Seven Tips From Ernest Hemingway on How to Write Fiction

EH-354

Before he was a big game hunter, before he was a deep-sea fisherman, Ernest Hemingway was a craftsman who would rise very early in the morning and write. His best stories are masterpieces of the modern era, and his prose style is one of the most influential of the 20th century.

Hemingway never wrote a treatise on the art of writing fiction.  He did, however, leave behind a great many passages in letters, articles and books with opinions and advice on writing. Some of the best of those were assembled in 1984 by Larry W. Phillips into a book, Ernest Hemingway on Writing. We’ve selected seven of our favorite quotations from the book and placed them, along with our own commentary, on this page. We hope you will all–writers and readers alike–find them fascinating.

1: To get started, write one true sentence.

Hemingway had a simple trick for overcoming writer’s block. In a memorable passage in A Moveable Feast, he writes:

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. It was easy then because there was always one true sentence that I knew or had seen or had heard someone say. If I started to write elaborately, or like someone introducing or presenting something, I found that I could cut that scrollwork or ornament out and throw it away and start with the first true simple declarative sentence I had written.

2: Always stop for the day while you still know what will happen next.

There is a difference between stopping and foundering. To make steady progress, having a daily word-count quota was far less important to Hemingway than making sure he never emptied the well of his imagination. In an October 1935 article in Esquire “Monologue to the Maestro: A High Seas Letter”) Hemingway offers this advice to a young writer:

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.

3: Never think about the story when you’re not working.

Building on his previous advice, Hemingway says never to think about a story you are working on before you begin again the next day. “That way your subconscious will work on it all the time,” he writes in the Esquire piece. “But if you think about it consciously or worry about it you will kill it and your brain will be tired before you start.” He goes into more detail in A Moveable Feast:

When I was writing, it was necessary for me to read after I had written. 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.

4: When it’s time to work again, always start by reading what you’ve written so far.

T0 maintain continuity, Hemingway made a habit of reading over what he had already written before going further. In the 1935 Esquire article, he writes:

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.

5: Don’t describe an emotion–make it.

Close observation of life is critical to good writing, said Hemingway. The key is to not only watch and listen closely to external events, but to also notice any emotion stirred in you by the events and then trace back and identify precisely what it was that caused the emotion. If you can identify the concrete action or sensation that caused the emotion and present it accurately and fully rounded in your story, your readers should feel the same emotion. In Death in the Afternoon, Hemingway writes about his early struggle to master this:

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.

6: Use a pencil.

Hemingway often used a typewriter when composing letters or magazine pieces, but for serious work he preferred a pencil. In the Esquire article (which shows signs of having been written on a typewriter) Hemingway says:

When you start to write you get all the kick and the reader gets none. So you might as well use a typewriter because it is that much easier and you enjoy it that much more. After you learn to write your whole object is to convey everything, every sensation, sight, feeling, place and emotion to the reader. To do this you have to work over what you write. If you write with a pencil you get three different sights at it to see if the reader is getting what you want him to. First when you read it over; then when it is typed you get another chance to improve it, and again in the proof. Writing it first in pencil gives you one-third more chance to improve it. That is .333 which is a damned good average for a hitter. It also keeps it fluid longer so you can better it easier.

7: Be Brief.

Hemingway was contemptuous of writers who, as he put it, “never learned how to say no to a typewriter.” In a 1945 letter to his editor, Maxwell Perkins, Hemingway writes:

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.

Related content:

Writing Tips by Henry Miller, Elmore Leonard, Margaret Atwood, Neil Gaiman & George Orwell

The Big Ernest Hemingway Photo Gallery: The Novelist in Cuba, Spain, Africa and Beyond

The Spanish Earth, Written and Narrated by Ernest Hemingway

Archive of Hemingway’s Newspaper Reporting Reveals Novelist in the Making

Find Courses on Hemingway and Other Authors in our big list of Free Online Courses



Make knowledge free & open. Share our posts with friends on Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms:
Share on TwitterShare via emailShare on LinkedInShare on TumblrSubmit to StumbleUponDigg ThisSubmit to reddit

by | Permalink | Comments (37) |

Choose a comment platform

Comments (37)
You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.
  1. Ellen Perücke says . . . | February 19, 2013 / 11:24 pm

    For me, the most important advice is to not think about the story when one is not working on it. In the meanwhile the subconscious is doing the job for you. This simply works.

  2. TNNA says . . . | February 20, 2013 / 1:59 pm

    It’s a good list, but you neglected to mention my favorite Hemingway writing tip: http://talentneednotapply.com/?p=573

  3. N. K. Bellani says . . . | February 21, 2013 / 8:48 pm

    Be your own spontaneous self and write, when you like and the way like, is my tip…

  4. More tips. says . . . | February 22, 2013 / 10:26 am

    Tip #8 – Be drunk.

    Tip #9 – Commit suicide once you’ve achieved fame and fortune.

  5. Melayahm says . . . | February 22, 2013 / 11:39 am

    #2 is so damn obvious, it’s genius, and yet I’ve never seen it before on any other site about writing! (and I’ve Stumbledupon a lot of writing sites)

  6. Elliott Teters says . . . | February 22, 2013 / 5:53 pm

    Thank you for sharing these writing tips. It always amazes me how one successful writer insists we must do one thing, then another believes we must do the opposite. I am not what I would call a successful writer yet, but it is pretty clear to me that the greatest obstacle to creating clear, understandable work, whether it be fiction or non-fiction, is actually showing up and writing. It is quite a lot easier to edit something that is written than it is to alter something that exists only in my mind. I do not remember the writer who said, “What separates a writer from a would-be writer is that the writer writes,” but I have read so many writers of different skill levels I would have to agree.

    Anyway I really appreciate this article and the time you put into sharing it with us. I will be locating the book cited and learning more from Mr. Hemingway because of your efforts.

    Thank you!

  7. Elissa Field says . . . | February 24, 2013 / 8:01 am

    Thanks for curating this classic list. It’s sometimes easy to dismiss the iconic writers, but Hemingway was a pioneer in his time — and predated the abundance of writing advice and MFA programs we live in now.

    I shared a link to your article in my Friday Links for Writers 02.22.13: http://elissafield.wordpress.com/2013/02/22/friday-links-for-writers-02-22-13/

  8. JONIDUL ISLAM says . . . | February 25, 2013 / 2:13 am

    It’s sometimes easy to iconic writers.

  9. Kari says . . . | February 25, 2013 / 8:11 am

    I did find them fascinating. Number two really resonated with me as something I need to start doing today. Usually, I exhaust my imagination and then allow it to refuel for the night, but I can see how stopping before it becomes exhausted will help me to never be stuck the next day.

  10. Karen Cioffi says . . . | February 25, 2013 / 9:22 am

    Great information. I never heard of #2 and #3 – interesting. I’ve shared this also.

  11. Ravi Ahuja says . . . | February 27, 2013 / 11:36 pm

    Thanks for sharing, these tips will not just help to write fiction but can also help for writing blog post, books or on topic which you less aware.

  12. Susan Waterwyk says . . . | February 28, 2013 / 2:00 pm

    Outstanding Article!!! Sound advice. It made me feel as if “Papa” had sent me a personal letter. Thank you! Seven Times Thank you!

  13. Bustami says . . . | March 1, 2013 / 10:55 pm

    excellent stuff.. i really love to write and still learning how to do it in fine way.. thanks

  14. Akasha says . . . | March 2, 2013 / 4:43 am

    This is such a great resource, Thanks for sharing!

  15. Hattie Norman (Topazshell) says . . . | March 11, 2013 / 5:55 am

    These are very good pointers from a master writer. Thank you.

  16. Joan Harrison says . . . | March 12, 2013 / 2:27 am

    Excellent article and so helpful to me right now. I have worked with the subconscious for some time now in other areas and to hear a writer listen to his in this intuitive way fills me with so much joy. Thank you for your hard work, greatly appreciated.

  17. Angela Grant says . . . | March 19, 2013 / 2:29 am

    Thanks for the tips. I find writing difficult and will procrastinate. Never did I think of just writing a sentence that is true. If I am to be disciplined I better start writing. :)

  18. Astro Gremlin says . . . | March 23, 2013 / 11:00 pm

    Treat writing like work. We don’t get “doing the dishes block.”

  19. Mitch says . . . | March 25, 2013 / 6:37 pm

    I don’t write, I bleed.

  20. Mariamni Heracleous says . . . | April 17, 2013 / 9:51 am

    Like Hemingway… no one else! (I believe) Thanks for the tips.

  21. Larry W. Phillips says . . . | April 21, 2013 / 6:02 pm

    I would add to this:
    Some days you’re going to wake up tired of writing your book (or MS, or whatever it is). Other days you’re going to wake up tired of the whole idea of writing itself. Have a plan for those days. Get away from it. Go somewhere. Do something different. Kick back. Rake the lawn. OR: do the ‘grunt work’ on those days (like looking stuff up, verifying facts, etc)–the stuff you know you’re going to have to do someday anyway. Don’t even attempt to do the actual “writing” on those days. Use them to do the ‘house-keeping’ work; the ‘non-fun’ stuff.
    Also: what’s worked well for me lately: write stuff out of order. (We have computers to move it into the right order later). Do this and it tends to stay fresh within itself. Start at “A” and continue in a long straight line and it can sometimes get stale and trail off into kind of parody of itself. This has really helped me lately. Write the different pieces out of order.

  22. james black says . . . | April 23, 2013 / 8:09 am

    i have all ways thought that an author should have at lest a hands on knowledge of what he is writing . i guess it , at lest for me gives them an honest credibility. for example , a book on child rearing written by a non breeder . or a book on boxing by an author that’s never been in a fight.thanks for your time .

  23. edgardo j says . . . | May 7, 2013 / 11:30 am

    After reading this I tried writing away from the computer and I have to say it actually helped. Just something about writing with my hand instead of typing brought a deeper concentration to what I was doing. I tried creating emotions instead of just telling them in my writing. I don’t think it came out perfect but its definitely better than what I had before. He has some great incites on writing. Glad I read this.

  24. Stu Lev says . . . | May 12, 2013 / 5:41 pm

    Great post. Fine advice on writing, using one’s imagination is always challenging and mysterious. Sometimes a cup of coffee spurs us on. Other times we need to distance ourselves from the material for a spell to be able to see what part of our project has real value and worth. Writers block can hit us in some intensity at anytime. yet if the words always flowed like a waterfall with no effort at all would we view them as an accomplishment? No. We always have to challenge ourselves to see how far we can grow, learn and strive for excellence. Thanks for the great writing tips. Here’s a cool free writing source.

  25. Hector says . . . | June 3, 2013 / 6:25 pm

    Fantastic insights. Thank you, i will practice some of these suggestions.

  26. Tom says . . . | July 13, 2013 / 3:00 pm

    Tip #3 is useful in other applications as well. As an undergraduate philosophy student, I had one particularly difficult course with long essay exams. I would study endlessly and still do poorly until I learned to stop studying one full day before the exam and simply play – go hiking, watch a movie, be with friends. Whatever it was, I was not thinking about the material for the course. I walked the half mile to class thinking only about the walk itself. Once I learned this, my essays were clear, concise, and netted me an A on all the remaining essays for the course.

  27. Saskia van Zutphen, netherlands says . . . | July 13, 2013 / 10:44 pm

    Tip nr. 8: forget my tips and WRITE!

  28. hermes birkin says . . . | July 17, 2013 / 2:13 am

    Wonderful share of this great job. Thanks for such much information.

  29. ernest says . . . | August 25, 2013 / 12:14 am

    I am a tiller and I won’t visite and get

  30. Gurdjieff says . . . | November 3, 2013 / 2:21 pm

    Very practical and helpful. I came across some of these reading ‘A Moveable Feast’, but not all of them and not arranged in this way. Thank you.

  31. Open Culture says . . . | November 3, 2013 / 2:33 pm

    Does anyone happen to know what Facebook page just mentioned our post? Thanks in advance for letting us know.nCheers,nDan/editor

  32. Johnnie Lakes says . . . | November 3, 2013 / 2:48 pm

    Dangerous minds.

  33. Ada Sin Hache says . . . | November 4, 2013 / 2:35 am

    I’m mentioning your post too and sharing. I read it on DM’s wall. I really enojoyed it, thanks!

  34. Corelin says . . . | November 4, 2013 / 4:59 am

    Doctrine Man!! threw it up there too

  35. Thom says . . . | November 4, 2013 / 7:15 am

    Dangerous Minds

  36. Delphinus13 says . . . | November 4, 2013 / 2:12 pm

    Doctrine Man’s

  37. Sean says . . . | December 28, 2013 / 5:50 am

    Interesting tips and methods to keep writing. Not forgetting Hemmingway’s style, some of these ideas are for straight novelists and not good advice for the modern hack who wants to write super-best-sellers!

Add a comment

Loading Facebook Comments ...
Quantcast