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Dickens vs. Hemingway: Which Writer Should You Emulate?

One is known for his overstuffed prose, the other for a punchy, masculine, lean-and-mean style. Both are literary legends. Whose style should you emulate?

I sometimes cringe at my early writing.

Back when I started, in the pre-Pleistecene era, I was way too fond of flowery descriptions, highfalutin ideas and Great Big Words. I also wrote too much—a couple thousand words when a couple hundred would have sufficed—just so I could fit in all that windy narrative.

I thought all that fancy language made me sound smart. In short, I was Dickensian. Charles Dickens is one of the most revered writers of all time, justifiably so, having given us classics like Oliver Twist, David Copperfield, A Tale of Two Cities, and my favorite, A Christmas Carol. He was a social critic before it was commonplace, and used his literary pulpit to speak out against 19th century barbarisms like debtor's prisons, child labor, and workhouses for the poor. For all that, as any schoolkid knows, it can be tough to slog through Dickens. Old Boz was chronically long-winded, especially when it came to descriptions of food. He took pages of unchecked verbosity simply to set the table. To wit, this passage from Great Expectations, in which Pip's sister undertakes to butter a slice of bread.

"My sister had a trenchant way of cutting our bread-and-butter for us that never varied. First, with her left hand she jammed the loaf hard and fast against her. Then she took some butter (not too much) on a knife and spread it on the loaf, in an apothecary kind of way, as if she were making a plaister — using both sides of the knife with a slapping dexterity, and trimming and moulding the butter off round the crust. Then, she gave the knife a final smart wipe on the edge of the plaister, and then sawed a very thick round off the loaf: which she finally, before separating from the loaf, hewed into two halves, of which Joe got one, and I the other."

At last, butter applied, mission accomplished! That was Dickens, whose verbosity may owe to the fact that he was paid by the word. His stylistic opposite may be Ernest Hemingway, who is known for the stark brevity of his prose. Take the opening line of The Old Man and the Sea: "He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish." Like Dickens, Hemingway could wax poetic when it came to food, as in this salute to oysters from A Moveable Feast, published posthumously in 1964: "As I ate the oysters with their strong taste of the sea and their faint metallic taste that the cold white wine washed away, leaving only the sea taste and the succulent texture, and as I drank their cold liquid from each shell and washed it down with the crisp taste of the wine, I lost the empty feeling and began to be happy and to make plans." But for the most part, Hemingway got to the point, and fast. He reportedly once won a wager by dashing off a story of fewer than 10 words: "For sale. Baby shoes. Never worn." Did you just feel a punch in the heart? Those few words contain a world of mystery, meaning, and emotion. Most of the unskilled writers I know mimic Dickens rather than Hemingway. They show off their erudition with those Great Big Words, and self-consciously squeeze in more prose than is necessary to tell a story. Conversely, the best writers I know value the Hemingway model.

Simplicity. Economy. Leanness. Here’s why.

A simple declarative sentence is easy to understand, and hard to misinterpret. It requires you, the messenger, to distill your message to its essence, for more clarity and impact. Keeping it short and sweet also ensures you won’t wear out your welcome, or take half a page to butter your bread.

That doesn’t mean you should dumb down your message, or craft it for someone with a 5-second attention span. If you’ve got something to say, say it, in full. But don’t waste your readers’ time with a lot of folderol.

Here’s my formula:

  • When I’m writing the first draft, I pile it on. I write sloppy. I write long. My inner editor is not allowed to interrupt.

  • On the second and third passes, it’s time to crack that whip—to pare, prune and refine.

  • Next, if I’m not pressed for time, I let the work sit for a day or two, so I can come back to it with fresh eyes for the final edit.

Not to say I don’t sometimes embellish. For example, I used to write two travel columns for lifestyle magazines. In a column about Vail, Colorado, I gave myself permission to go a little overboard, using lavishly descriptive terms for the majestic Rocky Mountains, the storybook ski village, the rich amenities. It was Vail, after all. But even then, I was careful not to go too far.

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But as a general rule, writing simply is an act of mercy: you're not dragging readers along on your ego trip. (Note to younger self: all that bluster in my past writing probably didn’t impress people as much as annoy or bore them).

Stylistically, I suggest you borrow more from Hemingway than Dickens (who was paid by the word, hence his verbosity). Next time you take pen in hand or the equivalent, make sure every word counts. And when in doubt, cut it out.

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