To Write Effectively, Be More Like Hemingway

Jon Hawkins

A collection of letters from Hemingway on how to become a better writer

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Born in Illinois, Ernest Hemingway began his writing career in a newspaper office at just 17 years old, but had to put his writing on hold when America entered the First World War.

Upon his return, he became a reporter for American newspapers and was sent back to Europe — where he reported on notable events such as the Greek revolution, and the Spanish Civil War.

Hemingway used his early experiences to shape what he wrote, and how he wrote it. Drawing on his youth, he produced:

  • ‘For whom the Bell Tolls,’ based on his time as a reporter during the Civil War in Spain.
  • ‘A Farewell to Arms,’ based on a case study of an American ambulance officer’s disillusionment in the war.

His economical writing style (also named ‘the iceberg theory’) has had an influential impact on the world of writing — and solidified him as one of the greatest fiction writers of all time. He won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1954.

With his extensive life and writing experiences, Ernest Hemingway can offer us important and invaluable tips on how to improve our writing.

During his lifetime, Hemingway frequently wrote letters to editors, fellow artists and friends about the craft of writing. These are all compiled in ‘Ernest Hemingway on Writing’(1999).

Tip 1: on finding inspiration

In his letters, Hemingway emphasized that drawing on real-life is a solid foundation for a successful story — that is, using your own experiences, or the experiences of others, as your main inspiration.

In his own words —

‘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.’

In short, Hemingway is illustrating that the best stories are those that really happened. Real stories tend to be more emotionally charged, and are easier for us to connect and empathize with. In being real, there’s a chance that those events could happen to the everyday reader.

And that makes them more valued, and better received.

Borrowing experiences

From time to time, life can be pretty boring, and when that happens — us writers can be left without inspiration and ideas.

Whenever that happens, according to Hemingway, we should read and study the works of others and gain insight into their experiences for inspiration — doing so allows us to understand real-life from the insight and perspective of others.

In doing so, however, Hemingway emphasized that it’s important we don’t try and compete with others. Because we can’t be certain that other writers are good or not — so its counterintuitive to compete with them in a desperate attempt to earn money and gain readers.

Rather than directly copying the works of others, apply your own thoughts & ideas to the experiences and insights of others.

Remain authentic to yourself, study the classics, but do your own thing. Create something unique which shows your view of the world, your style, and your humanity.

‘…whatever success I have had has been through writing what I know about.’

Tip 2: on keeping it simple

‘My aim is to put down on paper what I see and what I feel in the best and simplest way.’

According to research undergone by Microsoft Canada, the average attention span is about 8 seconds. Because of that, using long, unnecessary, and convoluted sentences won’t sit well with your readers.

Keeping it simple is what earned Hemingway the success he achieved today.

He labeled his style ‘The Iceberg’

  • As a young journalist, he had to focus his writing on immediate events, with little focus on context or interpretation.
  • When Hemingway became a fictional writer, he maintained that very same minimalistic style by focusing on surface-level elements, events and ideas, rather than discussing underlying themes.

In short, Hemingway’s simplistic style meant his stories were easy to follow at surface-level but also had deeper, more complex ideas implicit throughout the text.

According to Copywriter Brian Clarke’s interpretation of Hemingway, he offered several key tips to maintaining this iceberg theme:

  • Use short sentences — get straight to the point, and dispense adjectives.
  • Use short first paragraphs — to avoid losing your audience’s attention before they get to the good stuff.
  • Use vigorous English — write with focus, passion, and intention.
  • Be positive, rather than negative — to avoid confusing readers, say what something is, rather than what it isn’t.

In doing so, you’ll keep your writing clear and straightforward, with deep themes hidden below the text.

Tip 3: on the writing process

Hemingway was a strong advocate of not writing too much at a time, and revising and rewriting the things he did write.

He told his friends not to wait until they’re all ‘written out’ — instead, stating they should only write when feeling refreshed, focused, and ready to produce their best work.

Rather than rushing things, he believed we should stop at a point where we know what we are going to say next. Doing so allows our sub-conscious to think things over while our conscious mind rests — and that will enable us to come up with unique, and creative insight without even thinking.

After his rest, while feeling refreshed, Hemingway would go through and rewrite everything had done the day before. Once he reached the point he got to last time, now knowing where he wanted to take his story— he would continue writing — before stopping at a later point of interest.

Doing so, according to Hemingway, is beneficial for two reasons:

  • It leaves your writing with lots of interesting points and places with unique insight (those being where you’ve stopped and thought through things).
  • It keeps things easier and more exciting for you as a writer.
‘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.’

Tip 4: on how to develop your writing skills

In some of his writing (‘Monologue to the Maestro, 1935'), Hemingway engages with a character called “Mice” — this being the personification of a talented and young writer seeking advice.

In one of these monologues, Mice asks how they can train themselves to be a better writer. Hemingway responded with insight into how someone could develop effective writing skills:

‘Watch what happens.’

Closely pay attention to everything, and do so by using your senses to process what is happening. In doing so, write down what you see — describe it. Describe how you feel. What excites you about being there?

‘Get into someone else’s head.’

Think about your own thoughts, feelings, desires, and troubles. Then acknowledge that, as you look around, everyone else is carrying their own emotional baggage every day. Think about what their experiences are like, how do you think they feel?

‘Listen now. When people talk, listen completely. Don’t be thinking what you’re going to say.’

Listening and cultivating an appreciation of what others say offers a powerful insight into different perspectives far beyond our own. To learn how to create fictional characters, record what people say and how they say it. Observe their movements and habit — and ask yourself how their behavior makes you feel.

In following these steps, according to Hemingway, we are opening ourselves up to the necessary experiences that will help us better understand the world and those around us.

We will then be able to use this knowledge as a springboard to producing deeper, more insightful writing — which is articulated in a clear and relatable way — given fictional characters will share the traits of those we meet in the real world).

Final thoughts

Ernest Hemingway is arguably one of the best fictional writers of all time — winning the Nobel Prize in Literature, Hemingway’s style has had a tremendous impact on modern authors, and the books we read today.

And yet, rather modestly, he puts his success down to keeping things understated, effective, and simple.

When asked by editors, writers, and friends how they could better articulate their ideas, Hemingway wrote numerous letters of advice. In particular, he encouraged them to:

  • Find inspiration from real-life experiences and develop their own, unique writing that their readers can emotionally engage with.
  • Keep things simple: provide depth to your writing by leaving some of your themes implicit and open to interpretation, only articulating the main ideas in the story.
  • Develop a writing style that utilizes and unlocks your subconscious mind. Do so by taking breaks, and reflecting on the ideas you do have.
  • Develop your own writing style by watching the world around you, get into other people’s heads, and listen deeply to what others say. Use this knowledge to articulate clear, and realistic fictional characters that readers can relate to.

In sum —

‘Write the best story that you can and write it as straight as you can.’

I write about Self-Improvement, Life Lessons, Philosophy, Psychology & Business — to help you reach your full potential.

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Asking questions, seeking answers. I write articles that help you better understand the Universe. Durham University.

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