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Hemingway’s advice to writers

While I’m writing the Writing Trouble book, I’m surrounded by some of my favourite texts about writing. None of them have all the answers, but there are some nuggets I’d love to share with you.

First up, journalist, novelist, and Nobel Prize for Literature winner, Ernest Hemingway.

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Ernest Hemingway is famous for his economical and understated style (hence the Hemingway Editor app which promises to ‘make your writing bold and clear’ by encouraging simple, direct, short sentences). He is also famous for his adventures, and his novels of men ‘his novels of men boxing, bullfighting, hunting giant fish, and battling each other in war‘. So, apparently a pretty tough guy.

And yet, his Nobel Prize recognises his influence on other writers and his insight into men’s minds and hearts–and that included his own. Hemingway is one of the most insightful and encouraging authorities on how to write.

‘I loved to write very much and was never happier than doing it,’ he claimed in 1944 (all the quotes in this article are from Ernest Hemingway on Writing). 

But, he didn’t think that meant tying yourself to a desk and write all day until you and the writing are exhausted. That makes it too hard to come back and do it again. Always ‘stop when you are going good and when you know what will happen next … and you will never be stuck’.

Ernest Hemingway said this was his most important advice:

And remember to stop while you are still going good. That keeps it moving instead of having it die whether 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.
Ernest Hemingway on Writing, p.45.

And he was speaking from experience, he went through a stage of getting up and writing from 2am till dawn producing 1000-2000 words a day, but started to feel ‘the real old melancholia’.

So he got back on his boat and found:

It is better to produce half as much, get plenty of exercise and not go crazy. (p. 56)

Hemingway found that about 500 good words a day was a pace he, like most people, could maintain.

That didn’t mean he thought once he’d written his 400-600 good words, he was done with them. He liked to write in pencil for his first draft so that he had plenty of chances to adjust and improve it.

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Hemingway is often credited with other writing advice, which isn’t actually his.

He didn’t say ‘The first draft of anything is shit’, though it is often attributed to him. (I did a full trawl of his full published writings, papers and letters. Having a Phd in Literature is useful sometimes. And Quote Investigator finds another possible source, that wasn’t really Hemingway.) While that advice wasn’t from Hemingway, it is from the incomparable Anne Lamott in Bird by Bird, which  is amazing and which you should go and read now if you haven’t already read it.

Nor did Hemingway say,  ‘Write drunk, edit sober’. Instead he says in A Moveable Feast:

my training was never to drink after dinner nor before I wrote nor while I was writing (p.61).

He was definitely a fan of a whiskey and soda after a writing day though!

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So there you go, some potted classic advice to writers!

 

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