean but potent short stories after World War I, and continued throughout his career to use page space as economically as possible. The result is a body of emotionally captivating works that remain at the forefront of American literary canon. 

These tips are by no means the only way to write succinct copy; they are merely solutions to common pitfalls of rambling copy. For help crafting marketing materials that drive the maximum impact with the least amount of words, enlist one of our ‘Smiths today.

Paul Rosevear

Paul Rosevear

What do you get when you combine the soul of a musician with the mind of a writer? Copy that sings. And for the last decade, that’s precisely what Paul has delivered for global brands, bootstrap startups, and everything in between. When he’s not hard at work crafting top-notch communications, you can find Paul hanging with his wife and two young daughters, singing and playing guitar for The Vice Rags, or roaming the streets in search of the nearest slice of pizza.

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