Hemingway On Copywriting


The Story: Follow Ernest Hemingway's Four Simple Rules to improve your copywriting (or any writing, for that matter).

The Point: The more effusive and melodious your prose, the greater the certitude you will obfuscate the concept you are laboriously attempting to elucidate; eschew obfuscation.

The Resource: The Elements of Style

Hemingway's Rules:

1. Use short sentences.
2. Use short first paragraphs.
3. Use vigorous language.
4. Be positive, not negative.

Note: I have written about Papa's rules in the past. This time I decided to do a little research before doing the podcast, and found different versions. So who is right? I don't know. My favorite version, though is at Brian Clark's Copyblogger site.

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Ray Edwards is a world-renowned copywriter and communications strategist, writing for some of the most powerful voices in leadership and business including New York Times bestselling authors Jack Canfield and Mark Victor Hansen (Chicken Soup for the Soul) and Tony Robbins. Ray is a sought-after speaker and author, hosts a popular weekly podcast, and blogs at RayEdwards.com.

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  • Ray

    Thanks for these nuggets!

    George Orwell, in his 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language”, said something similar:

    1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
    2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
    3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
    4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
    5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
    6. Break any of these rules sooner than saying anything outright barbarous.

    All the best,


  • Hemingway was a brilliant communicator with his words. According to several sources, including Wikipedia: “In the 1920s, Hemingway bet his colleagues $10 that he could write a complete story in just six words. They paid up. His story: ‘For sale. Baby shoes. Never worn.'”

    That says it it all, doesn’t it?


  • Tim Adams

    Short paragraphs is critical to make it look inviting to the reader.

    Longer paragraphs are intimidating.

    I compare it to chapters in a book.

    Let’s say I’m reading a book and get to the end of a chapter and the next chapter has 30 pages. I’m mpre likely to hold off and not get started because the chapter is so long.

    If the chapter is only 7-8 pages, I’ll probably go ahead and go for it.

    And then I do the same thing with the next short chapter.

    In the end, I may end up reading the same 30+ pages, but I wasn’t overwhelmed by it since I did it in smaller 7-8 page chunks.

    Look at your copy the same way. Get them to eat that long copy sales letter elephant one bite at a time.

  • I have seen the six toed cats and chickens descendants of his pets in Key West.

    Even if I were to imbibe in absinthe till I saw roses growing from the floor, I will never be able to write like Hemingway.

    But, I can learn and try.

  • Ed Erickson

    Boy and this sure is still validated today. Commented on another post re this but it’s awaiting moderation so I’ll just repost it here…

    You know this even applies to the trend in book sales, even in the business catagory where you’d expect mature readers with older school attention spans. Check out this blog post by Steve Berlin Johnson http://www.stevenberlinjohnson.com/2007/10/this-may-be-old.html.

    Brian’s blog rocks btw. Going thru his TeachingSells course right now as well. It’s very interesting, esp in the context of the attention age doctrine.

    • Ed Erickson

      er, that quote is not from Johnson’s post. That was actually my closing comment. Not sure how I managed to make it a “quote.”

      Brian’s TeachingSells course however, is excellent! Especially is your thinking of creating a continuing education membership site with a multimedia focus.

  • Brendan

    Unfortunately for the many masses who think his word scripture, so-called “Papa” was not a brilliant writer, but kind of a very good one. He could not bring you to the elevations of Joyce or Woolf or Mann or Kafka or Pynchon or Vollmann or Melville, or even really Steinbeck. Unfortunately for certain people, it takes a slight bit more work than “short sentences” and “subtext” to get the most out of literature, and out of life.