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Hemingway's lodestone: the style of the Star

In a barnlike used bookstore off I-91 in western Massachusetts, I found a book I’d heard of but never seen before: The Apprenticeship of Ernest Hemingway, by Charles A. Fenton, from 1954. I’ve wanted to learn more about Hemingway came to develop the pared-back, impressions-forward style that changed American fiction writing — and that continues to bring me, along with so many others, back to the simple and real in setting down words.

Well, this book, by a Yale professor, is very earnest. It covers each phase in the young writer’s life with sober responsibility; but if you can get past the stuff about his high school English teachers, you find something both fascinating and obvious: Hemingway learned to write simply and clearly on a newspaper.

He always said he had. He worked on the Kansas City Star as a reporter, prone to leaping into ambulances and cop cars, for seven months in 1917-18 before leaving to drive ambulances and get wounded on the Italian front during World War I.

The Star was a great paper. It “infected its staff,” Fenton says, “with a curiosity about mankind and a craftsmanlike regard for clear, provocative, good — as opposed to ‘fine‘ — writing.” Teaching and enforcing this was an assistant city editor named C.G. “Pete” Wellington, who revered accuracy and readability and wrenched young reporters away from long sentences. He’d ask, Fenton says, “‘Why the hell do you want to tangle your reader up? Do you like listening to someone who talks like that?’”

“In 1940, just after the publication of For Whom the Bell Tolls,” Fenton relates, “Hemingway told an interviewer that during his seven months on the Star he was trying to tell simple things simply. He remembered that he had been ‘enormously excited under Pete Wellington’s guidance to learn that the English language yields to simplicity through brevity.'”

Every young reporter on the Star had to learn its style sheet, which Wellington curated and enforced. “Those were the best rules I ever learned for the business of writing,” Hemingway later said. “I’ve never forgotten them.’”

In this age when you can find anything online, you can find the Star’s style sheet from back then.  (Here it is.) Many of its rules are either too local or too dated to be useful today — “Motor car is preferred, but automobile is not incorrect.” But here are the ones I think most worth passing along, starting with the first, whose impact on Hemingway is plain:

Use short sentences. Use short first paragraphs. Use vigorous English. Be positive, not negative.

Watch your sequence of tenses. “He said he knew the truth,” not “He said he knows the truth.”

Eliminate every superfluous word ... “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.”

Don’t split verbs: He probably will go, not he will probably go.

Avoid the use of adjectives, especially such extravagant ones as splendid, gorgeous, grand, magnificent, etc.

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.”

“He saw more than one thousand ducks flying” — not “over one thousand ducks.” Also say “fewer than” instead of “less than,” when numbers, not quantity, are considered.

Both simplicity and good taste suggest house rather than residence, and lives rather than resides.

Avoid using that too frequently, but govern use largely by euphony, and strive for smoothness.

In a time when there are so many bloggers and so few Pete Wellingtons, these rules more than hold up. They’re a solid platform — a sure place to start learning to write, as the great author might have said, well and truly.

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Tuesday, 11 May 2021

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