A Newspaper Taught Hemingway to Write

From a Wall Street Journal story by John J. Miller headlined “A Newspaper Taught Hemingway to Write”:

Ernest Hemingway worked at the Kansas City Star for less than seven months—between graduating from high school in 1917 and driving a World War I ambulance in 1918—but the job launched him as a professional writer, and he knew how much he owed to the newspaper’s style guide.

“Those were the best rules that I ever learned for the business of writing,” he said in 1940. “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 by them.”

Style guides provide publications with standards of grammar and usage. They often correct common blunders, such as mistaking “who” for “whom.” They also settle disputable questions: Is it “French fries” or “french fries”? A good style guide will offer an answer, encouraging consistency across sections, editions, and, nowadays, webpages.

Trouble can arise when a style guide turns sanctimonious. The Associated Press, which maintains perhaps the most influential style guide in the U.S., recently recommended against using such terms as “the French” and “the poor” because they are “dehumanizing.” Online mockery compelled the AP to revoke the bit about “the French,” but it held fast on calling for the elimination of “the poor,” even though the King James Bible insists that “ye have the poor with you always.”

Hemingway’s spare prose sometimes is said to reflect the simple words and concrete images of that famous version of the bible, but the style guide of the Kansas City Star probably played a larger role in shaping his writing. Its opening instructions are both excellent advice for writers and a good introduction to Hemingway’s technique: “Use short sentences. Use short paragraphs. Use vigorous English. Be positive, not negative.”

That’s the first of 110 precepts, printed in small type on a single sheet of paper. “They gave you this to study when you went to work,” recalled Hemingway. “After that you were just as responsible for having learned it as after you’ve had the articles of war read to you.”

Some of the Star’s edicts are broad and familiar: “Don’t split infinitives.” Others are precise: “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.”

A few are antiquated: “Indorsement of a candidate, not endorsement” and “Motor car is preferred but automobile is not incorrect.” The Star also had a sense of humor: “He died of heart disease, not heart failure—everybody dies of ‘heart failure.’ ”

One of the Star’s pronouncements sounds like a forerunner to the AP’s recent dictum: “Say crippled boy, but not a cripple.” Perhaps, as the King James Bible puts it in Ecclesiastes, “there really is no new thing under the sun.” And editors always will have to make judgment calls.

Just before he quit the Star, Hemingway wrote a letter to his father: “I have had a lot of valuable experience and have done some good work and have hit it pretty blame hard.” A tough lesson, he added, was “remembering to use good style, perfect style in fact.”

John J. Miller is director of the Dow Journalism Program at Hillsdale College and the author of “Reading Around: Journalism on Authors, Artists, and Ideas.”

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