In his book Ernest Hemingway on Writing, Larry W. Phillips does a wonderful job of collecting the great author’s thoughts on the field of writing. Phillips draws from various sources including personal letters, books, novels, essays, commissioned articles, and interviews. Sectioning our post in the same way Phillips did with his book, let’s try to summarize some of Hemingway’s most interesting ideas on the topic.
What Writing Is and Does
• Good books are all alike in the sense that they feel true. Communicating genuine experiences to the reader is essential. It’s the writer’s job to convey to the reader feelings, sensations, and even the weather, as he narrates the experience he’s writing about.
• Literature is, after all, poetry written in prose and it should read like that.
• Good books may be reread as many times as the reader wishes: they never lose their mystery, there’s always something new to learn.
The Qualities of a Writer
• Writers need the talent of a Kipling and the discipline of a Flaubert. They also must be intelligent, honest, and disinterested.
• Writers must be able to detect anything that doesn’t sound genuine in their texts. Their minds need to work as radars to avoid artificiality.
• To write novels, writers need to have an inbuilt sense of justice and injustice. Otherwise, they had better be doing something else.
• Writers need to be fast learners. Knowledge of the world is an essential tool for this job.
The Pain and Pleasure of Writing
• You write for two people basically: for yourself (and you need to make it perfect) and for the person you love, so they can read it and share the experience.
• Hemingway says he never suffered when he wrote. He felt empty and horrible when he was not writing. This is the opposite experience of many other writers, as you probably know.
• Writing is a difficult and challenging process, yet, so rewarding. It’s a disease some people are born with.
• Sometimes a writer will need to reread something good he has written in the past to convince himself he can still do it, and then, will continue writing.
• Writing is an obsession. Maybe a vice.
• There are no rules to writing: it may come easily sometimes, and at other times it can seem almost impossible.
What to Write About
• Don’t write about your personal tragedies: nobody really cares about them. But you can use your hurt feelings to convey truth in what you are writing.
• A man has to have suffered a lot to write a really funny book.
• Writers should stick to what they know profoundly.
• Readers expect the writer to repeat the same story every time they pick up one of their new books. Don’t do that: the new book is not going to be as popular at the last.
• War is a good subject. Experiencing war can teach writers a lot. Some are jealous because, never having taken part in a war, they can’t write about it firsthand. Other good topics are love, money, avarice, and murder.
Advice to Writers
• At the beginning of your text, write one true sentence. The rest will stem from that.
• Write about what you really feel, not what you are supposed to feel. Only real emotions count.
• Remember the details of the experience that inspires you in order to pass on to the reader real feelings and sensations. Readers should relive your excitement.
• Listen carefully and actively when you talk to people, so you can understand their perspective and use it in your writing. Learn to put yourself in other people’s shoes.
• Hone your observational skills.
• To be truthful, you can’t put only what is beautiful in a novel. You need to add the ugly and the bad.
• Distrust adjectives.
• Write like Cézanne painted: Start with all the tricks and then get rid of all the artifice and bare the truth.
• As you are writing, stop when it’s going well. So the next day you feel energized about the task and pick it up knowing where you are going.
• When you are not writing, don’t think about it, try not to worry about your novel; do something physical or read other books. Let your subconscious work on it.
• Every time you start writing, reread everything you have written so far. When it begins to take too long to cover all the written passages, reread only the last few chapters.
• After writing a novel, give it a couple of months before you start rewriting it. Let it cool off. So it looks and feels fresh in your mind when you go back to it.
• Hemingway needed to be left completely alone to focus on his writing. He said writing, at its best, is a lonely life.
• Hemingway refused to write about living people. He didn’t wish to hurt anyone. Unless he deliberately wanted to.
• Use what you know as well as other people’s experiences to write fiction, but don’t make them recognizable. Invent it.
• Let people be people, don’t turn them into symbols.
Knowing what to leave out
• Hemingway compares writing to an iceberg: only the tip shows, but the underwater part is the knowledge the author has about what he’s writing, and it matters.
• Avoid slang (except if it’s needed in dialogue).
• Only use profanity that has existed for 1000 years. It may go out of fashion fast.
• Don’t use profanity merely for its shock value. Make sure it’s really necessary.
• It takes time to find a good title.
• A great number of good titles comes from the Bible, but they have all been taken.
• Other writers can teach you a lot.
• A selection of books every writer should read: War and Peace and Anna Karenina (Tolstoy); Madame Bovary (Flaubert); Buddenbrooks (Thomas Mann); Dubliners (Joyce); Tom Jones (Fielding); The Brothers Karamazov (Dostoevsky); Huckleberry Finn (Mark Twain); The Turn of the Screw (Henry James)…
• Authors should write what has not been written before or try to beat dead men (which means: write better than former writers on a certain subject).
• Hemingway thought War and Peace was the best book ever written, but that it would have been even better had Turgenieff written it.
• Do not follow the political fashions of your time. They are temporary and will wear off soon.
• There is no left and right in writing: only good and bad writing.
• Patriotism does not make good writing either.
• Don’t write about social classes you don’t belong to or don’t know deeply about.
• Writing about politics may get you a good job in government but it won’t make you a great author.
The Writer’s Life
• Writing is more exciting than the money you make from it.
• When writers make a lot of money, they get used to an expensive lifestyle and have to carry on making money to sustain it. That’s when they compromise.
• Good writers don’t keep their eyes on the market.
• Publicity, admiration, adulation or being fashionable aren’t worth it.
• Writers should be judged on the merit of their writing and not on their personal lives.
• Critics have no right to invade the writer’s personal life and expose it.
• Critics will find hidden symbols and metaphors in a text when they are simply what they are.
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