7 Tips From Ernest Hemingway on How to Write Fiction


Image by Lloyd Arnold via Wiki­me­dia Com­mons

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.

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Note: An ear­li­er ver­sion of this post appeared on our site in Feb­ru­ary 2013.

Relat­ed con­tent:

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

Ernest Hem­ing­way Cre­ates a Read­ing List for a Young Writer (1934)

18 (Free) Books Ernest Hem­ing­way Wished He Could Read Again for the First Time

James Joyce Picked Drunk­en Fights, Then Hid Behind Ernest Hem­ing­way

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

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Comments (8)
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  • Sidra Tanwir says:

    I like the ernest’s novels…it is real base sto­ry and i wan­na more to read the Ernest Hem­ing­way’s nov­el…

  • Saul mojarro says:

    I’ve hon­est­ly enjoyed Hem­ing­way ‚he wrote quite a few thing that I could use and improve my writ­ing with .

  • John says:

    Old man and the sea is an absolute mas­ter­piece, utter­ly flaw­less in every way. I have read it more times than I can count through the years.

  • Frank Edder says:

    I don’t remem­ber where I read these pieces of advice. They all helped me to write more clear­ly. Some of these you can derive from Hem­ing­way.

    1. Be your own proof-read­er and edi­tor. After going back to what I pre­vi­ous­ly wrote, I found all kinds of mis­takes in con­ti­nu­ity, gram­mar, and espe­cial­ly incon­gru­ous para­graphs and sen­tences.

    2. Don’t try to save a bad para­graph. Delete it, and rewrite.

    3. Use a spell check­er. A spell check­er helps to pre­vent you, from look­ing like you’re still in the 3rd grade.

    4. When my Son was in the 5th grade he had an assign­ment to write a one — two para­graph sto­ry. After look­ing over what he wrote, I asked him to re-read is sto­ry lat­er on. Hours passed. When he returned to his home­work assign­ment, he found that some of what he wrote made lit­tle sense. I point­ed out to him that if you can’t make sense of your own writ­ing, don’t expect any­one else to.

    5. A The­saurus is not an ancient rep­tile, with an excel­lent vocab­u­lary. You should keep one on your desk, along with a dic­tio­nary.

    So far, I’ve edit­ed at least half of the sen­tences I just wrote. I delet­ed 2 para­graphs, and cor­rect­ed some gram­mar as best I could. I’m not the Gram­mar Police.

    “Per­fec­tion is not a place you arrive, but a road you trav­el.” L. F. Edder <–me.

  • Susan Armstrong says:

    Excel­lent advice. Thanks!

  • Adelaine says:

    As Schoen­berg did of Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Brahms.……

    See how things hap­pen. Tell things in the man­ner of being told.

  • AMD says:

    Any tips on writin non-fic­tion fin gen­res for books like: Sapi­ens by Noah Harare or Future of Human­i­ty by Michio Kaku?

  • Rob T Brownridge says:

    Your site “Open Cul­ture” is one of the best and well designed sites I have seen on the Web in many years.….
    When I recent­ly acci­den­tal­ly came across it , from “Pock­et”, and I read you admo­ni­tion to have me turn off my ad block­er, at least for your site, I feel very divid­ed, because I do not know how to do that eas­i­ly!

    I do come across many sites which will not allow me to pro­ceed, unless I turn off my ad block­er, but those sites I sim­ply avoid…
    Sev­er­al times ‚( Fire­fox is my brows­er), I have turned off Ad Block­ers, only to have trou­ble turn­ing it back on!!
    I am an old­er guy, and I just can­not stand pop-up video ads!!

    Any advise around this?
    There are today, so many sites, ask­ing for mon­ey, run­ning end­less pop up ads, often with sound and video, it is enough to make me sim­ply give up and turn off my devices.…HELP!!

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