Writing Tips: Ernest Hemingway

Ernest Hemingway maintained that it was bad luck for a writer to talk about writing. Some of his advice did get passed on, though, in letters and conversations and interviews, and even though a few articles he wrote on the subject. Larry W. Phillips managed to track a lot of Hemingway’s thoughts on writing down and assembled them into a book titled, logically, Ernest Hemingway on Writing. Below are some of Hemingway’s tips from that book, along with my own thoughts on the matter.

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.”

There are three things that this quote brings to mind. First, I am an outliner, not a “pantser” (a writer who makes it up as they go along). While looking out over the Parisian rooftops sounds lovely, there’s time for that after I’ve make my word count or hit my deadline. Because I have an outline, I know what comes next in the story and what I need to be writing.

Second, because I’m a planner the instruction to “write the truest sentence that you know”, stripped of romantic pretense, sounds like a call to create a strong premise statement or thesis statement. This is what this piece of writing is about. Having clarity around that, the writing gets easier.

Finally, what resonates with me personally here is the part about having written before therefore you are able to write now. We all need affirmations. I keep track of my month-to-date and year-to-date word count not so I’ll push myself to hit today’s goal, but to remind myself that I’ve already proved that I can do it. I also track the number of months I’ve paid the bills exclusively with my earnings from writing, the number of bestsellers I’ve had, and so on. It’s about overcoming impostor syndrome, and relaxing so I can get the work done without getting all up inside my head about it.

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.

If I don’t write it down, I lose it. Even if it’s the greatest idea in the world, if I leave it incomplete I won’t remember what it was the next time I sit down to write. Again, I’m an outliner and a dedicated practitioner who sits down and writes with discipline every single day, so I don’t need to be teased by my muse to get my creativity on.

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.

Hemingway is talking about the above idea, stopping in mid-idea. For me, emptying the well means pushing to hard and trying to keep going past the point of being tired. That’s when I start pounding out illegible word salad that makes no sense the next day. Rest is good. Breaks are an essential part of the creative process.

The best way is to read it all every day from the start, correcting as you go along, then go on from where you stopped the day before. When it gets so long that you can’t do this every day read back two or three chapters each day; then each week read it all from the start. That’s how you make it all of one piece.

I will re-read the last bit I wrote the day before when I’m sitting down to continue with the same project. This is to be sure I know what I’ve already said, and to be able to match the general tone of the piece. I’ll correct a typo if I spot it, but I do not edit. All other conventional wisdom will tell you not to try to edit a work in progress.

I’m a firm believer in the “puke draft”: Get it out of your system as quickly as possible, then clean it up. Write the draft from beginning to end to get all of the ideas down. Recognize that it’s going to be a mess. Don’t fiddle with it. Edit it and do rewrites later on.

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.

You don’t need to tell people how to feel. You shouldn’t even try to tell them what to feel. Lay out the situation, the impact it has on the characters, and describe how the character’s react. If you do that well, the reader will bring their own feelings to the piece, and that will be far more genuine and effective.

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.

Another reason I’m an outliner and not a pantser is so I can get to the point as quickly as possible. Excess verbiage can be cut out during the editing process. Rewriting, or writing a second draft, is where you can make more concise word choices.

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