Hemingway never published advice for aspiring writers, but he spoke or wrote enough about writing that Larry W. Phillips was able to edit a collection of his reflections on the craft. (Ernest Hemingway on Writing)
In the preface, Phillips writes, “Throughout Hemingway’s career as a writer, he maintained that it was bad luck to talk about writing—that it takes off ‘whatever butterflies have on their wings and the arrangement of hawk’s feathers if you show it or talk about it.’ Despite this belief, by the end of his life he had done just what he intended not to do. In his novels and stories, in letters to editors, friends, fellow artists, and critics, in interviews and in commissioned articles on the subject, Hemingway wrote often about writing.”
Here’s one piece of advice I like:
Hemingway said to F. Scott Fitzgerald that, “I write one page of masterpiece to ninety-one pages of shit. I try to put the shit in the wastebasket.”
This nugget reminds me of a photography course I took many years ago with my wife. (She got an A while I received only a B. Darn. And we took pictures of the same subjects.) Anyway, the teacher told us if we wanted to build a reputation as good photographer, we should take lots and lots of pictures and throw all of the bad ones away. Simple … but expensive in the age of film photography. In the digital age, this advice has become cost free. If adhered to religiously, this technique allows a visual dufus like me to catch up with my wife.
Here are some more tips gleaned from Hemingway lifelong musings about writing.
- Use short sentences.
- Use short first paragraphs.
- Use vigorous English.
- Be positive, not negative.
- To get started, write one true sentence.
- Always stop for the day while you still know what will happen next.
- Never think about the story when you’re not working.
- Don’t describe an emotion–make it.
- Be Brief.
- The first draft of everything is shit.
- Prose is architecture, not interior decoration.
- Write drunk, edit sober.
If you’re inclined, there’s even an app that will measure your writing clarity against Hemingway. I’m not one for machine assisted writing tools, but at $9.99, this one seems inexpensive. I bought it and tried it out on this post. It received a “good” score. Ironically, the quote from Larry W. Phillips was highlighted as the least comprehensible.