Ernest Hemingway is not for everyone. It is hard work to read his novels. Not because of the language used, but because of the language not used. The books are deceptively short, and the style is sparse. Because so much is left unsaid in his writing, the reader becomes a participant in the creative process, filling in the gaps and finding meanings for themselves.

You don’t exist on the periphery of Hemingway’s writing: you’re there in the story. Crouching for cover in the Spanish mountains; drinking in a Pamplona bar while the snarling bulls clatter along the cobbles outside.

The Iceberg Theory

In Death in the Afternoon, Hemingway summed up his approach to writing in what’s become known as The Iceberg Theory:

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 ice-berg is due to only on-eight of it being above water. A writer who omits things because he does not know them only makes hollow places in his writing.

There’s an apocryphal story about Hemingway’s entry into a short story writing contest that sums up the Iceberg theory. The short story he’s credited with is six words long, but completely summarises an entire world for the reader to inhabit, and creates a tragic back story. It’s described as being a six-word novel:

For sale: baby shoes, never worn.

The reality is that Hemingway probably didn’t write this – but given his propensity for slashing back his first drafts to remove every non-essential word, it would make sense as a line introducing a character in a story.

Get on With It

If I were Hemingway, and you were inclined to savour my writing in the correct way, there should be little need to elaborate. However, given that I lack the talent, and you lack the time, it’s probably useful to continue.

The strict character limits we see in both paid and organic search listings (headlines of 30 characters here, Meta Descriptions of 160 characters there) lead to uninspired advertising copy:

Keyword | Brand
Keyword again, Vague USP, Call to Action.

It’s not just you of course – all your competitors are doing it as well (as badly?).

The problem with this type of formulaic copy is that it manages to require absolutely no emotional investment from the reader. There is “engagement” that we can measure through clicks and bounce rates, but it’s an approximation, using inaction as a metaphor for interest.

There are two things wrong:

  • A lack of knowledge
  • A lack of skill

These are systemic issues that require investment from a marketing agency.

Having the product knowledge to be able to understand what is important, how the customer buys, and what differentiates the seller can only come from being immersed in an organisation. A lot of agencies now do “immersion days” where staff sit through a couple of presentations and get shown round the office.

That’s probably not enough to get a rich understanding but it’s a start.

Addressing the skills gap is more difficult. The right person to write adverts for a major international company is probably not the same person who juggles Excel sheets to optimise a bidding strategy. They might be able to AB test the keyword placement like a ninja, but they’re probably not going to reduce a grown man to tears with a well-chosen phrase.

Hemingway, Almost Certainly not working on AdWords copy.

Hemingway died more than a quarter of a century before Google was founded, so it’s impossible to know what his AdWords Kung Fu would have been like.  I suspect it would have been better than yours.  He’s often (probably wrongly) credited with the following quote:

The first draft of anything is shit.

Unless the right person is working on it, the final version will be too.

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