It’s Insecure Wednesday Again

And once again the first Wednesday has crept upon me, unawares – and the question we are asked to ponder this month is: which writing rule do you wish you’d never read?  I didn’t have to think too long about this, because I’ve always thought that Hemingway’s stricture of ‘paring everything to the bone’ was unhelpful and wrong-headed.  Hemingway made a virtue out of minimalism; he stripped away everything he considered to be unnecessary and crowed loud and long about paring to the bone.  But at first, while I instinctively disliked the idea, I couldn’t find arguments against it.  I mean, you don’t want excess vocab, do you?  Flowery descriptions, overstatement, repetition; none of these are good habits for an author, are they?

Many people respect Hemingway as one of the twentieth century’s great writers; but I’m afraid I think he’s overrated.  This is not just because I dislike a lot of what he stood for, such as the macho values he found while living in Spain, expressed in the bullfight (I went to a corrida once and it made me feel ill*) it’s because of this particular stricture.  If you pare things right down to the bone you end up with a skeleton, not a fully-fledged novel.  You want flesh on those bones; you want veins and arteries, skin and hair and nails.  You want features and mannerisms: you want a body.

In the end it’s not so much that I wish I’d never read his advice; it’s more that I wish I’d never acted on it – because for years I was suspicious of anything approaching verbiage in my own work.  I ended up slashing many a valuable phrase because Hemingway’s strictures had got into my mind.  Paring to the bone can be a useful editing tool, but not an end in itself.

So that’s it for today.  Happy writing, fellow Insecure people!

Kirk out

*only so that I could say I knew what I was talking about

4 thoughts on “It’s Insecure Wednesday Again

  1. Hemingway has been an almost entirely malign influence on writers for almost a century,now. I think there is actually something pretentious about his ‘philosophy’ (if that’s what it can be called) and I’ve long felt that other people do what he purported to do much better than ‘Papa’ actually did it.

    His literary ideas have their analogue in the noxious phrase ‘less is more’, which is used as a hand-me-down in all sorts of specious strictures. It was, I think, coined by Kingsley Amis when he defected to the Right in the late sixties, as a counter-blast against ‘progressive’ education (‘all kids need to be taught is the ‘three Rs’; they can work out the rest for themselves’). It’s used by directors to stifle creativity in actors and (most notoriously) by jealous lead guitarists to stifle talented bass-players.

  2. I do like Hemingway’s writing, but it is sparse and I don’t think that style works for everyone, nor would I want to only read novels that were pared down. Some of my favorite books have lots of details and verbiage.

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