5 Key Writing Tips by Ernest Hemingway

Picture show Ernest Hemingway writing by hand

The 5 Key Writing Tips by Ernest Hemingway look straightforward enough, but then, nothing when it comes to writing is ever easy. This is Hem’s advice:

  1. Use short sentences.
  2. Use short first paragraphs.
  3. Use vigorous English.
  4. Be positive, not negative.
  5. Never have only 4 rules.

Tip No.1: use short sentences says avoid sub-clauses bracketed in commas, go easy on the adverbs and adjectives. A large black car is just a car. Short sentences make the reading more compelling. It gets the reader turning those pages.

Tip No.2: use short first paragraphs. Like the first line of a song, the first paragraph must suck you in and hold your attention. In Hemingway’s classic The Old Man and the Sea, this is the first paragraph: ‘He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish.’

We know immediately who the story’s about, where he is and the dilemma he faces. We also have some useful information about the character: he is old, fishes alone and does not give up easy.

Tip No.3: use vigorous English. Vigorous has multiple meanings: active, dynamic, intense, persuasive, potent, vital. What that says to me, is choose every word as if you are choosing tiles to lay a mosaic. Every word counts. Every word must carry its own weight.

Tip No.4: be positive, not negative. She hit the intruder over the head with a frying pan. This short, vigorous sentence tells us a lot more than the clumsy: The intruder was hit over the head by the woman with a frying pan. 

Tip No.5 is pure Hemingway, playful yet complex. What it subtly tells you is to follow the first four tips, then make your own rules. Writers must carve their own path, find their own voice. Be yourself and try to be successful. But first be yourself.

Hemingway wrote ‘Easy reading is hard writing’ about a century after the novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne penned the words ‘Easy reading is damn hard writing.’ I am not sure if this is a touch of plagiarism, it is certainly more economic, and a reminder that writers learn from reading writers. Between the lines of every book the writer reveals their own secrets.

This is one more writing tip from Hemingway that I like: ‘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.’ If you finish a chapter of a book at three in the morning, don’t stop. Write the first few paragraphs of the next chapter so you have something too work on when you get up in the morning.

Talking and Dialogue

Hemingway is often described as a master of dialogue and critics have agreed that ‘this is the way people really talk.’ On closer examination, this is not true. Hemingway didn’t write the way people talk, but created the effect through a form of emphasis and repetition that makes the reader remember what has been said. 

‘I have to go. I have to go. I really must go,’ she told him.

We won’t forget what she has said, although we can assume she probably wants to stay. Great writing doesn’t lay down incontrovertible facts but a trail of clues the reader follows to their own destination.

As if to prove the point regarding dialogue, Hemingway wrote only one full-length play. When The Fifth Column was last staged in London in 2016, critic Fiona Mountford in the Evening Standard described it as ‘an interminably turgid drama about the Spanish Civil War, it illustrates in glorious Technicolor: he was not a very good playwright. Gone is the crisp economy of his prose, to be replaced instead by screeds of lumpy dialogue that manage to say very little. For Whom the Bell Tolls this is not.’

For new readers of Ernest Hemingway, his novel For Whom the Bells Tolls is a good place to start. 

 

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