The recent PBS series on the life of Ernest Hemingway displayed the writing-style rules of the Kansas City Star newspaper, from when Hemingway worked there in 1917 and 1918.
He hadn't yet turned 20; years later he said the style sheet had "the best rules I ever learned in the business of writing."
A century later, many of those rules remain solid; many have faded into quaintness. A few solids:
• Use short sentences. Use short first paragraphs. Use vigorous English.
• Eliminate every superfluous word: write, "Funeral services will be at 2 p.m. Tuesday," not "The funeral services will be held at the hour of 2 o'clock on Tuesday."
• 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 $10 was all the cash he possessed.
• Avoid adjectives, especially such extravagant ones as splendid, gorgeous, grand and magnificent.
• He was "eager to go," not "anxious to go." You are anxious about a friend who is ill.
• "If I were king," not "If I was king."
• "He saw more than 1,000 ducks flying" — not "over 1,000 ducks."
Also say "fewer than" instead of "less than," when numbers, not quantity, are considered.
It is proper to write, "He had more than $10."
• He died of heart disease, not heart failure — everybody dies of "heart failure."
Now for the quaint: Motor car is preferred, but automobile is not incorrect.
And now for fun, an excerpt from the winning entry in the 1985 Bad Hemingway Writing Contest:
"In the late summer of that year we … were young and our happiness dazzled us with its strength. But there was also a terrible betrayal that lay within me like a Merle Haggard song at a French restaurant. …
"The next morning our youth was a memory, and our happiness was a lie. Life is like a bad margarita with good tequila, I thought, as I poured some whiskey onto my granola and faced a new day."
Gary Gilson is a Twin Cities writing coach and Emmy Award winner. He also teaches journalism at Colorado College. Gilson can be reached through his website writebetterwithgary.com.