When I study the style of Ernest Hemingway, Raymond Carver, and other authors, I find that they use very simple language and simple words. But when I look at present day authors, such as Stephenie Meyer or Alice Munro, I find that they have a large vocabulary and on almost every page you find a word that has not been used on the previous pages.

I wonder which way to choose. Do you think writing like Hemingway and authors like him seems oldfashioned and out of date today? And how does a book like The Old Man And Sea appear interesting and its language not boring when the author uses common words and there's not a lot of variety in the language?

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    If I could write like Hemingway I would. – S. Mitchell Apr 21 '18 at 8:55

There are two things to consider:

  1. The language of a novel or short story is not merely the language of its author but intended to portray the character and circumstances of the viewpoint character.

    The protagonists of Hemingway and Carver are people who think straight and act directly. They are not academically educated and don't know a lot of words. Stephenie Meyer's protagonists are angsty teenagers whose minds are a convoluted mess, and her language reflects this.

    Also, the world and problems of Hemingway's protagonists are simple and straightforward, so the language used to describe it is simple and straightforward also. Munro's world on the other hand is difficult and contradictory, and her language reflects this complexity.

  2. Literary styles change

    In the baroque age it was the fashion to write as ornamental as the popular architectural adornments, during expressionism writers broke grammatical rules to reflect perception and thought processes, and so on. Hemingway and Carver stand in the American ("journalistic") realist tradition, while Munro stands in the European ("psychologist") realist tradition of Chekhov, and Meyer is a writer of fantasy, which has its own genre conventions regarding language.

So which way should you chose?

This will depend on

  • the literary tradition that you see yourself in (realist, expressionist, romantic, etc.),
  • what genre you write in (crime, science fiction, romance, etc.), and
  • the situation and
  • personality of your viewpoint character.
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Einstein's Razor.

This is an opinion question. I write as simply as I can; but I also have a large vocabulary and I am a huge fan of word etymology (origins and derivations), and I detect or feel very subtle variations in what similar words mean or imply. This means I am often searching for exactly the right word. I won't choose a common word, like "sad", when I find that word too vague or broad. If I can't find a word for the precise feeling I want to convey, I will come up with several that better convey it (a metaphor or simile or description).

Flowery words or synonyms is something I find phony, pretentious. My job as a writer is to convey understanding precisely but as broadly as possible. Those two things are at odds with each other, so it becomes a difficult job. That is captured by something Albert Einstein once said to a student, that became known as

Einstein's Razor: "Everything should be kept as simple as possible, but no simpler."

The second part may sound unnecessary, "as simple as possible" means it cannot possibly be simpler --- right?

No; what Einstein meant by this is do not sacrifice accuracy for simplicity. He was talking about theories in physics, but (still IMO) the same thing applies to writing. I want to convey something precisely, and I want to do it in a way that the broadest audience will understand it.

I (personally) do not want to be lauded by Literature professors if the cost of that is being rejected by most book buyers. I don't want ten critics to love me and ten thousand book buyers return my book as too dense to get through. I want to write something easy to read that people find fun.

I also believe that writing simply forces me to focus on the story and the characters and imagination, I am not hiding behind a thesaurus. That is the focus you see with Hemingway; his writing is transparent, it doesn't get in the way, and I think this makes it easier to be immersed; you never stumble over a word and lose that reading reverie.

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Although I think its a good idea to be inspired by successful writers of the past and present, I would caution against writing "like" any of them. As you fear, you run the risk of sounding dated, but worst yet, like a soul-less copy cat.

You've brought up two very different types of writers. Specifically, Hemingway, one whose work has been critically acclaimed and won numerous literary awards for it's subject and skill and the other, Meyers, who has been criticized for her lack of literary skill. Both however, have experienced great success and it's important to understand what you should be influenced by.

These writers have experiences, perspectives and most importantly, capabilities that helps create the authentic styles that are uniquely theirs. And that is what brought them success.


Hemingway wrote as he wrote and Meyers writes as she writes because of their capability. Meyers is heavy on the purple prose and is at times considered lazy about her overuse of the same words. She's more focused on creating a world full of characters you think you know, rather than how she conveys it.

Where you consider Hemingway's writing simple, it really is more curated, meaning every word on that page carries all the weight it can handle so he conveys everything he wants you to know and feel with as few words as possible. Two very different approaches.

Meyers couldn't write like Hemingway if she wanted to and visa versa. They come from two different worlds which brings us to:


Hemingway wrote for his school paper, went on to work for the Kansas City Star, which is said to have been a major influence in his "distinctively stripped-down prose."

He once said, "On the Star you were forced to learn to write a simple declarative sentence. This is useful to anyone. Newspaper work will not harm a young writer and could help him if he gets out of it in time."

He also had the privaledge of having a great mentor and being in the company of other great writers such as F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ezra Pound, Pablo Picasso before he started his own career. As with anything, learning from the best puts you at a great advantage and he was surrounded by greatness even before he put pen to paper for his first novel.

Meyer's worked as a receptionist in a property company before she jumped head first into writing her novels, the Twilight series which was inspired by a dream. Meyer loves the work of Jane Austen and has been inspired by several other classic writers, but you will notice, none of that old-style can be found anywhere near her writing. Just the essence of heavy description and ideas.

She simply isn't a literary genius, but that isn't her path, and that is okay. She found her lane and she is killing it.


Meyer says her faith, as a straight-laced member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, heavily influences her characters which is apparent in her themes of purity and light.

Hemingway on the other hand experienced war, traveled the world, engaged in adventurous and sometimes dangerous activities that enriched the world's he created. Without his experience in war, we don't have the Sun Also Rises and Farewell to Arms.

They write what they know and that is the basis for their style and voice.


Your focus needs to be on what your personal capabilities are.

If you haven't already, start working on your novel/short story ect, without worrying about what you're jotting down.

In the editing phase, take a step back and see what natural writing pattern emerges. Is it simple and punchy and or purple and flowery with big words and long sentences? Maybe it's a mix bag and you've come up with your own distinct style that some kid will be thinking about 50 years from now.

Ultimately, your influences and experiences will help color in the rest, as it is your perspective that will determine your voice and style.

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