The art of omission: Hemingway’s iceberg theory and PR

“Every word tells and there is not a word too many,” Anthony Burgess wrote of The Old Man and the Sea, the short story for which Ernest Hemingway was awarded the Noble Prize for Literature in 1954.

The quote encapsulates the American author’s writing style, known for its understated simplicity, economy of words and eschewal of overly descriptive language. It contrasts with the florid and tortuous prose of many writers of English literature of previous centuries, as well as some of Hemingway’s contemporaries.

The qualities of Hemingway’s writing are often aspired to when writing for PR and marketing purposes. Conciseness is regarded as essential. This is particularly important for news media, especially online formats, where people’s attention is hard-won and easily lost.

This is no coincidence. Hemingway honed his craft as a journalist, starting his career at the Kansas City Star in 1917. As a reporter, he was conditioned to relay immediate events with little analysis or context. Later, when he moved to Paris, he covered the Greco-Turkish war, before immersing himself in the vibrant literary scene of the era. When he quit journalism to focus on fiction in 1924, he retained his minimalistic writing style.

Yet there is more to Hemingway’s style than brevity. Apart from preferring to only transcribe surface-level information, he would deliberately leave out important context and details, about characters and events, believing it strengthened his narratives.

The effect is often to create a subtext beneath the superficial story and rely on the intellect of the reader to derive meaning beyond the words. This is well illustrated by the famous ‘six-word story’, although misattributed to Hemingway: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”

The idea has been termed ‘iceberg theory’ (or ‘theory of omission’) after Hemingway’s own exposition:

“If a writer of prose knows enough of what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water,” he wrote in his non-fiction work, Death in the Afternoon.

What can PR and marketing professionals take from this idea? Surely it is remiss to leave out details when writing about products and services.

Hemingway repeatedly advised that, in order to write well, authors should make their subject what they know (people, places and events). In The Art of the Short Story, he said:

“A few things I have found to be true. If you leave out important things or events that you know about, the story is strengthened. If you leave or skip something because you do not know it, the story will be worthless.”

There is a point here about getting to know your client’s business, and your audience, inside out. It is possible to think of instances where a marketer who knows a particular sector and target customer well enough can talk around a product without explicitly mentioning certain benefits, which will be evident to the reader. The writer should also know what knowledge can be presupposed to exclude details that will be considered elementary and detract from the message.

There are also situations where it is unnecessary to include context that is common knowledge or has already been written about despite being relevant. It is difficult to think of a better example than recently, when no-one has needed an explanation about why people are spending more time at home or cooking more.

Some professional copywriters have cautioned against an overly parsimonious approach to writing for marketing purposes. David Ogilvy, the ‘Father of Advertising’, referred to a ‘dogmatism of brevity’ when he demonstrated that long copy sells, famously booking full-page adverts comprising entirely text.

That long copy can be useful when you have lots to say about the benefits of a product or service is not up for debate, and Ogilvy advocated rigorous editing for clarity and seeing if the same thing could be said in fewer words.

It stands that what we should take from Hemingway is always to consider how communications may be made more effective if certain elements are removed.

Now to revise this blog.

Categories: Opinion PR Marketing