Ernest Hemingway on Writing
On a rare trip to Florida with my family, some years ago, we decided to drive to the very end of the I-95 and check out Key West. This was a destination I had only ever dreamed of seeing and, now, we were actually going there. The children loved snorkelling off the beach and watching the buskers along the quay, my husband and I enjoyed browsing through the Mel Fisher Maritime Museum. But for me, the highlight of the trip was an afternoon touring Ernest Hemingway’s stately home. A guide took us sauntering through his living quarters, told tales of wife number two and the fact Hemingway had accused her of spending his last penny on the salt-water pool in the back yard. When we reached the second floor, he pointed to an open, wooden walkway that led to Hemingway’s atelier. This was where he had written A Farewell to Arms and The Old Man and the Sea. At the time, my first novel, Somewhere I Belong, was still only an idea that was percolating; the urge to write had not yet risen to a crescendo. I wanted to be a writer—the dream was there—but I lacked the confidence to put pencil to paper. I crossed that wooden bridge, envisioning how Hemingway had done so every morning (except in summer, when he preferred to fish) and stayed there until he had knocked off a respectable number of words and it was time to go to Sloppy Joe’s. I touched his desk and examined his writing implements. And as impossible as it was, I imagined I was breathing in the same air he breathed. I closed my eyes and tried to take in some spark of inspiration from one of the world’s most famous and prolific writers.
Naturally, the tour ended at the bookstore, where every one of Hemingway’s brilliantly written works of fiction and non-fiction was available for sale. And even though I had read almost all of them, I bought an armload that included a thin volume of non-fiction entitled Ernest Hemingway on Writing, edited by Larry W. Phillips.
Hemingway thought it bad luck to talk about writing, yet he did it often in letters and interviews. He wasn’t referring to the bad luck that comes from talking about a specific piece of writing, such as a novel or a short story collection, of how this causes a loss of verve in its crafting. He was talking about writing in general as if it were a poker game where you are compelled to hold your cards close to your chest for fear of the opponent discovering your hand.
Nevertheless, Hemingway slipped some of his ideas on writing into the many letters he wrote to trusted friends, such as F. Scott Fitzgerald and Gertrude Stein, to his editor, Maxwell Perkins, and his publisher, Charles Scribner, Jr. Other sources include magazine articles based on interviews with this famous writer. His novels The Green Hills of Africa, Death in the Afternoon, and A Moveable Feast are also terrific sources of Hemingway’s thoughts on the topic.
Larry W. Phillips’ slim volume on Hemingway’s musings offers a series of quotes taken from some of the above-mentioned sources. In this blog post, I attempt to summarize Hemingway’s views on the craft of writing, breaking it down by category. Everything that is posted here is taken directly from and attributed to this one particular book, which was published by Scribner in 1984. It is a terrific read; it is insightful and lots of fun. And even though I have gleamed what I consider to be its high points, I strongly recommend adding it to your compendium of ‘how-to’ books on writing. Hemingway was a master of the craft and Phillips captures his thoughts on a number of important aspects of writing both fiction and non-fiction.
What Writing is and Does
Writing tries to make a picture of an entire world and boil it down. It should be truer than true and make the reader feel as if they have actually experienced what has happened in the story. The setting should be true, the story and characters should be made up.
“The secret is that it is poetry written into prose and it is the hardest of all things to do …”
From Mary Hemingway, How it Was, p. 352.
On this topic, Hemingway notes that it is hard enough to write a paragraph. He does not believe writers intentionally insert symbolism into their writing. Rather, it is up to the reader to interpret what the people or objects or places in the story mean. And this all depends on the experience and knowledge they bring with them before they delve into it.
“There isn’t any. The sea is the sea; the old man is the old man … The sharks are all sharks no better no worse. All the symbolism people say is shit. What goes beyond is what you see beyond when you know.”
To Bernard Berenson, 1952
Selected Letters, p. 780.
The Qualities of a Writer
According to Hemingway, a good writer must have an imagination and a sense of justice and injustice. The latter should show in how a character is developed or how a story is approached. Also, the writer must have a depth of knowledge on the subject of the story, but yet leave enough out so that some things are only implied.
“… real seriousness in regard to writing being one of the two absolute necessities. The other, unfortunately, is talent.
By-Line: Ernest Hemingway, p. 214
“The most essential gift for a good writer is a built-in, shockproof, shit detector. This is the writer’s radar and all great writers have had it.”
From GEORGE PLIMPTON
“An Interview with Ernest Hemingway” The Paris Review 18, Spring 1958.
The Pain and Pleasure of Writing
Hemingway never felt as good as he did when writing.
“I have to write to be happy whether I get paid or not. But it is a hell of a disease to be born with … There’s no rule on how it is to write. Sometimes it comes easily and perfectly. Sometimes it is like drilling rock and then blasting it out with charges.”
To Charles Poore, 1953
Selected Letters, pp. 800-801
What to Write About
By writing what you know about, Hemingway didn’t imply that a writer is restricted to their own immediate personal fount of knowledge. He meant that, to write a believable story, a writer must do a lot of research on the subject that is addressed therein. A writer must get to know it well. Then they will have to decide what to leave in and what to leave out so that the reader can suppose what would have happened next or what the outcome would be. A writer’s job is to challenge the reader, to give him or her just enough information that they can figure things out for themselves or envision the backdrop of the story without being hit over the head with it. The reader will know the writer is writing from a depth of knowledge more by what the writer leaves out than by what he or she leaves in.
“… whatever success I have had has been through writing about what I know about.”
To Maxwell Perkins, 1928
Selected Letters, p. 273
“… I decided that I would write one story about each thing that I knew about. I was trying to do this all the time I was writing, and it was good and severe discipline.”
A Moveable Feast, p.12.
Advice to Writers
Hemingway recommended watching and listening. He said seeing and listening is where it all comes from. He said not listening dries up a writer. He also suggested a writer should not judge but, rather, understand. This allows a writer to see a subject from different points of view. Just write the story, lay it all out, and let the reader be the judge.
He said if you really want to tell a true story, you need to get inside your character’s head. You need to show what your character is feeling or thinking in any situation you as a writer are placing him or her in. You also need to show the good and the bad, the beautiful and the ugly. If everything is beautiful all the time, then your story will not be believable because it will not depict real life.
Hemingway stressed that good writing is hard work. He often spent an entire morning writing and re-writing a single paragraph. He would break down his writing so that it was easy and simple and direct. In a letter he wrote to his publisher, Charles Scribner, in 1951, he noted that he had accomplished his best work in The Old Man and the Sea.
“All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know … 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 declarative sentence I had written.”
A Moveable Feast, p. 12.
“This is the prose that I have been working for all my life … that should read easily and simply and seem short and yet have all the dimensions of the visible world and the world of a man’s spirit. It is as good prose as I can write as of now.”
Hemingway read extensively and learned from other writers. He often referred to the poet Ezra Pound as “the man who had taught me to distrust adjectives…”
He learned from other great writers, mainly because he wanted to be better than them. He always had a goal and it was to continually improve on his most recent work.
Hemingway’s objective was to take the reader into the scene or ‘the country’ as he saw it. He suggested that writers should try to remember how they felt the first time they came upon a new landscape. It is the job of the writer to put the sensation of awe and wonderment onto the page so that the reader comes away from it not remembering the words but the actual country itself.
“Some days it went so well that you could make the country so that you could walk into it through the timber to come out into the clearing and work up onto the high ground and see the hills beyond the arm of the lake.”
A Moveable Feast, p. 91.
Hemingway would often write in the weather as it was outside his door.
“Remember to get the weather in your god damn book—weather is very
He did not encourage the use of fancy punctuation. He recommended a writer use the regular tools and do it better than anyone else before they start branching out into other techniques:
“My attitude toward punctuation is that it ought to be as conventional as possible. The game of golf would lose a good deal if croquet mallets and billiard cues were allowed on the putting green.”
Letter to Horace Liveright, 1925.
Selected Letters, p. 101.
On the use of dictionaries: “If a writer needs a dictionary he should not write … There are only certain words which are valid and similes (bring me my dictionary) are like defective ammunition (the lowest thing I can think of at this time).
Letter to Bernard Berenson, 1953.
Selected Letters, p. 809.
Hemingway made up his stories as he went along. In his working habits, he wrote from nine in the morning until about two in the afternoon, except in summer, when it was too hot and he went fishing. He always stopped when the going was good and he knew what was going to happen next. That way, he had something to pick up on the next day.
Hemingway advised writing as well as you can and finishing what you start. He suggested always re-reading what you have already written:
“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 one piece. And remember to stop when you are still going good. That keeps it moving instead of having it die whenever you go on and write yourself out. When you do that you find that the next day you are pooped and can’t go on.”
By-Line: Ernest Hemingway, p. 217.
He recommended giving your writing a cooling off period before tackling the re-writing. The longer you stay away from it, the better:
“I want to make sure that I leave it alone long enough so I can find the places where I get the kick when writing it and neglect to convey it to the reader.”
Letter to Maxwell Perkins, 1928.
Selected Letters, p. 285.
He notes that learning to write is a process. He suggested beginning writers use a typewriter [that would mean a computer today] and get right to it. But for serious writers who have been developing their craft, he suggests a slower route to the final draft:
“ 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 that you can better it easier.”
By-Line: Ernest Hemingway, p. 216.
On a daily word count, this is what Hemingway had to say:
“… I found that 400 to 600 words well done was a pace I could hold much better. I was always happy with that number. But if I only had 320 I felt good.”
Letter to Maxwell Perkins, 1944.
Selected Letters, p. 557.
Hemingway had a reputation as a drinker. But when it came to his writing, he was strict:
“My training was never to drink after dinner nor before I wrote nor while I was working.”
A Moveable Feast, p. 174.
Hemingway recommends that the setting be true but that the characters be fictional. When he started writing short stories, he wrote about actual events and two of his stories hurt people. Later, he only wrote about people he had completely lost respect for. But even then, he tried to give them a fair shake. He also suggested that your story be about something that could actually happen:
“Invention is the finest thing, but you cannot invent anything that would not actually happen. That is what we are supposed to do when we are at our best—make it up—but make it up so truly that later it will happen that way.”
Letter to F. Scott Fitzgerald, 1934.
Selected Letters, p. 407.
He suggests getting your characters right by making them living people and not moulding them according to any clichés that might be implied by their politics:
“If you get a noble communist, remember the bastard probably masturbates and is jealous as a cat. Keep them people, people, people, and don’t let them get to be symbols.”
Letter to John Dos Passos, 1932.
Selected Letters, p. 354.
What to Leave Out:
Hemingway stresses the importance of knowing what you are writing about, of having a deep understanding of the topic. Then, the trick is to figure out what to leave out, but at the same time leave enough in so the story is fully fleshed out for your reader.
“I write one page of masterpiece and ninety-nine pages of shit. I try to put the shit in the wastebasket.”
To F. Scott Fitzgerald, 1934.
Selected Letters, p. 405.
“All the stories from the fishing village I leave out. The knowledge is what makes the underwater part of the iceberg.”
GEORGE PLIMPTON “An Interview with Ernest Hemingway”
The Paris Review 18, Spring 1958.
“If a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of the movement of an iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water. A writer who omits things because he does not know them only makes hollow places in his writing.”
Hemingway also suggests paring down your writing:
“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.”
Letter to Maxwell Perkins, 1945
Selected Letters, p. 594.
Hemingway could be harsh on weak writers. Nevertheless, it is important to cut out the cute parts, the flowery parts, and what Hemingway refers to as ‘crap.’
“I keep it under control so as not to have to cut out crap and re-write. Guys who think they are geniuses because they have never learned how to say no to a typewriter are a common phenomenon. All you have to do is get a phony style and you can write any amount of words.”
Letter to Maxwell Perkins, 1940.
Selected Letters, pp. 648-649.
The Use of Obscenity
Hemingway suggests never using slang in narrative, only in dialogue. When he uses swear words, he makes sure they are words that have been used ‘for a thousand years’. Using contemporary slang or swear words soon makes the writing go sour. He suggests never using a word to shock, but rather using your own good taste and judgement. Think about whether a word can be replaced and still have the same effect. Think about whether these words are part of the vocabulary of the time and place your story is set in.
“I try to get the feeling by the use of two or three words, not using them directly, but indirectly … to make a point … My use of words which have been eliminated from writing but which persist in speech has nothing to do with the small boy chalking newly discovered words on fences … I always used them sparingly and never to give gratuitous shock.”
Letter to Everett R. Perry, 1933
Selected Letters, pp. 380 and 381.
Opinions on Other Writers
Hemingway had a long list of writers he both learned from and wanted to best. The list in Ernest Hemingway on Writing is not conclusive. Nevertheless, the writers mentioned in this book are as follows:
Tolstoy; Flaubert; Thomas Mann; James Joyce; Henry Fielding; Dostoevsky; Turgenev, and Mark Twain.
He names Huckleberry Finn as “the best book America has had.”
He names Fathers and Sons as one of the best novels ever written.
Hemingway suggests that a writer must have suffered much to write humour. He also has an interesting take on how it is received by the critics:
“The bastards [critics] don’t want you to joke because it disturbs their categories.”
Letter to Arnold Gingrich, 1933
Selected Letters, p. 385.