The idea of "muscular prose" or "lean prose" as it is sometimes called became popular with Hemingway. According to this article, Hemingway was given four rules to follow during his time as a reporter for the Kansas City Star:
1. Use short sentences.
2. Use short first paragraphs.
3. Use vigorous English.
4. Be positive, not negative.
The article quotes Hemingway as saying of this writing method:
"Those were the best rules I ever learned for the business of writing. I’ve never forgotten them. No man with any talent, who feels and writes truly about the thing he is trying to say, can fail to write well if he abides by them."
|...not quite what I meant by muscular prose.|
All writers are different.
With all due respect to Hemingway, his statement above is naive. He got lucky. He was given a set of rules and for some reason they worked for him and he was successful. But that's the exception that tests the rule.
All writers are skilled in different ways, see things in different ways, think in different ways. And as a result of being different people with different gifts, all writers choose different words, different sentence lengths and structure, different ways of communicating based on what feels natural to them. This is called "voice". Each writer has their own voice, which simply means "how a particular author writes".
There is no one way to do anything that works for all writers. There is only the way that comes naturally to you, the way that works for you. And the more you try to write like someone else instead of yourself, the more you will fail. That's why all those people who promote fool proof methods for writing great books are scam artists.
For instance, the author of the article I linked to above attempts to compose two examples demonstrating "muscular prose" versus more wordy prose. The results are interesting to say the least. Here's his "positive" example of muscular prose:
The sun rose over the sea. It was a crisp, breezy dawn. I harbored my hangover near the pigpen.Now, I don't know about you, but my impression of these three sentences is less than stellar. "I harbored my hangover near the pigpen" is pretty good. It's clear, to the point and even has alliteration. (Everything is more awesome with alliteration.) However, "The sun rose over the sea" and "it was a crisp, breezy dawn" are sentences that have no life in them. They fall completely flat. In fact, they're so forgettable that by the time I got to "I harbored my hangover near the pigpen" I'd already forgotten what the setting is and I actually had to read it a few times before I realized how clever the use of the verb "harbor" was since he's near the sea. Overall, this writer is really trying to provide a good example of Hemingway's style and utterly fails. Because it's obviously not coming naturally to him.
Onto the second example, of "verbose" prose.
The late summer sun peeped over the liquid horizon, decided the coast was clear and stretched into the morning sky. I watched it emerge and glaze the rippling sea with jaundiced quicksilver. It was a crisp clear morning, the dewy grass soft underfoot, providing pleasing moisture to counter my desiccated innards. A brisk sea breeze brushed foam from choppy wavelets, blowing salt-scented air overland to season the stench from a nearby swine-pen and thus compound my gastrointestinal in-brawling.First, the writer is clearly trying too hard and ends up making this an obviously far too extreme example.(ANY writing style taken to an extreme is bad, unless you're writing comedy.) That said, the author can't help, even in his attempt to write badly, coming up with some really lively metaphors and imagery. I LOVE the sentence "The late summer sun peeped over the liquid horizon, decided the coast was clear and stretched into the morning sky." It's so vivid and the words are strong. Here I can really see what he's describing instead of my mind just glazing over it in boredom. "Dessicated innards" and "gastrointestinal in-brawling" are fantastic little descriptions as well. The writer clearly has a gift for it and I hate the thought of him being convinced that he needs to write the way he did in the first example to be good.
The point is that how you write depends on who you are and you should never write the way someone else does if it doesn't fit your talents. A writer who attempts to use Hemingway's style against his own nature will aim for prose that looks like this:
but end up with prose that looks like this: