Top 10 Writing Tips of Ernest Hemingway

by Buzz! on June 3, 2012

To a young writer, there is no better place to turn for advice than to a much older, more established literary figure. For a young writer, there are fewer books more helpful than A Moveable Feast (although Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet does spring to mind). This work is as much a homage to Paris as it is a writer’s manifesto. He recounts meeting many of the greatest names of early twentieth century literature, most remarkably Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, and Scott Fitzgerald (not to mention favorable response to Constance Garnett translations). As well as his own opinions on writing, Hemingway gives insight into the minds of his contemporaries.

From this book and some interviews with him, I’ve compiled the top ten pieces of advice Hemingway was fond of giving according to their effectiveness. This is not to supplement engagement with the brilliance of Hemingway, rather to make those who’ve not read him aware of the hunger they didn’t know existed.

10 Write in the morning glory

Ernest Hemingway

Seems simple when sit down to consider it. By writing in the mornings, you not only make sure that writing does get done, but you’re also placing the habit — symbolically — as the day’s primary force. Morning writers are prone to habit, something that is certainly true of our friend Hemingway. He would write from daybreak, listening to the morning birds, until around midday, or until the juice — as he called it — expired and then continue with life. This also allowed plenty of hours to be had with his wife and friends, for reading and hunting, etc.

9 Don’t discuss the creative process

Ernest Hemingway

I showed the story to him as a curiosity, as you might show, stupidly, the binnacle of a ship you had just lost in some incredible way, or as you might pick up your booted foot and make some joke about it if it had been amputated after a crash.

This tip is particularly evident in Hemingway’s treatment of his interviewers. Annoyance would take over and override his manners, if ever he had any (Ford Madox Ford laughed at the idea of Hemingway ever being considered a gentleman). Some have taken this quirk to be a fear of talking away anything he actually had to say in his novels. Others claim that he considered most other topics better suited for conversation as they would help in future writings, future characters.

8 Stand while writing

Ernest Hemingway

This one’s quite bizarre. Sure enough, I’m happy to admit Hemingway in the league of action men (who wouldn’t?) but standing even while writing seems to be absurd, if only a little. Functionally, it might help one acknowledge what one does as work more “honestly” than a lounging scribbler might. Not only this, but he stands in his loafers before the desk, apparently a habit from the very beginning of his career. The erect body could function as a better antenna to the radio signals emitted by the muses and graces, though Hemingway is not likely to have seen it that way.

7 Actually enjoy the process

A lounging Hemingway

Supposedly a given, yet it’s worth being reminded constantly. To enjoy the lifestyle of a writer is certainly not to enjoy the writing process. You must feel to be married and devoted to sentences, while having an affair with clauses. Love ballads ought to remind you of language, not necessarily of the delightful strumpet of yesternight.

6 Keep track of daily progress

Ernest Hemingway typing

At the end of each day’s writing, Hemingway always went over his work — at this point, it was too soon to judge the merit of one’s own work — in order to count the number of words he had written in those hours. These, he keeps track of on a board entitled “So as not to kid myself” that remains attached to the wall and in plain sight. George Plimpton of The Paris Review records these figures when visiting the writer for an interview: 450, 575, 462, 1250, and 512. This is invaluable when one’s business is as abstract as writing can be; don’t kid yourself!

5 Never underestimate simplicity

Ernest Hemingway

‘Go on, then,’ Pascin said. ‘And don’t fall in love with typewriting paper.’
‘If I do, I’ll write with a pencil.’

There is something organic about a pencil, isn’t there? The smell and feel of the simple little object. Hemingway certainly thought so, often claiming to turn to writing by hand when the juices couldn’t be squeezed by the keys of a typewriter. His predisposition to pencils I am connecting with Hemingway’s pared down aesthetic for which he is known. He held no regard for adjectives, for example, and always felt the basest expression to be the most honest: that is, coming from a primal place of the subconscious.

4 Know how to set aside your work

Ernest Hemingway

I learned not to think about anything that I was writing from the time I stopped writing until I started again the next day. That way my subconscious would be working on it and at the same time I would be listening to other people and noticing everything, I hoped.

The book is yours, you are not the book’s. Take control! Hemingway certainly made writing his life, but never allowed writing to undo his life. (If anything came close, it seems to have been the races and gambling.) By not thinking extensively about the work when not actually working, new elements can be permitted entry that would otherwise never have had opportunity to manifest.

3 Truly, honestly, Hem

Ernest Hemingway

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’

It is a well-known fact that Hemingway was overly fond of the word true and, by extension, the degree of honesty in a work was used to judge its value. Many of the items on this list have this aim, but it is important to acknowledge it independently for the pursuit of truth should not be underestimated. Indeed, it ought to be the driving force of any piece of writing. To achieve truth is to move somebody and make them acknowledge themselves in a new way: probably the greatest gift a writer can give.

2 Be in love

Hadley & Hemingway

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.

Everything is amplified when in love and making love frequently, talent included. It is no secret that the muses have a preference towards the enamored; words come faster, the faster the heart beats and flutters. To give yourself permission to feel love is an instant switch to greater general feeling (should I say more primal?) which only results in writing that is truer. Love also asks greatness from you for the sake of another.

1 Know, but don’t write everything you know

Εrnest Ηemingway

…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.

This is quite possibly the most uniquely Hemingway’s piece of advice on here. It works off the supposition that an author ought to know more than she shares so that the manner in which information is recorded is confident with a sense of completeness. This technique also guarantees conciseness while remaining comprehensive. Beyond writing, it is a good skill to have, training yourself not to make all knowledge universal knowledge!

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