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Papa Says Get Economical

No matter how long you’ve been blogging, there is always more to learn. As part of the Weekly Writing Challenges,…

  • Ready to write? We’ll give you a new challenge each Monday. Publish a new post on your blog that interprets the challenge. Include a pingback and we’ll list your post below. Learn More

No matter how long you’ve been blogging, there is always more to learn. As part of the Weekly Writing Challenges, we want to help you make your writing the best it can be — to challenge you to consider your writing from new angles, try new techniques, and have a bit of fun along the way. Every post is an experiment: the beautiful thing is, it’s not about being great or terrible or right or wrong. Just write.

To participate, tag your posts with DPchallenge or leave a link to your post in the comments. Please be sure your post has been specifically written in response to this challenge; obvious attempts to link-bait will be deleted. We’ll keep an eye on the tag and highlight some of our favorites on Freshly Pressed this Friday.


Yo Mr. White! And Mr. Strunk!

The infamous Strunk and White, purveyors of compositional advice, implore us to omit needless words in our writing. American author Ernest Hemingway, nicknamed “Papa,” embraced this writing philosophy. Known for an unadorned, sparse prose style, he favored short sentences with strong verbs and very few adjectives or adverbs. While Hemingway is well known for this style, he — like the rest of — worked hard at his writing:

Interviewer: How much rewriting do you do?
Hemingway: It depends. I rewrote the ending of Farewell to Arms, the last page of it, 39 times before I was satisfied.
Interviewer: Was there some technical problem there? What was it that had stumped you?
Hemingway: Getting the words right.

– Ernest Hemingway, The Paris Review Interview, 1956

Omit needless words

In writing, it’s important to omit needless words, the cruft that obscures what you’re trying to say to your reader. Never use more words than you really need to communicate — be brutal: remove all the words unnecessary to conveying meaning. Let’s look at one example.

Consider this sentence. There are 19 words. Most of the words are cruft:

In order to fully understand and absorb a piece of writing I must go about reading it many times.

After revising, we’re down to eight words — less than half of the original sentence and the meaning remains.

To understand a text, I must re-read it.

Here’s what we chopped and why. If you’ve got this, then skip this section, collect $200 from Community Chest, and head straight to the challenge below. If you want the details, read on.

  • We removed In order to and replaced it with simply, To. “In order to” is cruft — it’s stuffy and sounds like that old teacher with the stick stuffed up his butt. Never use in order to when you can simply use to.
  • We axed fully. Stephen King said the road to hell is paved with adverbs. In this case, fully understand is redundant. If you understand something, you fully understand it. Get it?
  • We yanked and absorb. Thirty lashes with a wet noodle for bloated waffle. The word understand is all we need. If we understand something, we’ve absorbed it too. No need to repeat ourselves, repeatedly.
  • We replaced a piece of writing with a shorter, simpler word that conveys the same meaning: text.
  • We nixed go about — taking these words out of the sentence makes it shorter, makes us sound less stilted, and gets us to our verb, read a bit faster. WIN.
  • We revised, reading it many times. Changing reading to the simple, infinitive form of the verb, read ensures we’ll have an active construction. Simply saying re-read conveys the idea of reading a piece many times. That two-letter prefix, re does a lot of heavy lifting, and saves us a few words.

Not sure if a word is needed? Remove it and re-read your sentence. Does the meaning hold up? When you see a phrase, think about ways to shorten it, as in our example, “In order to,” becomes “To.” “Reading it many times,” becomes “re-read.” Now, you’ll get the chance to put this in practice with your own writing.

The Papa Hemingway Writing Challenge

There’s two different flavors of the challenge, depending on how much time you have to spend. You can do them both or pick one. Remember, there’s no right or wrong. Just write.

  • I want to try this, but I don’t have a lot of time. With your new-found editing superpower, go back through your previous blog posts and pick a nice, crufty sentence, one chock full of adverbs, needless words, and airy phrases. Strip it down to the words required for meaning. Keep going until the idea remains, free of adornment.
  • I’ve got the time for a meatier challenge. Hit me. Go back through your blog archives and find a bloated, nasty, air-filled paragraph. Copy it in all its former glory into a new post. Paste it a second time so that you can edit it until it cries for mercy and we can see the strong, shiny, new version below. Strip out the adverbs, replace weak verbs with strong verbs, axe the bloated phrasery that takes up space and yet says nothing.

Editing takes practice. Self-editing can be especially difficult because it’s often hard to see the problems with our own writing. Perseverance pays off — keep at it — the lean and mean prose you produce will be worth the effort. Don’t forget to tag your posts as #DPChallenge.

Looking forward to reading your shiny, new work!

106 Comments

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  1. This challenge is going to be virtually impossible for me, because with only Fifty Words a day I always have to self-edit like Hemingway. Hmm…I need to give this some thought…

    1. I’m sure I don’t do it as well as Papa did, but my Fifty Words don’t go very far otherwise. I love these challenges, I’ll see what I can do…

  2. Just to say, proof-of-the-pudding-wise, how worthwhile it is to cut. Last week my short story Flight came in the top 3 of the http://bathshortstoryaward.co.uk/ after I cut the original version in half – over 5,000 words down to 2,200. The following week I cut another story of over 5000 words to 1500, and thus earned a place in an anthology for unkeen, teen readers with Ransom Publishing. Cutting sharpens the creative focus. It makes for happy readers. And that’s the objective, isn’t it?

    1. Delighted to hear real-life examples of how self-editing has been beneficial for you, Tish. Congratulations on the award and the anthology nod!

  3. I agree with the sample edits except for replacing “many times” with “re-read.”
    To me “re-read” means “read again” (once); it does not connote multiple reads.
    I would have condensed the sample to
    “To understand text, I must read it repeatedly.”
    This is eight words…same as yours. It better conveys the key thought of multiple re-reads.

      1. Actually I can do it in four words.

        “To understand a text, I must re-read it.”
        =
        “Repeated reading increases comprehension.”

        Four words instead of eight but it’s longer on the page! Is it better or worse?

        “Re-reading adds understanding.”

        OK what do I win? :)

  4. Good topic, but I probably won’t participate. Even though I don’t always practice this ideal in my blog, it’s old hat for me.

    If I can figure out something interesting to do with it, I’ll change my tune.

  5. I think wordiness makes people sound witty…or like posers. This will be a challenge! How can you be simple AND interesting?

  6. I find that I do this when writing essays for university. I will have a 3000 word limit and I will write 5000 then cut it down, but without removing any of the points, just the useless words. It makes my essays choc-full of good stuff, but no room for waffle! But I’ve never tried it with fiction, yet I suppose the concept is the same! Will have to give this a try :)

  7. This reminds me of how I tweet. I like big words and multiple modifiers, but you can’t tweet like that. However, when I edit out too much, my work loses voice. It no longer feels like mine.

    1. I find that Twitter is a fun way to practice editing, just because of the word count. Which — sparks an idea: you could set yourself a stretch goal of meeting a word count — or reducing the word count by a certain percentage — say, 20, 30, 40 or even 50 percent. It’s all about experimenting and having a little fun.

      1. Twitter has been great for me, Little Miss Wordy, even though I initially hated the limitations. I like the word count tip. Off to dig up an old post to edit. Thanks!

  8. “Copy it in all it’s former glory into a new post.” Not meaning to nit-pick, and because this is an advice post for better writing, ‘it’s’ in this sentence should be ‘its’.

  9. Noob here and a gentle hello to all…

    I’d just joined in a few days ago and got to see this post. Hoping to make some friends and please do have a read at my blog.

  10. Oh, this is a tough one! In grad school, I was always more of a Faulkner fan than a Hemingway reader….now I fear my writing has grown bloviated!

    Rewrite: I did like Faulkner. Too much. Hello, Papa!

  11. Poetry faces this challenge as much as any other writing – each word must fit, else get ejected. So if anything, I felt my response to the Daily Post prompt at Daily Prompt: Shape Up or Ship Out to be miserably short of reflecting how incessantly dense the real thing sounds like inside – for that prompt, my poem at Me, Ugly.

    But I couldn’t resist this challenge, so I’ve collaborated with a friend to draft a condensed version – Me, Stripped Down Ugly.

    Both versions in a single post (as directed by this challenge), together with a condensed version of the background notes for getting from the original to the revision, is given by – Me, Stripped Down Ugly — Notes.

  12. I have read a couple of Hemingway books, but I never felt really comfortable with them and now I think I know why. Perhaps his neatly clipped style, short sentences and for my taste lacking ornaments. Perhaps my understanding of literature is not what it should be, but I never felt at home with Mr. Hemingway and his books. So why did I read them. Everyone reads a Hemingway at one time in their life of literature. I will not be participating in the weekly challenge, it is just not my style, but I am sure a good exercise.

    1. Hemingway is not for everyone, that’s for sure.

      Perhaps my understanding of literature is not what it should be..

      I respectfully beg to differ. Your perspective of literature is precisely that: individual, and personal — and there’s nothing wrong with that.

  13. I think Angloswiss gets close to a serious weakness in this writing challenge. In short, the editors fused two concepts that don’t belong together. They start with Strunk and White, which in no way endorses the elimination of ornamentation. The S&W is not an artistic prescription, but a way of cleaning up one’s writing. Even a writer like Faulkner would endorse the S&W.

    The Hemingway is an aesthetic preference. His work does not follow the S&W guidelines, especially regarding the verb “to be.” (Just check the “Hills Like white Elephants” link in an earlier comment.) Telling writers to revise a work according to S&W guidelines and end up with a product resembling Hemingway’s is not far from gibberish.

    I’ve noticed comments and polls in several entries that say “the old version was better.” If the challenge had stuck with S&W and not brought Hemingway into it (or if it had called for a new piece that mimics Hemingway), I don’t think we’d have this problem. Revising according to S&W should make the results noticeably better, but that’s not happening.

    1. I’m sorry this challenge didn’t resonate with you. I do stand by the fact that Hemingway strove to omit needless words — here’s a passage from the Teachers’ Guide to A Farewell to Arms from the National Endowment for the Arts, emphasis mine:

      He [Hemingway] was an obsessive reviser. His work is the result of a careful process of selecting only those elements essential to the story and pruning everything else away. He kept his prose direct and unadorned, employing a technique he termed the “iceberg principle.” In Death in the Afternoon he wrote, “If a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of the iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water.”

      1. I don’t disagree that Hemingway strove to omit needless words. It would be idiotic to argue otherwise.

        What I’m saying is that his process had nothing to do with the Strunk and White methods.

  14. Call me old-fashioned but I prefer story tellers to weave a tale rather than just-tell-it-like- it-is journalism. Hemingway is heroic but sometimes sounds too terse with his well-clipped sentences. Am resisiting the urge to follow the current hyper-active, stacatto txt trend style but it is a good discipline and challege :)

  15. Ok you maybe right what if the person wanted tose words in there piece for their meaning, I know the shorter version sounds good also, does the longer version corrupt ones mind that seriously?

  16. I just applied the “get economical” technique to the entire post which so magnanimously offered me my “bloated, nasty, air-filled paragraph.” The result? Word count went from 984 to 692 (a savings of almost 30%!). Thank you, Weekly Challenge, for waking me up to techniques for how to avoid putting quite so many of my readers to sleep.

34 Responses Ready to write? To participate, publish a post on your blog that responds to the prompt. Include a pingback and we’ll list your post below. Learn More