Ernest Hemingway is considered to be one of the master writers of the modern era and his prose style is one of the most popular and distinctive around. Unlike other authors, Hemingway never wrote a book on writing, but he did give good writing advice and some of this is immortalised in correspondence and articles he wrote during his life.
In 1984 some of this collection of the writer’s thoughts were assembled into ‘Ernest Hemingway on Writing’ by Larry W. Phillips and here were have selected some quotations from the book matched with some of Hemingway’s best passages.
To get started, write one true sentence.
We all suffer from writers’ block at times, and Hemingway was no exception. Here’s what he said in A Moveable Feast:
Sometimes when I was starting a new story and I could not get it going, I would sit in front of the fire and squeeze the peel of the little oranges into the edge of the flame and watch the sputter of blue that they made. I would stand and look out over the roofs of Paris and think, “Do not worry. You have always written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.” So finally I would write one true sentence, and then go on from there.
Never think about the story when you’re not writing.
The reason for this is that by not thinking consciously about something, you are allowing your subconscious to work on it all the time. Here’s another passage from A Moveable Feast:
If you kept thinking about it, you would lose the thing you were writing before you could go on with it the next day. It was necessary to get exercise, to be tired in the body, and it was very good to make love with whom you loved. That was better than anything. 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. I had learned already never to empty the well of my writing, but always to stop when there was still something there in the deep part of the well, and let it refill at night from the springs that fed it.
Always stop for the day when you know what will happen next.
It’s very tempting to stop writing once you run out of things to say, but this can be a key factor in writer’s block, coming back to the keyboard with nothing to follow on from where you are. Here’s what Hemingway says in a 1936 article in Esquire:
The best way is always to stop when you are going good and when you know what will happen next. If you do that every day when you are writing a novel you will never be stuck. That is the most valuable thing I can tell you so try to remember it.
Don’t describe an emotion – make it.
We have to admit this is great advice! Instead of describing happiness, sadness or any emotion in between it’s vital to make it in the scene you are writing. Here’s what the author says in Death in an Afternoon:
I was trying to write then and I found the greatest difficulty, aside from knowing truly what you really felt, rather than what you were supposed to feel, and had been taught to feel, was to put down what really happened in action; what the actual things were which produced the emotion that you experienced. In writing for a newspaper you told what happened and, with one trick and another, you communicated the emotion aided by the element of timeliness which gives a certain emotion to any account of something that has happened on that day; but the real thing, the sequence of motion and fact which made the emotion and which would be as valid in a year or in ten years or, with luck and if you stated it purely enough, always, was beyond me and I was working very hard to get it.
We all know that Hemingway didn’t waste words, and much of that is down to his preferred use of a pencil over a typewriter, especially for prose writing. In a 1945 letter to his editor, Hemingway wrote:
It wasn’t by accident that the Gettysburg address was so short. The laws of prose writing are as immutable as those of flight, of mathematics, of physics.