Monday, April 9, 2012

Short and Sweet

Words: they say a picture is worth a thousand of them.  Fair enough, but I think sometimes the exact opposite is true.  Sometimes nothing can portray emotion as well as a few simple words.  Consider the shortest story Ernest Hemingway ever wrote.  As legend has it, he was once challenged to write a story in only six words.  The result, as many know, is one of the most poignant, touching stories ever written.  Hemingway himself is rumored to consider it his finest story ever:

For sale: baby shoes, never worn.

Wow.  Adding more words wouldn't add anything else to that story.  It wouldn't heighten the pain, the loss, one feels when reading that.  More verbiage wouldn't add to the broken heart you know the mother, the whole family, suffered.  Six words is enough to know they moved on, but only out of necessity.  Six words is exactly enough to convey a punch to the gut.

Ernest Hemingway, © Penn State

I think Hemingway would have scoffed at those who say 140 characters isn't enough to adequately express oneself on Twitter. I think he would have loved Twitter. I'd have followed him for sure.  He was a master at saying exactly what he meant, and only that.

There's something to be said about brevity.  It's partly why literary agents want only a one-page query.  It's why we are told to hone, tighten, shorten, to turn the whole story into a synopsis.  To create a few-paragraph back cover blurb, and then take that blurb and shorten it into an elevator pitch.  Literary agent Rachelle Gardner has some excellent advice on creating elevator pitches.  Author David B. Coe shows us how to pare a blurb down, trim it to the bare essentials, leaving nothing but a concise pitch line.

These are things every author needs to do, if nothing more than the ability they lend to edit the story itself, and make every word count.  Kurt Vonnegut's advice on the matter was, "Every sentence must do one of two things, either reveal character or advance the plot."  Elmore Leonard's was a little simpler: "I try to leave out the parts that people skip."

It isn't easy, but then again, no one who's written anything worth a damn ever said it was.


  1. Great example, Jonathan. Cutting out extra words can be difficult, but the final product is worth it.

  2. Thanks, Charity. I guess that's why most folks consider editing the hardest part of writing.

  3. Always loved that story. Makes me read some more Hemingway. Oddly, it also makes me want to get stuck into the edits of my WIP before I've finished the first draft.

  4. Me too, Luke. Hemingway is one of my all-time favorite authors. And I know all too well the desire to get back in and start ripping a novel up before the first draft is finished. Luckily I write fast enough now that it's not usually a problem.