“All good books are alike in that they are truer than if they had really happened and after you are finished reading one you will feel that all that happened to you and afterwards it all belongs to you; the good and the bad, the ecstasy, the remorse and sorrow, the people and the places and how the weather was.” – Ernest Hemingway
Before I dive into the many great tips from this amazing writer I have to confess I only read The Old Man and the Sea. His qualities as a writer are beyond measure.
Hemingway is one of the world’s most well-known and loved writers. Many other authors (such as Bukowski) have been inspired by his work. He received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1954.
He lead an interesting life, to say the least. He fought in several wars and he has had a tumultuous love life (both have inspired much of his work).
For this article, I browsed the internet in search of his wisdom on writing, but most importantly I read ‘Ernest Hemingway on Writing’, a collection of letters to editors, fellow artists, and friends about the craft of writing.
Edited by Larry W. Phillips, the book contains Hemingway’s reflections on the craft. What makes someone a writer? How to lead a writer’s life and advice on creativity, habits, and discipline.
So what have I learned from my research and what tips can you apply to improve your writing?
#1: On the Qualities of a Writer
Hemingway was very specific about what qualities a writer must possess:
1. “There must be talent, much talent.” This seems obvious, but is often overlooked, do you have a knack for telling stories? It took me a while to show my work to others because I was afraid I had zero talent. Show your work and listen to the feedback! Over the course of two years, I’ve received so much feedback and luckily most of it has been positive. However, the critiques I can learn from and so can you. Writing is a craft. Talent can be improved, but yes, there has to be something there already to begin with!
2. “Then there must be discipline.” You are the only one responsible to produce work. You have to stare at the blank page every day and write. Develop a habit of writing every day. Set yourself writing goals. Schedule your writing time. Show up!
3. “There must be the conception of what it can be and an absolute conscience, to prevent faking.” I find this one a tad difficult to interpret, but I think he meant that you have to write about what you know, about what you’ve experienced and the people you know. Don’t write fiction about subjects you don’t know anything about. If you do, at least do your research and due diligence first.
4. “The writer must be intelligent and disinterested.” This is a funny one, isn’t it? I agree that a writer must be on his wits and have some knowledge about the world and the people that inhabit it. You don’t have to be able to solve difficult Math problems. What did Hemingway mean with the ‘disinterest’ part? My guess that he meant that once your work is finished, it belongs to your readers. You’ve given a present that isn’t yours anymore.
5. “Above all, the writer must survive.” To me, this means that you have to be sensible about the financial part of writing. It’s never guaranteed you can live off of your writing, let alone earn a side income. Develop your craft on the side. Work on that novel before you go to work.
#2: On How to Find Inspiration
“The good part of a book may be only something a writer is lucky enough to overhear or it may be the wreck of his whole damn life – and one is as good as the other.” – Ernest Hemingway
In his letters, Hemingway kept talking about the fact that experience and real-life are the best ingredients a fiction writer can use. Or the experiences of others.
He said: “…whatever success I have had has been through writing what I know about.” That’s where you can find most of your inspiration for your prose.
Ernest Hemingway urged any writer to read and study the work of others as well. He did stress though that it’s important not to try to compete with living writers. “You don’t know whether they’re good or not. Compete with the dead ones you know are good. Then when you can pass them up you know you’re going good. You should have read all the good stuff so that you know what has been done, because if you have a story like one somebody else has written, yours isn’t any good unless you can write a better one.
Study the classics, learn from them, but do your own thing. Create something unique which shows your unique view of the world, your style, and your humanity.
Hemingway: “In any art you’re allowed to steal anything if you can make it better, but the tendency should always be upward instead of down. And don’t ever imitate anybody. All style is, is the awkwardness of a writer in stating a fact.”
I’ve written before about how you can find your own style. A lot of it has to do with studying the craft of writers you admire, of the classics, of popular books, of books that surprised you. Most importantly, your style comes from writing a lot.
One last thing I’d like to share here are Hemingway’s soothing words to tackle procrastination or even writer’s block: “Do not worry. You have always written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence.”
#3: On the Writing Process
Hemingway: “The most important thing I’ve learned about writing is never write too much at a time… Never pump yourself dry. Leave a little for the next day. The main thing is to know when to stop. Don’t wait till you’ve written yourself out. When you’re still going good and you come to an interesting place and you know what’s going to happen next, that’s the time to stop. Then leave it alone and don’t think about it; let your subconscious mind do the work.
The next morning, when you’ve had a good sleep and you’re feeling fresh, rewrite what you wrote the day before. When you come to the interesting place and you know what is going to happen next, go on from there and stop at another high point of interest. That way, when you get through, your stuff is full of interesting places and when you write a novel you never get stuck and you make it interesting as you go along.”
I don’t have much to add to this other than the fact that this really works. Leave some of your juice at the table for the next day. It will help you get back in quicker and without the devil called procrastination blocking your creative energy. You have a starting point every day.
Hemingway tried to produce a certain amount of words per day. If you have read any of my articles, you’ve noticed that this piece of advice has been given by countless talented and successful authors. Hemingway was beyond happy when he produced 1000-2000 words a day, but he knows it was not always possible. He stated that he would even be happy with 600 or 300 words which were well done.
So, don’t be so hard on yourself with your writing goals. I aim to produce 1,000 words per day, but this doesn’t happen every day. Writing 300 words is still progress!
#4: On How to Train Your Writing Skills
In some essays or letter correspondence, Hemingway engages in a conversation with the character ‘Mice’. Mice is the personification of an aspiring writer seeking his advice.
In one of those dialogues, Mice asks Hemingway how a writer can train him or herself:
1. “Watch what happens (today).” Observe what happens. Use all of your senses to process what’s happening. For instance, if you are hiking in nature, listen to the sounds of animals. Look at the scenery. Perhaps write down what you see, describe it. Describe how you feel. What excites you about being there? What can you smell? What’s the weather like?
2. “Then get into somebody else’s head for a change. […] As a writer you should not judge. You should understand.” Think about your own troubles, worries, blessings and fortune. Every other person is carrying their own emotional and physical baggage every day, just like you. Think about people you know, how do you think they feel?
3. “Listen now. When people talk, listen completely. Don’t be thinking what you’re going to say.” This is very powerful in my opinion. I do this as well. Sometimes we value our own words better than that of the person in front of you. Learn to listen and observe truly. Record what people say and how they say it mentally. How does it make you feel? Observe people’s movements and habits. Practice this and use this in character building.
#5: On Storytelling
“You see I’m trying in all my stories to get the feeling of actual life across – not to just depict life or criticize it – but to actually make it alive. So that when you have read something by me you actually experience the thing. You can’t do this without putting in the bad and the ugly as well as what is beautiful. Because if it is all beautiful you can’t believe in it. Things aren’t that way. It is only by showing both sides – 3 dimensions and if possible 4 that you can write the way I want to.” – Ernest Hemingway
Use as many of the senses we have in order for the reader to be immersed in your story. How do things look like, feel, smell, taste or sound like? What are people feeling?
Life is imperfect and so is a story. Show the rawness of life through your story. The good emotions and the bad ones.
The following piece of advice not only cracked me up, but it seriously helped me to improve my storytelling: “Remember to get the weather in you god damned book – weather is very important.” It sounds so simple, therefore I often forget it. This is another element a writer can use to create a real story.
“Madame, all stories, if continued far enough, end in death, and he is no true story teller who would keep that from you.” – Ernest Hemingway
This one is a bit grim, but it’s the honest truth. It reminds me of the Stoic philosophy and ‘Memento Mori’. We are the only species that can contemplate death and we know that one day we’ll die.
Fiction is a reflection on real life (perhaps with some improvements) and death is part of anyone’s story.
#6: On Editing
“I believe that basically you write for two people; yourself to try to make it absolutely perfect; or if not then wonderful. Then you write for who you love, whether she can read or write or not and whether she is alive or dead.” – Ernest Hemingway
The quote above is pretty self-explanatory. One side note I have is to focus on your first version to be wonderful, not absolutely perfect. If you do that, you get in your own way. Write without holding back. The editing process is long and full of errors, use that time to strive for a bit of perfection. Never lose sight of the wonderfulness of your story, that’s the most important part.
In terms of editing, Ernest Hemingway was quite hard on himself. First, he let his novels or stories cool off for a short period before he got back into it. A trait also shared with Stephen King.
“The main thing is to know what to leave out. The way you tell whether you’re going good is by what you can throw away.” – Ernest Hemingway
Cut, cut, cut. As painful as it is. I usually tend to write too much, and I hate cutting scenes. I find this the most difficult part of the writing process. But deep inside you know what can be omitted. Always ask yourself if a particular scene really contributes to your plot or character moment.
Hemingway was very disciplined and he urges every aspiring writer to develop that discipline. He also edited up to the point of never wanting to read one’s story again.
“Don’t get discouraged because there’s a lot of mechanical work to writing. There is, and you can’t get out of it. I rewrote A Farewell to Arms at least fifty times. You’ve got to work it over. The first draft of anything is shit. When you first start to write you get all the kick and the reader gets none, but after you learn to work it’s your object to convey everything to the reader so that he remembers it not as a story he had read but something that happened to himself. That’s the true test of writing.”
I can’t imagine ever to rewrite a book 50 times. Maybe I’m not disciplined enough. Or perhaps I’m not too much of a perfectionist. Either way, it’s fine. I’m not going to punish myself for that.
Intuitively you know when your story is about 90-95% right. For me, I really need the feedback of others at this point because I can’t see it anymore. After so many read troughs and edits I can hear the song of my story but I can’t understand it’s lyrics.
#7: On Leading a Writer’s Life
In the book ‘On Writing’, most of Hemingway’s “advice” on living a writer’s life is a long list of complaints about his critics. Other complaints usually have to do with a lack of money.
I’ve found the following piece of advice a fitting end for this article as it describes his attitude towards the craft and leading a writer’s life:
“You must be prepared to work always without applause. When you are excited about something is when the first draft is done. But no one can see it until you go over and over it again and again until you have communicated the emotion, the sights and the sounds to the readers, and by the time the book comes out you will have started something else and it is all behind you and you do not want to hear about it. But you do, you read it in covers and you see all the places that now you can do nothing about. […] Finally, in some other place, some other time, when you can’t work and feel like hell you will pick up the book and look in it and start to read and go on and in a little while say to your wife, “Why this stuff is bloody marvelous.” […] if the book is good, it is about something that you know, and is truly written.”