Legend has it that this one-line ‘novel’ was penned by American author Ernest Hemingway to win a bet that he couldn’t write a six word short story so good it made people cry. It’s said that he later cited the story as his best piece of work. Whether or not Hemingway was the real author (many are dubious), the story continues to inspire and move its readers, managing to encapsulate and suggest a whole world through just a few, well-chosen words.
As various famous writers doubtless discovered when the Guardian challenged them to follow Hemingway’s example, imposing such a tight constraint on yourself means a number of different qualities come in to play:
- Economy. You have to make every word count. There’s no room for verbosity.
- Deliberacy and forethought. You have to employ some forward planning and think carefully before you write. Most people don’t do this that much.
- Impact. You have to figure out how to get straight to the point, to affect and move someone in just six words. Is it possible? (Yes. See Hemingway.)
- Punctuation and rhythm. You’re creating slightly bastard sentences but the placement of commas, colons etc. is vital. They alter the meaning (or suggest multiple meanings and ambiguity), give the reader space to think and also give the story rhythm, which makes it memorable.
Our take on it is that it’s interesting to describe yourself – vividly – in six words. Not five or seven. Precisely six.
We get lots of people to do this in our workshops and even those who consider themselves ‘rubbish’ with words find it really helps them crystallise their thoughts and get clarity on who they are and what they want to be known for. A tight constraint is surprisingly easier to tackle than a blank book of pages and endless space, and this exercise lets you examine and prioritise all the ideas floating around your mind, forcing you to edit and make choices – a valuable thinking and writing skill in a world of information overload.
We find that the six word constraint paradoxically allows people to think outside the box – it releases something inside them because they rise to the challenge. When we ask people to do this a truthfulness – and sometimes a poignancy – comes out. It’s not about being super clever with language (though you can be if you want). The best stories intrigue the reader, allowing them to imagine a whole world of experiences and back stories behind the words.
Here are some of the very honest (hence why we’re keeping them anonymous), brave and powerful stories participants on our courses have written:
She stopped breathing. Finally, something interesting.
Engaged. Engaging. Innovative solutions to problems.
Rugby loving armadillo seeks good home.
I’ve lived, I’ve lost, I’ve learned.
Force of nature, looking for calm.
Rode the coaster. Offering my experience.
Determined scientist debates with emphasising logic.
My world ended. My life began.
I added structure to feel free.
Diplomatic meets excitable. Seeking a cause.
Backbone to life in the excitement.
Speaking of creativity, my going wild.
Wendy seeking Peter. Brought map. Where?
Intelligent man of curiosity and unending…
Learning, success, variety and luck. Hopefully.
Why not have a go yourself? You don’t have to shout the result from the rooftops or put it on your CV but it can really help you synthesise your thoughts. Here are some topics you might want to try tackling in six words:
- What’s my dream job description?
- What does my new startup/do my freelance services actually do?
- Write a love letter/describe your passion (or one of them).
- Say bye to your best friend who’s going to Oz for years. A note they’ll keep in their wallet.