Hemingway's no nonsense advice on how to write well

Ernest Hemingway was one of the greatest writers of the 20th century, winner of Nobel prize in Literature and the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

Here I’ve collected some quotes and advice about writing by Hemingway. Some popular but discredited ones, others not so common but still wise, giving a deep insight into his writing process.

First, let’s list the pieces of writing advice which Hemingway never gave:

  • The first draft of anything is shit

We’ve heard it countless times, but he never actually said it directly. https://quoteinvestigator.com/2015/09/20/draft/ https://www.huffpost.com/entry/more-stuff-hemingway-neve_b_7787746

The writing advice he actually gave:

  • In any art, you’re allowed to steal anything if you can make it better
  • The most important thing I’ve learned about writing is never write too much at a time… Never pump yourself dry. Leave a little for the next day. The main thing is to know when to stop.
  • Every day go back to the beginning and rewrite the whole thing and when it gets too long, read at least two or three chapters before you start to write and at least once a week go back to the start. That way you make it one piece.

There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed. — Ernest Hemingway

  • And when you go over it, cut out everything you can. The main thing is to know what to leave out. The way you tell whether you’re going good is by what you can throw away.
  • Don’t get discouraged because there’s a lot of mechanical work to writing. There is, and you can’t get out of it. I rewrote A Farewell to Arms at least fifty times.
  • You can’t. Sometimes you can go on writing for years before it shows. If a man’s got it in him, it will come out sometime. The only thing I can advise you is to keep on writing but it’s a damned tough racket.
  • When you start to write everybody is wishing you luck, but when you’re going good, they try to kill you. The only way you can ever stay on top is by writing good stuff.
hemingway on writing 1
  • 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.
  • I have to write to be happy whether I get paid for it or not.
  • Whatever success I have had has been through writing what I know about.
  • Sometimes when I was starting a new story and I could not get it going, I would..stand and look out over the roofs of Paris and think, “Do not worry. You have always written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.” So finally I would write one true sentence, and then go on from there. It was easy then because there was always one true sentence that I knew or had seen or had heard someone say.
  • Ordinarily, I never read anything before I write in the morning to try and bite on the old nail with no help, no influence, and no one giving you a wonderful example or sitting looking over your shoulder.
  • I think we should never be too pessimistic about what we know we have done well because we should have some reward and the only reward is that which is within ourselves… Publicity, admiration, adulation, or simply being fashionable are all worthless… You must be prepared to work always without applause.

In 1934, a young writer named Arnold Samuelson wanted to learn the priceless nuggets of good writing from Hemingway himself. His learnings were eventually published in a book after his death in “With Hemingway: A Year in Key West and Cuba”. This is the closest look on Hemingway’s process and psychology of writing there is. Many of the above-listed advice is from this book.

“Here’s a list of books any writer should have read as a part of his education… If you haven’t read these, you just aren’t educated. They represent different types of writing. Some may bore you, others might inspire you and others are so beautifully written they’ll make you feel it’s hopeless for you to try to write.”

hemingway on writing 2

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"Be so good they can't ignore you." - Steve Martin