It did not take many words for Ernest Hemingway to let the world know he had one more fight left in him. The Old Man and the Sea reestablished his reputation and silenced the critics who assailed his later work. It earned him a Pulitzer Prize and the novella was the crowning achievement of his body of work, ultimately helping him finally be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.
But Hemingway received that late career adulation by sticking to what he was good at — and what he strayed from in books panned by the critics — precision. The Old Man and the Sea is a masterful work because it is written in precise language. In about 26,000 words, the pains and beauties of existence is vividly elocuted. On the surface, the story is simple: an old man at sea reeling in a marlin that is likely too big to ever be reeled in by anyone no matter how strong they are, no matter how much Will flows through their hearts.
But beneath that simple surface resides the many, and varied, meanings of life: how we futilely try to attain the unattainable, how we all desire perfection but can never attain it because of our human imperfections, and the how and the why we subject ourselves to impossibilities because of our relentless will.
These are just some of the meanings lurking beneath that simple story of an old man fishing, an old man who could be you, could be me, and who no doubt is Hemingway, trying to reel in greatness one last time before his body and mind break down while the critics gnaw away at his work, leaving just bones where once was flesh, blood, spirit, pride, and courage.
26,000 words is all it took to write a tale that is universal, a book that is less than 150 pages. In an interview with the Paris Review in 1954, Hemingway admitted that the story “could have been over a thousand pages long.”
He could have wrote at length, he said, about “every character in the village… and all the processes of how they made their living, were born, educated, bore children, et cetera.” But he knew better because the greatest stories, the unnervingly simple, grand short stories he wrote when he was a younger man were stripped bare to their essence, only the marrow of the language remained.
His words are not loaded with excessive flourishes, or boiling over with unnecessary characters or scenes. The sentences are not dripping with so much verbal fat that you can’t see the truth or the beauty mired in layers of adverb and adjective lard. A sloppy writer tosses you in a jungle of overt complexity and expects you to hack your way through their thicket of words and storylines, their lines contorted and convoluted, nightmarish vines ready to strangle any semblance of life and truth that may reside somewhere in that haphazardly tossed together mash of words and meanings.
A precise writer is like a surgeon with a steady hand and a steady mind, cutting the bloat, dislodging the flotsam, eradicating the chaff. Their precision is their strength: their ability to part with words, phrases, scenes, and characters that detract rather than add, that drown out the greater meanings that may exist, that cloud their potentially crystalline ocean of thoughts and feelings in a rancid stew of mixed meanings and mixed intentions.
Hemingway reasserted his greatness because he returned to the precise use of language and precise story focus that made him one of the greatest and most original prose writers of the 20th century, well before he penned The Old Man and the Sea. Being precise, honed, laser-like in story focus and word choice, also does not necessarily mean to be concise.
A powerful sentence can be 10 words or 90, yet the power diminishes if the words that assemble it are not true to the intentions it is attempting to evoke. Faulkner wrote long, complex sentences that Hemingway was likely incapable of writing (not because of a lack of talent, but because of a difference in style), but Faulkner’s lines contained just as much texture, depth, and beauty than Hemingway’s minimalistic prose.
Precision is about choosing the right words, the best scenes, and the right characters to strongly evoke the feeling and presence that you desire, the truth, rather than cutting for the sake of cutting, or being concise for the sake of being concise. Profound truths are told in precise, powerful language, precise, powerful word choice, language stripped free of fat, language that is not saturated with dishonest language, written for the sake of being written, rather than written for the sake of expressing truth. Occam’s razor must be applied or confusion will arise in your reader’s mind.
But that takes a precise writer’s objectively cold hand to strip the language and story down to its bare essence, leaving the trimmings on the floor, rather than scattering them in your readers increasingly confused mind. And you must wisely select from the palette of human experience that you are contending with. You must be clinical and objective about those selections when you make another run at the writing during editing. Omit needless everything.
An imprecise writer is a failed writer: anything that doesn’t belong must go, otherwise the great surface and deep truths you are attempting to tell will be buried by your imprecision, drowned in language written for affect, not truth. Hemingway recognized this, yet even he admits it will never be easy to achieve: “…I have tried to eliminate everything unnecessary to conveying experience to the reader so that after he or she has read something it will become a part of his or her experience and seem actually to have happened. This is very hard to do and I’ve worked at it, very hard.”
Profound stories are told through precise language, language that is true, the truest sentence one can possibly write, even if it takes all day to write that one true, simple, honest sentence. Think of a gestalt image: you only need to blot the page with some black. The reader will perceive the rest.