‘If in doubt, cut it out’ – Reflections on Ernest Hemingway’s writing

The Sun Also Rises
‘If in Doubt Cut it Out’ is an old writer’s slogan used to remind budding writers to get rid of unnecessary noise and clutter. Cutting words remains one of the hardest, yet necessary parts of writing. Even after all these years I consider myself a novice in abiding to this KISS (Keep It Simple, Stupid!) principle. I tend to congratulate myself prematurely on an early draft and not respect the voice of the following day, telling me ‘Actually, It’s not that great’. When a cooler head prevails I find myself relenting and either changing or deleting the text and it’s always better for it. I feel grateful for every word I can cut.

The writing style of one of the greatest American literary figures of the 20th century Ernest Hemingway is probably the best example of the ‘If in Doubt, cut it out’ and ‘KISS’ principles in practice. Hemingway revolutionized American writing with his short, declarative sentences and tense prose. I’m currently reading one of his masterpieces The Sun Also Rises for the third time. It is my favourite Hemingway book mainly because I just find it such an enjoyable read. I needed to detach myself from the sombreness and sternness of the books I discussed here previously, as magnificent as they were. Hemingway’s sparse writing style and restrained use of description allows my reading senses to de-clutter and re-calibrate. Also I was up for another trip to Paris, France in the 1920s with a motley crue of expatriates (the lost generation).

Since Wednesday’s book quotes will feature further excerpts from The Sun Also Rises I won’t bother you with a detailed description of the book today.  Instead I would like to use this opportunity to demonstrate the no-nonsense, short prose of Hemingway which made him such a colossal figure in modern American literature. What better way to start than from page 1, Chapter 1:

Robert Cohn was once middleweight boxing champion of Princeton. Do not think that I am very much impressed by that as a boxing title, but it meant a lot to Cohn. He cared nothing for boxing, in fact he disliked it, but he learned it painfully and thoroughly to counteract the feeling of inferiority and shyness he had felt on being treated as a Jew at Princeton. There was a certain inner comfort in knowing he could knock down anybody who was snooty to him, although, being very shy and a thoroughly nice boy, he never fought except in the gym. He was Spider Kelly’s star pupil. Spider Kelly taught all his young gentlemen to box like featherweights, no matter whether they weighed one hundred and five or two hundred and five pounds. But it seemed to fit Cohn. He was really very fast. He was so good that Spider promptly overmatched him and got his nose permanently flattened. This increased Cohn’s distaste for boxing, but it gave him a certain satisfaction of some strange sort, and it certainly improved his nose. In his last year at Princeton he read too much and took to wearing spectacles. I never met any one of his class who remembered him. They did not even remember that he was middleweight boxing champion.

I mistrust all frank and simple people, especially when their stories hold together, and I always had a suspicion that perhaps Robert Cohn had never been middleweight boxing champion, and that perhaps a horse had stepped on his face, or that maybe his mother had been frightened or seen something, or that he had, maybe, bumped into something as a young child, but I finally had somebody verify the story from Spider Kelly. Spider Kelly not only remembered Cohn. He had often wondered what had become of him.

Robert Cohn was a member, through his father, of one of the richest Jewish families in New York, and through his mother of one of the oldest. At the military school where he prepped for Princeton, and played a very good end on the football team, no one had made him race-conscious. No one had ever made him feel he was a Jew, and hence any different from anybody else, until he went to Princeton. He was a nice boy, a friendly boy, and very shy, and it made him bitter. He took it out in boxing, and he came out of Princeton with painful self-consciousness and the flattened nose, and was married by the first girl who was nice to him. He was married five years, had three children, lost most of the fifty thousand dollars his father left him, the balance of the estate having gone to his mother, hardened into a rather unattractive mould under domestic unhappiness with a rich wife; and just when he had made up his mind to leave his wife she left him and went off with a miniature-painter. As he had been thinking for months about leaving his wife and had not done it because it would be too cruel to deprive her of himself, her departure was a very healthful shock.

“The more I live, the more I learn. The more I learn, the more I realize, the less I know.”- Michel Legrand

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3 comments on “‘If in doubt, cut it out’ – Reflections on Ernest Hemingway’s writing
  1. Nadine says:

    Loved that book! Permeated my soul with sun and sadness. Also A Moveable Feast, which has a ton of writing tips built in.
    I have a very hard time cutting. Need to work on this. Usually I add more when I edit. That ain’t good.

    • I agree with your comment about ‘A Moveable Feast’. That’s another gem I have to reread. His accounts of his young adulthood in Paris are remarkable. You come away feeling that you have actually been there.
      Yes, it’s difficult to read your own work as if you were an objective editor. At least I find that.

      • Nadine says:

        Yes, about reading your own work objectively! Meanwhile, mentally editing the work of others is comparatively (and self-satisfyingly) easy. ;))

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