The Hemingway Primer for Writers

All authors should write in their own distinctive voices, or at least that’s what publishers and agents have said for years, and I believe it’s the truth.  All authors should write in their own distinctive styles, or at least that’s what publishers and agents have said for years, and I don’t doubt them for a moment.

Ernest Hemingway

However, there are no formulas. That’s what I’ve been told.

Writers generally come from one side of the track or another.

They have the gift.

Or they work night and day to develop the gift.

Then again, maybe there is not such thing as the gift.

As Ernest Hemingway said, “Remember that nobody knows or really understands the secret of writing.”

If there is one, it remains a secret.

Hemingway was his own man.

He traveled his own roads, often smooth and mostly precarious.

He fought his own battles, and he lost only one. He lost the last one.

But until that maddening moment when a shotgun blast punctuated the last sentence in Ernest Hemingway’s dying breath, he wrote his own way.

And, in his own words, he left us a guideline to follow when we sit down, look at life as though it were a giant scrabble board, and start piecing words into sentences and sentences into stories.

As Hemingway pointed out, “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.”

Hemingway with Col. Charles T. Latham in Germany in 1944

His stories bled with truth. Whether they were fiction or non-fiction, it did not matter. They bled the truth. He always believed: “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 it happened to you, and afterwards, it all belongs to you; the good and the bad, the ecstasy, the remorse and sorrow, the people and places and how the weather was.”

Hemingway understood life.

And he knew that fiction was life.

And life was fiction.

Those who hover over their keyboards with good stories trying to crawl out of their hearts and souls should understand one of Hemingway’s basic tenets.

He said, “I write one page of masterpiece to ninety-one pages of sh*t. I try to put the sh*t in the wastebasket.”

He took the time to examine and cross-examine his writing. He took the time to know what was good and what was bad. Too often, in today’s frantic and frenzied world of self-publishing, an author is merely someone who fills up three hundred pages as quickly as possible, convinced that he or she has a book. There have been no edits, no re-writes, and, worst of all, no guilt.

Some of the novel may be really good.

So much of it may fall flat.

Too many pages may never even reach the level of mediocrity.

Poor writing. Poor spelling. Poor punctuation. Wooden characters. Stilted dialogue. Plots that twist instead of turn and zig when a good zag would have made a lot more sense.

They write the words.

They throw them together.

They congratulate themselves.

And, voila, it’s a book.

About half of it should have been thrown away. If a wastebasket was good enough for Ernest Hemingway, it should be good enough for the rest of us.

He knew how hard it was to write and write well.

He respected the challenge. He loved the challenge.

Hemingway at work.

He said, “There’s no rule on how it is to write. Sometimes it comes easily and perfectly. Sometimes it is like drilling rock and blasting it out with charges.”

For Hemingway, it was a good day when he turned out 400 words.

His publisher, Charles Scribner, ridiculed him.

But Hemingway didn’t flinch.

He said of Scribner: “He didn’t know how happy one felt to have put down properly 422 words as you wanted them to be.”

Not 422 words.

But 422 proper words.

He did not count the ones left lingering at the bottom of his wastebasket.

As Hemingway said, “Since I found that 400 to 600 well done words was a pace I could hold much better, I was always happy with that number. But if I only had 322 words, it felt good.”

If you want to write with the power, the passion, and the strength of Ernest Hemingway, and he was the master, here is an easy-to-follow textbook selected from his own words.

Start with the simplest things.

Boil it down.

Know what to leave out.

Write the tip of the iceberg.

Leave the rest under water.

Watch what happens today.

Write what you see.

Look at words as if seeing them for the first time.

Ditch the dictionary.

Distrust adjectives.

Learn to write a simple declarative sentence.

Just write the truest sentence that you know.

Be able to tell a story in six words.

Write poetry into prose.

Finish what you start.

Don’t try to beat Shakespeare.

The phrase that Ernest Hemingway liked best when talking about writers came from his French influence. It was: il faut (d’abord) durer. It meant: “First, one must endure.” In all things, you must endure. A writer must never put a period in his own life until the final and most important sentence of all is at last completed. 



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