by August Wainwright on May 9, 2013
Today we have six tips on how to write better fiction from Ernest Hemingway. Learn how to write a more true book from one of the greatest American writers of all time.
Write short sentences
Hemingway is famous for his short, straightforward sentences that get rid of unnecessary descriptive words for a more concise, minimalistic style of writing.
There are two famous examples of Hemingway’s feelings towards short, minimalistic writing:
The first is the “For sale: baby shoes, never worn” incident. The story goes that Hemingway was at lunch with a group of other writers and bet them each ten dollars that he could craft an entire novel in six words. After all the money is collected, Hemingway grabs a napkin and writes:
For sale: baby shoes, never worn
The napkin is passed around, then Hemingway collects his winnings. It’s been disputed whether or not this is a real story, but, regardless, the point is still clear.
The other example of Hemingway defending shorter sentences and shorter writing was in a 1945 letter to his editor where he wrote:
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.
So be more like Hemingway and write shorter, more deliberate sentences, because ultimately, what you’re attempting to accomplish is to…
Remove unnecessary bullshit
One of Hemingway’s reasons for writing shorter sentences (and shorter books in general) was to eliminate the unnecessary bullshit that littered the books of other authors.
It comes back to the idea that:
Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.
Your writing should convey a specific message or idea, and everything that tears the reader away from the main focus of the writing should be removed.
One of the ways in which Hemingway was able to remove the unnecessary from his writing was to…
Write drunk; Edit sober
Although Hemingway was known for his reliance on alcohol, the actual drinking isn’t necessary for this to work.
The point here is to allow both of your two competing inner voices to thrive when it’s appropriate. For the most part, your writing should be a passionate explosion, an artistic outburst of what you want to say. Let things flow, just get it out. Don’t worry about editing while writing; your goal here is to let the emotion spill onto the page. Be drunk, be dangerous, be vulgar, be whatever you need to be to get your words out.
Then, and only then, should you come back to the writing with a more strict plan of how you want the end-product to look. This other side of you should be disciplined; look for everything that isn’t necessary to the overall plot and cut it down; don’t hold back, be tough on the drunk writer. Besides, that person is a vulgar, dangerous jackass that says whatever pops into his/her head.
Hemingway once told F. Scott Fitzgerald:
I write one page of masterpiece to ninety-one pages of shit. I try to put the shit in the wastebasket.
That’s probably true for all writers, whether we want to believe it or not.
Don’t describe emotions, make readers feel them
This is a difficult one for most writers. The ides goes back to the fact that you don’t want to tell readers what to do; you want to present them with the circumstances that allow them to come up with their own emotions and feelings towards your writing.
Do it well and readers will feel exactly what you want them to.
Hemingway once noted that “close observation of life is critical to good writing.” Instead of saying how a character feels about an event, instead think back to a time where you felt the same emotion that your character is supposed to feel. Now describe the things that made you feel that way. What were the sights and smells? What did you hear? Did you want to scream or hide in a hole in the ground?
If you can paint the picture accurately, it’s much more likely your reader will feel the same emotions you felt.
The other positive to this style of writing is that you leave a little open to interpretation. Don’t force-feed your readers; let them make their own decisions and they’ll have a much deeper emotional attachment to your writing.
Walk away from your work
After you’ve written the first draft and after you’ve gone through multiple edits, you need to walk away from the work and let it ferment. Don’t look at it for a few weeks – the longer you wait the better.
Let yourself forget the intricacies of the story that you’ve become familiar with. Come back to it with a completely fresh mindset; try to consume it now as a reader, not a writer.
You’ll more than likely be blown away with what you find. Errors and plot-holes will be horrifically obvious (and you’ll wonder why you ever thought writing was a good idea in the first place), but you’ll also find little bits that are surprisingly good, parts that you didn’t even notice during the first few reads.
After this read, go through and try to remove anything that isn’t necessary… again.
Hemingway was obsessed with being true to your writing. All most all of his works come down to this one premise. A few of his quotes on “true”:
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.
And from ‘For Whom The Bell Tolls”:
There’s no one thing that’s true. It’s all true.
Easier said than done right?
What Hemingway sought and what he dubbed as “true” boils down to focus, insight, and passion. If you go into a book trying to copy someone else or monetize a niche or make money, you’re going to fail. I wrote about the idea of passion vs. the pursuit of money in ‘The Reasons Behind the Writing‘.
Set out with the mindset of trying to say something passionate, something that matters to you. Fight for that first “true” sentence, then move forward from there.
So remember, BE TRUE. Never forget why you write and who you write for. If you keep that at the forefront, the readers, and if you’re lucky, the income, will come.
Let me know your thoughts. Any tips on writing better fiction? Leave a comment below.