Thoughts on “Seven Tips from Ernest Hemingway on How to Write Fiction”

Do I dare to tackle advice from Ernest Hemingway on writing? Sure. Why not?

1. To get started, write one true sentence.

Possibly the best known advice from Hemingway. And deceptive. What exactly makes a sentence true? And it seems that this is almost a recipe for writer’s block. I can see a disciple of Hemingway staring at the blank page looking for their true sentence to descend from the Gods. That said, he does give some advice in a passage from A Moveable Feast:

If I started to write elaborately, or like someone introducing or presenting something, I found that I could cut that scrollwork or ornament out and throw it away and start with the first true simple declarative sentence I had written.

So really, the advice is not quite what it seems on the surface. Hemingway was more than willing to start with something else and then pare out what wasn’t true. There’s some of this evident in the early drafts and discarded endings included in the Hemingway Library Edition of A Farewell to Arms where we can see Hemingway’s process in action. At times there’s an almost late-Salingeresque self-referential quality to Hemingway’s first drafts, a rather surprising element in his writing.

2. Always stop for the day while you still know what will happen next.

3. Never think about the story when you’re not working.

Perhaps the single best piece of writing advice I could give is to remember that you are you and not Hemingway, King, Kafka, Salinger, Kerouac, etc. 

As a young person, I would read biographies of writers as if they were instruction manuals. It’s easy to forget that writers, especially of the older school, liked to present an idealized portrait of their writing process. Samuel Johnson most likely did not write his poems in a single burst of explosive energy and while descriptions of Graham Greene’s writing made it seem as if he made a single handwritten draft, handed it off to be typed and was done with the work, he doubtless was a furious editor. The underlying truth of all of this is that the composition process is an intensely personal one, and while it may be worth considering the above advice, it would be a mistake to adhere slavishly to it. In the elaboration on point number three, Hemingway writes

But afterwards, when you were empty, it was necessary to read in order not to think or worry about your work until you could do it again.

Which, of course, contradicts those who say that they don’t read while they’re writing (a surprisingly common practice, it seems). Personally, I could never do that, given that I’m perpetually writing and thus would never be able to read (plus I’m also a perpetual reader).

4. When it’s time to work again, always start by reading what you’ve written so far.

This, on the other hand, is a very useful bit of advice, and more than a little universal in its application. I’ve seen too much fiction-in-progress where the writer clearly did not do it.

5. Don’t describe an emotion—make it.

This is the most important item in the list. Emotion is the hardest thing to put on the page, but the most important. Nick Flynn, in a seminar at my MFA program, pointed out how emotion can be done badly. “He was sad.” That’s not enough. Here, Hemingway really gets at the heart of how to put emotion on the page, looking for ways to put that same emotion into the heart of the reader. 

6. Use a pencil.

This, ultimately, is a bit of advice that is dependent on the technology available to Hemingway. I would revise it to be (a) use a word-processor and don’t be afraid to edit as you write and (2) always retype your first draft from scratch (and maybe some of the later drafts as well.

When I was in high school, I tended to do my writing with an old manual typewriter, sitting on the floor of my basement bedroom. I would then mark up that first draft (often typed on whatever paper I could get my hands on—plain white 8.5×11 bond paper was far less ubiquitous in those days before everyone had a computer and printer at home) then at school I would retype it on one of the school paper’s electric typewriters to make the clean copy that I would turn in. This forced me to re-read every word as opposed to only thinking that I did when I moved to word processing. Re-adopting my typewriter-era process has made me a better writer.

7. Be brief.

But not to excess. Even Hemingway did not write entirely in Hemingwayesque short declarative sentences all the time.





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