How to Write Better Prose According to Ernest Hemingway

by August Wainwright on May 9, 2013

How to Write Better According to Ernest Hemingway by August Wainwright

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.

Be true


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.

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15 comments

As a rule (in my experience), there’s not much meat on articles outlining “rules” for writing success. This one, however, is an outstanding exception. I particularly admire this one…

“Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.”

…and try to instill that admiration in my editing clients, as well. Thanks for presenting these writing principles so clearly and well. I’m always glad to see a column from you in my feed reader.

by Bridget McKenna on May 9, 2013 at 8:50 pm. Reply #

Thanks Bridget. Glad you enjoyed it.

by August Wainwright on May 9, 2013 at 10:24 pm. Reply #

I think it is fantastic that you wrote a post about the craft of writing. I don’t come across many good blogs that discuss the craft without regurgitating the same technical facts that everyone already knows. We read and write to provoke an emotional experience, and I think including needless descriptive shit in prose is a good way to hinder that. As someone who is an inexperienced and beginning writer, I fully agree that for every paragraph of good writing I create, I create a full length novel of shit. That be as it may, I still persist in my journey of creating quality stories that not only my audience would read, but that I would read myself and thoroughly enjoy. This is a wonderful post. Keep them coming. Beginners like me need the good advice.

by Van on May 10, 2013 at 8:36 am. Reply #

Thanks Van.

I think most of this comes down to the “strategy vs. tactics” argument. Strategy seems to be the things that are obvious, and yet people (authors) don’t usually do; tactics would be everything that is unnecessary but is escalated to the forefront.

So strategy would say: write simple prose, get rid of the crap, paint a picture – don’t instruct the reader, edit, edit again, and then start from the beginning with a new book.

The tactics approach is: race to 10k twitter followers, spam the crap out of everybody on every social media outlet because the more people that know your book is out the more that will buy it, and find ways to tilt the system in your favor.

But it always comes down to what you said: “creating quality stories that not only my audience would read, but that I would read myself…”

by August Wainwright on May 10, 2013 at 1:22 pm. Reply #

In the end, all I can hope for is that some day, someone will think highly enough of my work to discuss it in an article about good writing.

I believe you have a chance at that. Thank you J.A. Konrath for linking to your article couple of weeks ago. You are truly a talented individual.

Ass kissing complete! Back to work!

by JH Glaze on May 17, 2013 at 7:10 am. Reply #

Wow, that’s some professional-grade ego stroking, sir. Especially considering my first book isn’t out until Monday.

But, I’ll take it and say thank you. Here’s to you Mr. Glaze.

by August Wainwright on May 17, 2013 at 7:42 am. Reply #

lovely article. Thanks for sharing. I must agree, as a reader, I enjoy concise sentences a lot more than superfluous ones m(or maybe that’s just my reading style, lol). Nevertheless, this article contains a lot of good points/

by tina on May 26, 2013 at 4:59 am. Reply #

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by How to Write Better Prose According to Ernest Hemingway | SpicaBookDesign on May 26, 2013 at 11:09 am. Reply #

I’ve focused on writing tight; not an easy feat in romance. :) Great article. Love Hemingway and this article. Good luck with sales.

by Jolyse Barnett on May 26, 2013 at 1:19 pm. Reply #

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by Valuable writing tips from one of the Masters | Cubbys Corner on May 27, 2013 at 6:51 pm. Reply #

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by What Is Good Quality Content? An Executive Perspective | Engaged Leadership on June 6, 2013 at 12:31 pm. Reply #

All my life was spent in the artistic world. The writing I hid. ‘Closet Writer.’ I had always thought it was I pursuing the writing. It had been the writing pursing me. I simply had to grow into it. Life times jingle and rattle my brain. I was told early last year, ‘because you write short story’s, prose and a tad of poetry; and you say you have four novels going ~ you can’t do it all! You must settle on one.’ Can’t do it, tried and failed. I refuse to write anything; in any other ‘form’ than my own. That is the quest I believe of any writer. Hemmingway was never anything but his own man, in deeds and words. I have been many women; true to one. It is she who tells story’s for silence voices; be it poetry, prose, short story’s and what she loves most; novels.

by Rachealgrace Adams on July 4, 2013 at 11:21 am. Reply #

Thanks for posting this article. Heard Hemingway long time ago, never really knew how great he was. Recently, I watched a movie called Midnight in Paris, by Woody Allen, that’s how I became intrigued by Hemingway, then I saw Hemingway & Gellhorn, now I’m obsessed with Hemingway. He’s truly one of the greatest if not the greatest writer that ever lived.

by Danya on July 28, 2013 at 5:08 am. Reply #

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by Self-Publishing: Carnival of the Indies Issue #32 — The Book Designer on December 20, 2013 at 10:59 pm. Reply #

Very useful advice. I particularly like the injunction to write drunk and edit sober. I’ve been trying it the other way round which definitely doesn’t work!

by Simon R. Gladdish on February 24, 2014 at 6:05 am. Reply #

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