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Ride the Iceberg: Using Hemingway’s Iceberg Theory for Content Marketing

According to legend, Ernest Hemingway once made a $10 bet with several writers that he could write a whole story in six words. He wrote “For sale. Baby shoes. Never worn.” on a napkin, passed it around, and collected his winnings.

Whether or not the legend is true, the emotion of the story is still powerful, and everyone can imagine the sadness of the person posting that newspaper classified ad.

But how did we know it was a classified ad? The tipoff was “For Sale.” If you’re of a certain age, you remember the For Sale section of a newspaper’s classified ads. (You also remember newspapers.)

As for “Baby shoes” and “Never used,” we know what those mean. When those particular words are placed together, without knowing the story, we fill it in ourselves, adding our own version of details, which makes us all go “aww.”

Our understanding of this six word novel comes from what Hemingway called the Iceberg Theory, or the Theory of Omission. It’s the idea that you can leave things out of your work and your reader is smart enough to fill them in.

He called it the Iceberg Theory because of the way an iceberg works — the part that we see is supported by the part we don’t see. Or as he said in Death In The Afternoon, “The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water.”

Even that statement is an Iceberg statement. What he could have said, but left out, was “The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one-eighth of (the iceberg) being (visible) above (the) water(’s surface), (and the other seven-eighths of the iceberg being below the water’s surface).”

We understood what Hemingway meant, even without the added verbiage. In fact, we probably understood the sentence better.

Many content marketers overwrite their work, adding in needless details, extra words, and unnecessary explanations that don’t add to the work. If anything, that distracts from their message and makes it harder to read.

They write the second sentence, thinking more words mean better words.

It doesn’t.

Riding the Iceberg: What This Has to Do With Content Marketing

When I was the crisis communication director for the Indiana health department, I struggled to get the epidemiologists (public health scientists) to understand the difference between being correct and being accurate. Since I shared our messages with the media, it was important to be correct in order not to lose the audience.

For the epidemiologists, it was important to be as technically accurate as possible, no matter how long it took to say something. So they would have referred to things like “the water’s surface” or “the other seven-eighths of the iceberg.”

Even now, I’m sure one of them would point out, for the sake of accuracy, that a) we don’t have icebergs in Indiana, and b) even if we did, they wouldn’t fall under our purview, but would instead come under the jurisdiction of the Department of Natural Resources, unless of course, we were asked to assist them, and would do so only with the express written approval of the State Health Commissioner and oh God, I’m going to scream.

To them, the phrase “it goes without saying” was a personal challenge, because it damn well couldn’t.

It comes down to this: your readers aren’t stupid.

Your readers are smart, capable, educated people who can make logical leaps.

It means I don’t need to be 100 percent technically accurate, as long as I’m correct. I don’t need to specify that water has a surface, and there are things below it. You know that if an iceberg has one-eighth out of the water, the other seven-eighths are somewhere close by. You know that each time I say “Hemingway,” I don’t have to specify “Ernest” to let you know I didn’t switch to Mariel when you weren’t looking.

Your own content marketing can be great if you can “ride the iceberg” and learn what to leave out of your writing. Your readers are smart, and they’ll be able to follow along. Just focus on being correct, and you’ll be fine.

The Other Side of the Coin: You Need As Many Details As Possible

But this also means you need to know as much as possible about your subject. You need to immerse yourself in it and absorb as many details as possible. If you don’t know something, your content marketing will be weak.

Hemingway — Ernest, not Mariel — also said in Death In The Afternoon:

If a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing about, he may omit things that he knows. . . A writer who omits things because he does not know them only makes hollow places in his writing.

Journalists who cover a story learn as much as they can, becoming an expert for a day. They learn what to leave out because they always gather much more information than they need. This is how they avoid the hollow places.

This means content marketers should either be experts in their subject, or they should be very good at conducting interviews with subject matter experts. Either way, they need as many details as possible in order to make intelligent choices about what to leave out and what to keep in.

Using the Iceberg Theory in your content marketing means two things: 1) don’t overwrite. Leave out details so you don’t bore your readers to death. But, 2) make damn sure you know the details you’re leaving out. Don’t leave things out due to ignorance or laziness. Your work will suffer, and your readers will know the difference.

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