Should All Copywriting Be Like Hemingway?
It's become common to hear the writing advice, "You need to write more like Ernest Hemingway!" Basically, this means you should write distinctly and to-the-point.
There’s good sense in this. You certainly risk losing your audience if you aren’t clear and understandable. But, one can’t help but wonder, is that really the best/only way to write?
Let’s find out.
Is Hemingway or Joyce Better?
At the polar opposite of the writing spectrum is James Joyce. Joyce’s writing is everything Hemingway’s isn’t: long-winded, digressive, abstract. Be sure to have a dictionary handy if you’re going to try to tackle one of his books.
Does this mean that Joyce’s writing is somehow “wrong” or “bad” or “unideal”? According to popular, modern advice: yes.
Then again, in the Modern Library’s list of the 100 best novels, Joyce has not one, but two novels in the top 10 (In fact, he holds the #1 spot with his novel Ulysses). And Hemingway’s best novel, The Sun Also Rises, comes in at #45.
It’s all subjective, of course, but it’s fair to ask: what’s the deal? Why should we emulate Mr. 45, rather than Mr. 1?
Actually, when it comes to copywriting, there’s good reason to emulate Hemingway more than Joyce. Let’s explore some of the in’s-and-out’s of this to make sure that our copywriting is the best it can be.
Fiction and Copywriting Are Two Different Beasts
It’s true. When you’re a writer, you like to believe that you can “write anything” (trust me, I’ve been there). And perhaps you can … with plenty of consideration, experience, observation, guidance and failures along the way.
If you’re used to writing fiction, then you’re used to taking as long as you want to meander in and out of various themes. Plots, subplots, observations, characters’ beliefs and motives — all of these are major points of your story which you hint at and expound upon throughout tens of thousands of words.
But with a company blog (or another piece of owned media), you’ve got about 1,000 words to explain one concept. Blogs don’t have subplots, hidden meanings, or philosophies. A blog must have one — and only one — story to tell. If you have another story to tell, then you have another blog.
A Blog’s Title Serves a Different Purpose than a Book’s Title
Consider the title of this bestselling novel:
The Handmaid’s Tale
(by Margaret Atwood)
Is it a great book? Yes. Should you read it? Yes (if you think you can stomach it – it’s quite rough in a lot of ways).
But do you know anything at all about the book based on that title? Well, apparently there’s a character in it who’s a handmaid, and it seems she’s got a story to tell … so in other words, no, we really don’t know anything about the book based on the title.
What’s her story about? Who are the other characters? When and where does it take place? The book’s title doesn’t give us any of this information. This is fine for a book. But absolutely, positively, we cannot do this with the title of a blog or a press release. A blog’s title (or a release’s headline) must tell the main point of the story in less than a sentence.
Consider, instead, this blog title:
THE SCIENCE OF SURPRISE: HOW TO MAKE YOUR WORK UNFORGETTABLE
(by Hilary Weiss – check it out here)
Just by reading those 10 words, we already know what we’re getting into with this blog. We know what Weiss wants to explain to us. No, we don’t know her full explanation yet, but we know exactly the type of thing we’ll learn by the end of the blog.
In fact, let’s take a look at the opening passage from her blog, which will shed a bit of light on this topic:
Every day, two million blog posts are published online.
Of the few that actually get clicked, 55 percent of readers spend fewer than 15 seconds reading. Factor in that the average reader gets through 250 words a minute, and you’ve got a measly 62 words to grab someone’s attention.
If it’s true that we have about 62 words to grab someone’s attention, then the first 62 words need to be loaded with exactly the right information. And this all begins with the headline.
Also, if you think boiling down your story into less than one sentence for your headline is too difficult, consider this powerful answer to the challenge write a story in six words or less:
For sale: Baby’s shoes, never worn.
Wow. It’s impacting, clear, and shorter than the average blog title.
(Interestingly, urban myth attributes this six-word story to Hemingway, but research suggests otherwise.)
Or, if you’d like a less grim take on the six-word story, check out this great – and much lighter – tweet:
– also impacting (but luckily in a humorous way, rather than depressing), clear, and tells as much of the story as we need to know – all in just six words.
More Important than Writing Like Hemingway, Write Like Yourself
Yes, we can see how a Hemingway-esque approach is better for copywriting than Joyce’s. I mean, just check out this passage from Joyce’s Ulysses:
It soared, a bird, it held its flight, a swift pure cry, soar silver orb it leaped serene, speeding, sustained, to come, don't spin it out too long long breath he breath long life, soaring high, high resplendent, aflame, crowned, high in the effulgence symbolistic, high, of the ethereal bosom, high, of the high vast irradiation everywhere all soaring all around about the all, the endlessnessnessness...
…yikes. For the love of all that is great, please don’t do this in your copywriting.
But even better than writing like Hemingway, would be writing like you.
Unless you’re the newest publisher of Hemingway’s books, your brand has its own products, services and messages. You have a story, and you need to tell it in the way that only you can. You know what you do better than anyone else. You know what your brand is about, what makes it tick, how all the pieces fit together.
And perhaps more than ever before, people these days are attracted to genuineness.
Certainly, there are wrong ways to go about writing and marketing (such as we’ve discussed here), but the “right” way is often loaded with gray. Word choice that connects with one reader might alienate another. Some people are attracted to humorous marketing; others find it unprofessional. Controversial advertising will certainly spark a conversation, but it might not always affect a conversion (at least, it may not always impact a conversion in your favor).
This means the safest bet is to simply be sincere. Tell your story with pride, but without arrogance. Explain what you do without overpromising, nor being too modest. Use words that you and your readers already know, without either of you needing a thesaurus.
In the end, being succinct (like Hemingway) and sincere (like yourself) is the best way to maximize the impact of your copywriting, blogging and overall marketing.
(Source for main image. Ernest Hemingway with American writer Janet Flanner.)
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