Ernest Hemingway's Star Style

The Best Rules for the Business of Writing

getty_ernest_hemingway-3200800.jpg
Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961). (Anthony Potter Collection/Getty Images)

Speaking to a reporter from The Kansas City Star in 1940, Ernest Hemingway said, "Those were the best rules I ever learned for the business of writing. I've never forgotten them. No man with any talent, who feels and writes truly about the thing he is trying to say, can fail to write well if he abides with them."

Those rules--110 of them on a single sheet of paper--served as the Star's style guide when Hemingway began working at the newspaper as a cub reporter in 1917.

(For a sample of his early nonfiction, see "Camping Out.")

"On the Star," he said, many years later, "you were forced to learn to write a simple declarative sentence. That is useful to anyone."

Hemingway's tenure at the paper was brief, just half a year, and he soon went on to write the novels that earned him a Nobel Prize in Literature.

The Star's style sheet evolved as well. It's now a lengthy companion to the Associated Press Stylebook, which by itself runs more than 400 pages. Yet as these excerpts demonstrate, some of the original rules can still be of use to anyone with the will and talent "to write well."

Excerpts From The Star Copy Style (1915)

 

  • Use short sentences. Use short first paragraphs. Use vigorous English. Be positive, not negative.
  • Never use old slang. Slang to be enjoyable must be fresh.
  • Eliminate every superfluous word as "Funeral services will be at 2 o'clock Tuesday," not "The funeral services will be held at the hour of 2 o'clock on Tuesday." He said is better than he said in the course of conversation.
  • Be careful of the word also. It usually modifies the word it follows closest. "He, also, went" means "He, too, went." "He went also" means he went in addition to taking some other action.
  • Be careful of the word only. "He only had $10," means he alone was the possessor of such wealth; "He had only $10," means the ten was all the cash he possessed.
  • Avoid the use of adjectives, especially such extravagant ones as splendid, gorgeous, grand, magnificent, etc.
  • Say "She was born in Ireland and came to Jackson County in 1874," not "but came to Jackson County." She didn't come here to make amends for being born in Ireland. This is common abuse of the conjunction.
  • Don't say "He had his leg cut off in an accident." He wouldn't have had it done for anything.
  • "He suffered a broken leg in a fall," not "he broke his leg in a fall." He didn't break the leg, the fall did. Say a leg, not his leg, because presumably the man has two legs.
  • In writing of animals, use the neuter gender except when you are writing of a pet that has a name.
  • A long quotation without introducing the speaker makes a poor lead especially and is bad at any time. Break into the quotation as soon as you can, thus: "I should prefer," the speaker said, "to let the reader know who I am as soon as possible."
  • Try to preserve the atmosphere of the speech in your quotation. For instance, in quoting a child, do not let him say "Inadvertently, I picked up the stone and threw it."
  • Such words as "tots," 'urchins," "mites of humanity" are not to be used in writing of children. In such cases, where "kid" conveys the proper shading and fits the story, it is permissible.
  • He died of heart disease, not heart failure--everybody dies of "heart failure."
  • Resolutions are adopted, not passed. Bills are passed and laws are enacted. The house or senate passed a bill; congress or the legislature enacted a law.
  • Both simplicity and good taste suggest house rather than residence, and lives rather than resides.
  • A Woman of the Name of Mary Jones--Disrespect is attached to the individual in such cases. Avoid it. Never use it even in referring to street walkers.

With the decline of print newspapers (note the retronym), this sort of attention to detail may seem quaint. But fortunately, it's not obsolete. In one form or another, "the business of writing" still matters.