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February 11, 2008

27 Secrets To Writing Like Hemingway

"There is nothing to writing" he wrote.  "All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed."

If that advice isn't giving you the breakthrough you're looking for, here are 27 other gems from Hemingway on writing:

#1  Start with the simplest things

#2  Boil it down

#3  Know what to leave out

#4  Write the tip of the ice-berg, leave the rest under the water

#5  Watch what happens today

#6  Write what you see

#7  Listen completely

#8  Write when there is something you know, and not before

#9  Look at words as if seeing them for the first time

#10  Use the most conventional punctuation you can

#11  Ditch the dictionary

#12  Distrust adjectives

#13  Learn to write a simple declarative sentence

#14  Tell a story in six words

#15  Write poetry into prose

#16  Read everything so you know what you need to beat

#17  Don't try to beat Shakespeare

#18  Accept that writing is something you can never do as well as it can be done

#19  Go fishing in summer

#20  Don't drink when you're writing

#21  Finish what you start

#22  Don't worry.  You've written before and you will write again

#23  Forget posterity.  Think only of writing truly

#24  Write as well as you can with no eye on the market

#25  Write clearly - and people will know if you are being true

#26  Just write the truest sentence that you know

#27  Remember that nobody really knows or understands the secret

I think one of the reasons we like these lists is not that we are looking to absorb all the advice - which probably wouldn't be possible, or advisable -  but because we subconsciously scan it, filter it, to find the one piece of advice we need right now. 

The bit of the jigsaw we were looking for.  The thing that'll help us take our writing to the next level.

I know there's one on this list that speaks most directly, most clearly, to me. 

If you had to select just one of these, which one would it be?  And how do you know?

This piece was inspired by Brian Clark's Magazine Headline Remix challenge - the Details edition. 

Writing from a headline is a great way to stretch and test your writing style - perfect if, like me, you're looking to take a leap with your writing.

The tips, suggestions, ideas and writing advice are culled from Ernest Hemingway On Writing, a selection of material from Hemingway articles, interviews, letters and books.

If you're looking for some help putting these tips into practice why not sign up for my mentoring programme?   I'm offering readers of Confident Writing  a 10% discount on my writing critiques and writing mentoring programmes during February.  Contact me if you're interested.

Joanna Young, The Confident Writing Coach
Because our words count


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Hi Joanna - these are brilliant tips for anyone wanting to improve their writing. I've stumbled the post, so hopefully you'll get a few wannabee Hemingway's on here.

Catherine, thanks, I felt there was a lot of great writing advice in here and I really enjoyed doing the research for the post. He had an incredible knack of boiling things down to the bare, most honest of essentials. Something to aspire to there.

Thanks for the stumble too, much appreciated.


Thanks Joanna-- great job.
Larry W. Phillips
("Ernest Hemingway On Writing")

Larry, thank you! The book's a great resource, I was really glad to find it and it to my collection.


These are all helpful tips (from my book, "Hemingway On Writing")-- but your readers should also read some Hemingway and ask themselves, "How did he REALLY do it?" (as they are reading, I mean, as they are looking at the page). For some of the things he ACTUALLY did, he never mentioned.
I'd like to write a book someday (and I may) about how he REALLY did it, and I think it might be somewhat different than the list above. (With some overlap, of course).
I'll just give a couple examples:

Hemingway once said that the Montparnasse area of Paris had grown "rich, prosperous, brightly lighted, dancinged, shredded-wheated... (and) grapenutted". (P.208, "Ernest Hemingway, A Life Story", by Carlos Baker)
[You have to LIKE words, in other words, and using them playfully is Okay)

Example: (From the short story "Cat in the Rain"):
"There were only two Americans stopping at the hotel. They did not know any of the people they passed on the stairs on their way to and from their room. Their room was on the second floor facing the sea. It also faced the public garden and the war monument. There were big palms and green benches in the public garden. In the good weather there was always an artist with his easel. Artists liked the way the palms grew and the bright colors of the hotels facing the gardens and the sea. Italians came from a long way off to look up at the war monument. It was made of bronze and glistened in the rain. It was raining. The rain dripped from the palm trees. Water stood in pools on the gravel paths."

And so on. I could list many others like this, but space doesn't permit here-- but the reader can see what I mean. Do your own research as you are reading, in other words, by asking yourself as you go along, "How is he DOING this...?"

Just my 2 cents....

Great blog, thanks--

Larry W. Phillips

Larry, that's great follow up advice, thank you. I think I'm going to haul it out of this box where it might not get noticed and highlight it tomorrow in a post.

I hope you write the book - I'll buy it for sure!


Thanks again, Joanna. I'll just make 2 final points if I may. It's not about writing "like" Hemingway (as of course your readers know)-- if we did that, it would just look like a poor copy of Hemingway's style. It's more about, What can I use out of this that I can fit into my own style? Or what is permissible--what boundaries can I push a little, as he did?
The second point: In my view the most important advice he gave is the stuff about "finding the thing that gave you the emotion". (In a scene, or an event). That's important and concrete advice for any writer-- because doing that, you transfer the feeling to the reader.
Finally, I did a companion book to this one called "F. Scott Fitzgerald On Writing", which, alas, is now out of print. That also had some interesting things in it about this subject, if any of your readers come across it.
Larry W. Phillips

Larry, I am learning a lot from you today, so yes of course you can make more points.

The one item on the list that speaks most powerfully to me is to write the truest sentence that you know. I often say that to myself when I get weary or can't find the words, or wonder why I'm writing, or feel I'm just mouthing the same old same old. That has the same effect for me as what you're describing - getting me to tap into my words, my knowledge, my experience, my style. Not copying but seeing how I can apply the learning.

The reason I liked your earlier point was similar - not that it would allow us to copy but being more focused and analytical, asking 'what exactly is going on here' shifts your perception, gets you digging deeper, seeing things differently, noticing what's possible.

Thanks for the conversation today, I've enjoyed it


Those tips are all so good it's hard to single one out. My favorites were 1, 8, and 26. Larry's making a good point about not trying to be "like" Hemingway. Even if a writer followed all 27 of Hemingway's suggestions, he wouldn't necessarily write anything like him.

Hi Brad-- yeah, you're right. If you followed all the 27 suggestions, you wouldn't be writing like Hemingway. In his (Hemingway's) mind these are tips by him to be applied to YOUR work. They are not tips on how to make your work look like HIS work. (I'm sure he could have written that book in his sleep-- "How to write like me"-- because he knew all the tricks.) The fact is, you COULD write like Hemingway if you decided to-- that is, if you looked at his work, tore it apart, studied the nuts and bolts of what he's doing, and then imitated it. But what reaction would you get from the reader by doing this? He'd just say: "Oh, I see you're trying to imitate Hemingway." This is all a long way of saying, pick and choose a couple of techniques he uses, and then add them to your own repertoire.
On the advice I mentioned (about "finding the thing that made the emotion"), that always struck me as most important.
For instance, tonight I'm going to a high school basketball game. I've been doing some writing about this subject lately, so when I'm there, I'll be looking for (as Hemingway put it) "the thing that makes the emotion". I have a good idea what it will be-- it'll probably be the squeak of the basketball shoes on the court, the bright lights mirrored in the ultra-polished floor, the air-horns going off, the cheerleaders going through their routines at double-time, the band, etc. But that's just a guess. I could be wrong. It's been awhile since I've been to one of these. But anyway, that's the sort of thing I'll be looking for.
Larry W. Phillips

@Brad, of course, you know I'd only ever want you to write like yourself. I hope there were enough pointers in the list (like the last one!) to keep people from going astray :-) I liked your selection - 26 is most definitely on my list.

@Larry, thanks for illustrating the point about looking for the thing that makes the emotion. Even just the few words that you've used here are enough to transport me to that place, which is a good reminder of how much you can do with the plainest of words.


I think number 26 is the one that does it for me - it's all about writing true to yourself, isn't it. By being authentically 'you' in whatever you do, you are sure to be an original.

Amy, it's the one that hits me too.

And I think there's something about finding the truth of the experience, the moment, the place, the emotion that is very powerful too - a bit like what Larry was describing above, looking for the thing that makes the emotion. When you write that - it communicates its own truth, and one that connects to your reader in a most compelling way.

As I write this I'm thinking about your photos of the peacock feathers.


There was something about those pictures that captured something essential, boiled down, truthful, Hemingway-esque. Or am I being fanciful?


You are welcome Joanna. I don't think anyone thought you meant that these tips would make them write like Hemmingway tho.

It's obvious it was just a figure of speech and you meant that by following them you can write as well as Hemmingway.

At least, I should imagine that was obvious to anyone reading.

Catherine, you are good for my writing confidence, thank you :-)

And thanks again for the stumble yesterday, you sent me a whole heap of wannabe Hemingways :-)


I'm not sure I want to be a Hemingway, but he certainly has a lot of great tips. I was never a fan of his writing, but you cannot deny he is a genius. I agree with what you said, many of the tips "spoke" to me.

Hi Deb, I'm glad you found some of the tips and suggestions of value.

I don't think I want to be a Hemingway either, but I'd love to get to the point where I know I can boil things down, get to the heart of the matter, capture the essence of a moment...

Which reminds me of #18 - there's always some way we can look to stretch and develop our writing, some other place we still want to go :-)


Thanks everyone-- it was a pleasure talking to you all and meeting you, if only in the blogsphere.
Larry W. Phillips

Hemingway was a master of not writing what the reader can figure out himself. "Hills Like White Elephants" is a prime example. The story is often what is NOT told. Regarding the 6-word story, Hemingway was once challenged to do live up to his own advice. His answer was as follows.

For sale: baby shoes, never used.


#24 speaks to where I live these days. Write as well as you can with no eye on the market. When I pull out notebooks and journals from years past when writing was not my profession, there is a purity and openness that is sometimes absent these days. I wrote with reckless abandon from the soul and heart because no one was reading. My passion for the written word has not changed but there is a new self consciousness that hinders my creativity. Thank you Joanna for always being a candle in the dark.


I think #18 is what stands out to me, Joanna, because no matter how good we write there will most always be someone somewhere who could have written it better. I believe we should only be the best we can be and not worry about being the best in the world. I'm sure many will disagree, but we'll save ourselves a lot of headaches this way. :-)


Larry, likewise, and thanks for taking the time to chat to us. I hope you've enjoyed reading and learning about the way some of us respond to Hemingways's ideas, and what a powerful effect they have on us.


David, thanks for sharing those examples. I guess it's a mixture of knowing what can be left unsaid and finding precisely the right words to tell enough, and let us figure out the rest.

As you probably know his 6 word story has inspired a mammoth writing project at Smith Magazine, with hundreds of readers sending in their 6 word stories. I'm enclosing the link in case anyone's interested in writing theirs...



Karen, your words to me demanded that I reply to every commenter one by one this morning, rather than bundling them up with @ replies. Reminding me that comments are often rich with significance and meaning for the person who writes them, and the person who receives them.

Thank you so much for what you've written here.

I look forward to following your journey to writing with reckless abandon, and please, do, let me know if ever I can help.


Hi Michele

I got the feeling from reading the book that Hemingway wanted to be the best in the world, to have the confidence to be a champion.

But I like you took the words a different way, as a challenge to be the best I can, but also offering a sense of relief, release, enjoyment from the acceptance that none of us will ever write just as well as it's possible to do.


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