Ernest Hemingway might just be the most imitated writer of the past hundred years. His signature bare-bones style has gone on to inform pretty much every aspect of what we consider best practice in modern writing, and he’s been explicitly cited by writers including Stephen King, Raymond Carver, Ray Bradbury, and dozens of others. Hell, there’s even a word processor named after him.
While Hemingway has fallen out of fashion recently (thanks in part to his rather uneven output and his tendency to erase women from his books), there’s still an awful lot Hemingway can teach us about writing good fiction. And he shouldn’t be ignored; this, after all, is the man who gave us the perfect ending in A Farewell to Arms and the man/fish conflict we didn’t know we needed in The Old Man and the Sea.
So what exactly should we be plucking from Hemingway’s methodology and what should we leave behind? Let’s have a look…
Forget yourself and listen
While Hemingway certainly poured his own experiences into his fiction, he was staunchly opposed to egocentric or even introspective narration in fiction. It is this impulse that contributed to his bare, journalistic, and overtly ‘masculine’ style, but more than that it helped Hemingway’s plots, scenarios, and interactions feel real, human, and poignant. If a writer is to write convincingly, Hemingway suggests, they must forget themselves.
Listen now. When people talk listen completely. Don’t be thinking what you’re going to say. Most people never listen. Nor do they observe. You should be able to go into a room and when you come out know everything that you saw there and not only that. If that room gave you any feeling you should know exactly what it was that gave you that feeling. Try that for practice. When you’re in town stand outside the theatre and see how the people differ in the way they get out of taxis or motor cars. There are a thousand ways to practice. And always think of other people.
– Ernest Hemingway, By-Line Ernest Hemingway
The power of observation as something that informs research has since been reiterated by writers such as Zadie Smith and David Foster Wallace (indeed, his essay ‘E Unibus Pluram’ is all about the complicated relationship writers have with the act of observation), and Hemingway’s own brand of active, pre-TV observation is central to his method and his mission. For Hemingway, fiction has to be real – characters must be people, locales must be realistic, and drama has to be human. The best way to make sure that this is the case is to let your fiction be directly informed by the real world and the people acting within it.If a writer is to write convincingly, Hemingway suggests, they must forget themselves.Click To Tweet
Put aside the cliché of the writer as an introspective romantic pouring their soul out onto the page; instead, let your experiences and observations inform your characters’ actions, conversations, and confrontations.
Go beyond the beautiful
Hemingway is much more of a John Clare than he is a William Wordsworth; that is, he’s concerned with the whole world, not just the pretty parts. Where Wordsworth drew picture frames around daffodils and sunny hillsides, Clare dug down into the mud and the filth and the badgers and found value there. Hemingway would have been right by his side.
Hemingway’s determination to capture humanity warts and all is partly related to the importance he placed in capturing realistic human moments. He claimed that he wanted his work to relive moments rather than simply describe them, so that…
…when you have read something by me you actually experience the thing. You can’t do this without putting in the bad and the ugly as well as what is beautiful. Because if it is all beautiful you can’t believe in it.
– Ernest Hemingway, Selected Letters
This is especially true of characters. There are too many perfect, sweet, compassionate protagonists out there, but very few such people in the actual real world. People have flaws, and for your characters to be engaging, convincing, and memorable, they’re going to have to have some ugliness about them. Which leads me into Hemingway’s next point…Hemingway wanted his work to relive moments rather than simply describe them. Click To Tweet
Write people, not characters
Hemingway was not a fan of allegory, and he hated novelists who either inserted themselves into their stories as barely disguised avatars or who used characters as explicit symbols to communicate a particular political opinion or worldview. He was not one for ragged-trousered philanthropists; rather, he wanted imperfect, selfish, genuine people populating his books. Consider what may be my favorite Hemingway quote of all time, taken from a letter he wrote to John Dos Passos:
If you get a noble communist remember the bastard probably masturbates and is jallous as a cat. Keep them people, people, people, and don’t let them get to be symbols. Remember the race is older than the economic system…
– Ernest Hemingway, Selected Letters
Beyond teaching us that cats were considered jealous creatures in the 1930s, Hemingway here makes an important point in that final sentence: humanity is older than any political movement or philosophical theory, and so the most resonant fiction will always focus on humanity itself. Of course, humanity ages too – indeed, many of Hemingway’s own human interactions seem rather quaint and outdated by modern standards (his men, for instance, are all strong, silent alcoholics who spend half their time getting in fights). But the core lesson – that your noble communist (or wicked villain or greedy banker etc.) should be more than just that – rings true.
No article on Hemingway’s writing style would be worth its salt without mentioning his penchant for brief, concise expression. Hemingway’s famed brevity succeeds because it shows that Hemingway trusts the reader to put two and two together. He recognizes that contextual cues are often enough for the reader to be able to read between the lines and form their own vibrant interpretation of the plot and interpersonal drama. This means it’s entirely possible for one reader to consider Frederic and Catherine’s love in A Farewell to Arms pure and beautiful and tragic and for another to consider it the most grotesque and mercantile relationship ever captured in English.
Hemingway justified his conciseness in his famous iceberg allegory, mentioned briefly here:
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 movement of an ice-berg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water.
– Ernest Hemingway, Death in the Afternoon
It is partly Hemingway’s fault that ‘show, don’t tell’ as a tenet has become so universally accepted. After all, Hemingway tends to focus on the actions, settings, and outer circumstances of his stories far more than he does his characters’ feelings. Nothing is explained, and everything is self-evident.If a writer understands their subject well enough, direct explanation becomes superfluous.Click To Tweet
Of course, there’s more to Hemingway’s method than simply cutting back on words. You have to know what to take and what to leave, which is something you learn (according to Hemingway) by observing, listening, and reading.
Write what you know
There’s a reason Hemingway’s books tend to be about war, drinking, fishing, and bullfighting: these are all things he knew and had personal experience in. The ‘write what you know’ tenet makes a lot of sense once you consider Hemingway’s other mission statements: that is, crafting genuine, real human dramas and communicating ageless human tendencies. After all, for a story to feel genuine, a writer must be confident and authoritative, which means you’ve probably got to know what you’re talking about.
A good writer should know as near everything as possible. Naturally he will not. A great enough writer seems to be born with knowledge. But he really is not; he has only been born with the ability to learn in a quicker ratio to the passage of time than other men and without conscious application, and with an intelligence to accept or reject what is already presented as knowledge.
– Ernest Hemingway, Death in the Afternoon
Outlining thoughts that would be echoed later on by Jennifer Egan, Hemingway realized that the more you know, the broader the scope of things you can write authoritatively (and thus dramatically) about. Of course, that doesn’t mean you should cram your novel full of research for the sake of it; this kind of self-conscious desire to be seen as authoritative or educated makes you, according to Hemingway, a ‘popinjay’. Charming.
Instead, use your own knowledge and your own experiences to inform the story and the human drama unfolding within. Know what your knowledge is doing, and never be afraid to cut if you suspect yourself of overstuffing your story. Remember: include only what serves the story.
The end of something
For all his many successes, Hemingway wasn’t a relentlessly consistent writer; he was, like his characters, flawed in many respects, and there’s a reason we never hear about Across the River and into the Trees. That said, he was one of the most important stylists of the past century, and when he wasn’t producing his own literary masterpieces, he was writing fantastic letters to inspire his literary friends. Let’s end on a characteristically to-the-point piece of advice Hemingway gave to his good friend F. Scott Fitzgerald:
You just have to go on when it is worst and most helpless – there is only one thing to do with a novel and that is go straight on through to the end of the damn thing.
– Ernest Hemingway, Selected Letters
That, if nothing else, is something we could all stand to bear in mind.
Which is your favorite of Ernest Hemingway’s novels? What lessons did you personally glean from his work? Let us know in the comments. Or, for more advice from the literary greats, check out 7 Ways William Faulkner Can Help You Improve Your Writing and Advice from Kurt Vonnegut that Every Writer Needs to Read.
13 thoughts on “5 Ways Ernest Hemingway Can Help You Improve Your Writing”
Yes, Ernest Hemingway should not be forgotten. This article was great! It explained a lot of information that I could definitely use in future fiction writing. Thank you!!!!
So glad you enjoyed the post. Thanks for your comment!
This has been very helpful. Hemingway was remarkable. Thank you.
I’m glad you found the article useful! Thanks for your comments.
Very well done. As a former journalist myself who got started at the same place Hemingway did (The Kansas City Star), journalism was a great teacher. Hemingway always said everything he learned or needed t know about writing he learned from the Kansas City Star style sheet. Lot’s of truth in that. He is so right about listening. When you are doing the talking, you are not learning anything. It is an axiom I always followed as the journalist and that I still follow today as a novelist.
What a great bit piece of shared history! I’d love to get my hands on that style sheet. You’ve chosen a great writer to follow, and I’m glad you found these tips helpful.
I remember, as a young man, discovering Hemingway. I was blown away, until I came to Across the River and Into the Trees. I couldn’t believe how little was there. Hemingway looks so simple, anybody can do it, but few can, and sometimes, Hemingway couldn’t, either.
I had a similar progression – I read A Farewell to Arms and The Sun Also Rises and came to expect that quality from everything Hemingway wrote. Frankly it’s reassuring to see that even he had his off days!
Thanks for reading.
Your newsletters are always so timely. I was about to wax poetic in one scene, and I just read your sign post at the crossroad; Stop! signed Hemingway.
Glad Hemingway could run in and help you out when you needed him most!
Best of luck with your writing.
Thank you for this informative article. There is so much more to write about Ernest Hemmingway. I read somewhere that he sat in coffee bars and wrote a paragraph at a time to help him focus his concentration. Hemmingway was the first adult novelist I read (aged 16 years). He inspired me to write creatively because of his minimalist descriptions. I think he tells, rather than shows, which was for decades, contrary to the guidance for writers. That may be changing….
You’re right that there’s more to write about Hemingway – whole dissertations, theses, and books in fact! I’m glad you found inspiration in his writing and that you found this post helpful. Thanks for your comment!
My strongest ability is in writing dialogue, which I learned how to do by reading Hemingway, especially “The Sun Also Rises.” The way he encapsulated what the whole book was about in that one remark of Lady Brett’s “Don’t we pay for all the things we do, though” – was perfect. His hatred of the over-use of adjectives also taught me to rein in my natural tendency towards convoluted writing, and helped make it so tight it squeaked!