How Bloggers Can Use Ernest Hemingway’s Iceberg Theory of Writing

No one ever thinks about how big an iceberg really is. When you see an iceberg, you only see 20% of it. The other 80% is below the surface of the water. But without that 80%, you wouldn’t have the 20%. The visible 20% is built on the foundation of the 80%, even though you’ll never see it, or in some cases, even realize that it’s there.

That’s the philosophy of Ernest Hemingway’s Iceberg Theory of writing.

Iceberg by NOAA's National Ocean ServiceHe also called it the Theory of Omission, because it was the things he omitted that made his writing more authentic.

He wrote about real people he knew, rather than making up characters. He wrote about subjects he was passionate about, fishing, bull fighting, hunting, and even writing. But it was what he didn’t talk about, the foundations, that gave the stories their strong underpinnings. He believed those things were understood and felt by the reader, and would come through in the story. In his essay, “The Art of the Short Story,” Hemingway said:

A few things I have found to be true. If you leave out important things or events that you know about, the story is strengthened. If you leave or skip something because you do not know it, the story will be worthless. The test of any story is how very good the stuff that you, not your editors, omit. . .You could omit anything if you knew that you omitted and the omitted part would strengthen the story and make people feel something more than they understood.

It means that writers need to have an in-depth understanding of what and who they’re writing about, rather than only a surface knowledge. The knowledgeable writer has better depth to a story, while the less knowledgeable one does not. And Hemingway believed you could tell the difference between the writer who omitted something they knew from the writer who omitted something they didn’t know.

Although Hemingway was a fiction writer, he based characters in his stories on people he knew. They would act and react the same way their real-life counterparts would. He even strongly admonished F. Scott Fitzgerald for not writing about real people.

Bloggers Need the Iceberg Theory

This works for bloggers and nonfiction writers too. In the ideas we express and the language we use, we should build our stories and blog posts on the 80% of the iceberg no one else will see.

For ghost bloggers, it means we have to know more than just the story we’re writing. We have to know how the product or service works. We have to know the industries the client is targeting. We even have to know the allied industries that affect, and are affected by, the client’s work.

Because all that knowledge informs and flavors each blog post, and shows up in the tiny details that are present or are missing.

And believe me, the client and their readers know what’s missing, and they can tell when the writer knows what they’re talking about. They can tell when the omissions are intentional, and when they’re because of a lack of knowledge.

To build that iceberg yourself, it means spending time having conversations with the client. Learning the things that interest them. The things they think are cool about their job, and even their own hobbies. It means listening to them talk to other colleagues about the company, so you can find their voice.

Ultimately, this lets us build the base of our iceberg in such a way that the 20% we can see will be fully supported, and not tip over into the sea with a single nudge.


Photo credit: NOAA’s National Ocean Service (Flickr, Creative Commons)

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    About Erik Deckers

    Erik Deckers is the President of Pro Blog Service, a content marketing and social media marketing agency He co-authored four social media books, including No Bullshit Social Media with Jason Falls (2011, Que Biz-Tech), and Branding Yourself with Kyle Lacy (3rd ed., 2017, Que Biz-Tech), and The Owned Media Doctrine (2013, Archway Publishing). Erik has written a weekly newspaper humor column for 10 papers around Indiana since 1995. He was also the Spring 2016 writer-in-residence at the Jack Kerouac House in Orlando, FL.