Ernest Hemingway won a Pulitzer Prize for his book “The Old Man and the Sea.” He used a 4th grade vocabulary to write that book.
That’s right. An average 4th grader can understand every word in that book. And yet, it won a Pulitzer, the most coveted prize in writing.
What lesson should you take from that?
You don’t need big words. You don’t need long sentences. You don’t need an impressive vocabulary or complicated ideas.
Now, this is a lot harder than it sounds. But it’s not impossible.
You see, my natural writing style is anything but short and simple. When I let myself do what’s “easy”, a single sentence goes on for half a page. My first drafts are always longer and more complex than what gets published.
So, I use a couple of simple rules and tools to edit what I write — and to keep myself on track.
Short words hit like bricks. Long words hit like a wet sponge. You want bricks.
Any sentence longer than 10 words is suspect.
Can you say the same thing with fewer words? Can you split that long sentence into two short ones? Do it! It doesn’t mean you are never allowed sentences that are longer than 10 words. However, long sentences must earn their keep.
Short paragraphs look better.
No one wants to see a “wall of text.” If you have more than five sentences in a paragraph, it’s too long. This isn’t an English class. The only grade you get is more — or less — business.
Chop. It. Down.
We have all been taught that writing short sentences is childish. We have been rewarded for knowing and using big words. And so, we carry those old lessons beyond their expiration date. Our writing brims with suspended phrases and dependent clauses. Inside all that complexity, you lose your reader.
Will you seem less educated if you use short words, short sentences, and short paragraphs?
You’ll sound more like Hemingway. You’ll sound like a master of your craft. You’ll sound like you know what you’re talking about.
And your blog posts will keep your reader’s attention.
This one is going to hurt. But trust me: it will improve your writing. You’re not trying to win writing awards. You’re trying to win business.
Imagine that your blog post is a house. Nouns and verbs are the bricks and cement. Adjectives and adverbs are the lace curtains around the windows.
You need bricks and concrete to build the house. You don’t needlace curtains.
What’s an adverb? Any word that modifies a verb.
Watch for words ending in “-ly”: quickly, happily, dejectedly, highly. You almost never need an adverb. Trust your reader to fill in the emotion or description from context.
Adjectives modify nouns. Sometimes adjectives are necessary. Most times, they aren’t.
You mustn’t eliminate 100% of your adjectives and adverbs. However, they must prove their worth — or get cut. Write so clearly that you can trust your reader to complete your thought.
I use a tool called Hemingway to analyze my writing. It helps pinpoint those words, phrases, and sentences that could be better. Almost everything I write gets run through Hemingway before publishing.
You can use this tool for free — or download a desktop version for $20.
Sometimes, I use another free tool called Simple Writer. It acts like a demanding 5th grade teacher. Dare to use a word a 5th-grader wouldn’t understand? Simple Writer won’t be shy about letting you know. It’s an effective way to learn how to use short words and short sentences.
Finally, remember that these tips should be used when you are in edit mode.
Don’t try to write your blog posts and edit them at the same time. If your natural writing style is lengthy and complex (as mine is), that’s OK. Write your way first. Then, come back with your editing hat on — and use these tips to clarify, refine, and essentialize your message. Your prospects and clients will thank you!