Wright’s Writing on How to Write — The Heming Way

In which my beautiful and talented wife finally explains why our children are chubby and manumitted.


Actually, it is an article on the advantages of writing in the journalistic prose style popularized by Hemingway.

Among science fiction writers,  you will notice that Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, and Arthur C. Clarke (by many held to be the Big Three of SF) adopt the Hemingway style, and part of their fame in our genre is due to this: it is easy to turn the pages.

In contrast, Roger Zelazny writes in a sparse yet poetical style that reminds one of jazz; Ray Bradbury is likewise rich rather than sparse, but still a master of poetry (see SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES for an example).

A man who should be more famous than he is, Keith Laumer, was also was a master of a brisk, lean, muscular style of writing: he followed in the footsteps of Dashiel Hammet and Raymon Chandler rather than Hemingway.

Jack Vance is at once terse and ornate, and shares an erudite and orotund vocabulary with experimentalist Gene Wolfe, who in turn is a master of authorial voice.

HP Lovecraft wrote in a humorlessly florid purple prose style that sometimes reached real poetry, as in the DREAM QUEST OF UNKNOWN KADATH; E.E. Doc Smith wrote in a style equally purple, but must more brash and less serious–a style which seems uncraftsmanlike until you read someone trying to impersonate it, and then you might realize how much art when into crafting E.E. Smith’s particularly outrageous and fast-moving style.

My favorite author, A.E. van Vogt, wrote in a mix of journalistic and pulpish style, but with a staccato rhythm and a turn of phrase no one can imitate (almost no one (insert modest cough here)).

His method, like all his methods, was at once intellectual and outre: he simply had in every sentence or two an unexpected use of the word meant to emphasize the alien nature of his setting or character, so that, like a steeplechaser, every sentence the reader would have to make a leap of imagination. One example of this was using the words for ordinary objects in extraordinary ways. Here for example is a scene where our harassed main character is alone in the house of a man he thinks is an ordinary Earthman-type gangster.

Gosseyn ate his breakfast hurriedly and headed for the videophone. He dialed “Long Distance” and waited, thinking how foolish he had been not to do it before. The thought ended as a robot eye took form on the video plate.

“What star are you calling?” The robot’s voice asked matter-of-factly.

Gosseyn stared at it blankly.

In a passage like this, the author leaves it up to the reader to imagine what objects are being described by words like ‘videophone’, ‘robot’ and ‘long distance.’

The writings in E.R. Edison’s THE WORM OUROBOROS can only be compared to the gorgeous grit of some fantastic ocean of a world in arcturus, whose beaches of jasper, jade-stone, onyx and mountainous sapphire, sardonyx, emerald, jacinth and rubies red as blood have been beaten by cresting waves of fire into a patterned sand of eye-defeating splendor, where looming demigods and titans tread. The preposterously elevated language there captures the true spirit of fantasy in a way the Hemingway school cannot approach.

But note that the three men most famed in sci-fi are men whose language is almost colorless: the reason why one can find satires of Doc Smith and Jack Vance and even Frank Herbert, but not of Heinlein or Asimov is that their wordsmithing contains no quirks, no personality, nothing for a satirist to impersonate. Gene Wolfe also escapes impersonation, but for the opposite reason: he has never written two books the same way.

The journalistic style, as the name suggests, is like reading a newspaper, or, in dialog, listening to a radio play, usually a snappy one.

Do you notice that no Heinlein character is ever described, except, perhaps the Playboy bunny looks of Star the sexy space-empress from GLORY ROAD. Ben Caxton from STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND: is he Negro or Caucasian? What about Podkayne of Mars from the book of the same name? If you are a fan of STARSHIP TROOPERS you may know that Mr. Rico is Filipino, whereas if you are a fan of the movie the same character is Whitey McWhitebread (I think played by the same actor who played Sparrowhawk of Gont in the Sci-Fi channel’s version of HARRY POTTER AND THE SCHOOL OF EARTHSEA. Not sure. Look alot alike. We are sending someone down to check).

Heinlein can play this trick with reader’s expectations merely because he writes in the journalistic style, he keeps the pages turning and the plot moving, and he trusts the reader’s imagination to fill in the blanks.

The advantages of the journalistic style are listed in my wife’s article linked above, but the main advantage is that it keeps the plot moving and keeps the pages turning.