Writer’s Wednesday – Undressing Your Prose




“All you have to do is write one true sentence.  Write the truest sentence that you know.” – Ernest Hemingway



When learning to write descriptively, English students are encouraged to include all five senses in their narratives.  The result is usually a lengthy, “over-dressed” description that flows almost as well as an iron brick. 

So what is a writer to do?  Is it possible to appeal to all five senses without mentioning them outright?  The answer is yes, and one of literature’s greatest examples of this is the style of the acclaimed author Ernest Hemingway.  

Hemingway is known for his straightforward, descriptive writing style.  How did he accomplish this magic trick again and again?  He learned to take a clunky description and whittle it down to its barest essentials.  In other words, he knew how to undress his prose.



Look at the following excerpt from Hemingway’s final publication, The Old Man and the Sea:



“He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish.  In the first forty days a boy had been with him.  But after forty days without a fish the boy’s parents had told him that the old man was now definitely and finally salao, which was the worst form of unlucky, and the boy had gone at their orders in another boat which caught three good fish the first week.  It made the boy sad to see the old man come in each day with his skiff empty and he always went down to help him carry either the coiled lines or the gaff and harpoon and the sail that was furled around the mast.  The sail was patched with flour sacks and, furled, it looked like the flag of permanent defeat.”

Did Hemingway mention a single sound, smell, or taste?  Not explicitly, but he provided visuals which are so specific – so connected to the reader’s own memories – that we find ourselves hearing the gentle crash of ocean waves and tasting the salty air of the cool sea breeze anyway.  

Herein lies the secret.  Don’t focus on writing about the five senses.  Instead, focus on a brief but strong word picture which conjures its fellow senses on its own.  You will trim your word count, each sentence will work for you and not against you, and readers will imagine a full sensory experience without being able to put their finger on why.



Fellow writers, it’s just like learning to apply makeup or cologne for the first time.  Less is more.  Undress your prose.  You’re going to like the way you write.

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