At the risk of saying something that might be construed as controversial, I thought I’d share something that happened on Twitter yesterday.
The following question appeared in my feed: If Hemingway were alive today, what would he tweet?
If you are unfamiliar with the terminology, a message you send out on Twitter is a tweet. The length of a tweet is limited to 140 characters, including spaces and punctuation.
One of the responses to this question was that most of Hemingway’s sentences were a tweet.
It’s kind of true. Hemingway is famous for his short, brusque writing with few modifiers or qualifiers.
I saw this strand of tweets and retweeted them with the following comment: Is this a good thing?
This reply came back to me from the publisher who had tweeted the original statements: Absolutely.
The fact that this response came from a publisher speaks volumes. Despite the fact that our school children are still being taught to use lots of adverbs and adjectives in their writing, the literary world hates them. Adjectives are permitted only sparingly. Adverbs in particular bear the brunt of the scorn. The use of more than an occasional adverb reveals laziness and incompetence in a writer.
This is pretty much all due to Mr. Hemingway, and the reverence in which Hemingway’s writing is held.
I am not advocating a return to the paragraph-long sentences of Henry James or the verbosity of the Victorians. I am not fond of Jane Austen’s habit of summarizing her dialogue; I much prefer to hear her characters snap and sparkle in their own voices. I don’t think we should go back to old-fashioned modes of writing.
I do agree that short can be sweet, and there is merit in the idea that it is better to choose a more descriptive verb than to use a weak verb with an adverb. The judicious selection of one’s words is a critical skill which a writer must develop, and in this technical age, too many writers rely on the colored squiggles of spell-check and grammar-check to do that work for them. But there is something to be said for individual style (and yes, I am aware that I began this sentence with a conjunction). There is something to be said for variety of sentence length and structure. Sometimes it takes more than 140 characters to say what you want to say.
Not everyone wants to drink and fight and chase women in Cuba, thanks. I have my own way of doing things, and my own role models.
NOTE: After I wrote this blog post, I decided to apply the Twitter analysis to it. I was interested to observe the following:
Longest sentence: 220 characters
Shortest sentence: 18 characters
Average sentence length: 96 characters
Sentence beginning “I am not fond…”: exactly 140 characters
Statistically speaking, I exceeded Twitter’s limit with only three of my sentences. Perhaps I have undermined my own argument. *sheepish grin*