Hemingway’s Best and Worst Advice

Hemingway is the kind of writer who stands over modern prose writing as a colossus of technique and style. For one’s writing to be considered ‘like Hemingway’s’ would be the ultimate compliment; this is what I’d always thought. I considered him a kind of dead-mentor – a wise writing legend to follow in my pursuit of writing knowledge. I often put his ‘iceberg theory’ to use in my own work, enjoying the understated nature of storytelling, something encapsulated in the art of minimalism.

I recently read A Farewell to Arms and felt so much emotion from the simple story. I then devoured Ernest Hemingway on Writing one day on the train, and found that the author behind the prose I loved so much was not entirely the writer I thought he was.

Hemingway books
A sea of Hemingway’s work – what’s not to love? Kyra Bandte explores the other side of a much-loved writer.
Image Credit: Robert Burdock via Flickr Creative Commons.

It was a shock to me to find that the writer that I had always looked up to, differed from my opinions in so many ways. Of course, this kind of disappointment is nothing new for any person, and of course it doesn’t diminish my enjoyment of Hemingway’s prose. But I had an urge to reveal this new Hemingway that I’d found, and so here is a run-down of his best and worst advice as found in Ernest Hemingway on Writing.

The Best Advice

Be humble:

Forget your personal tragedy. We are all bitched from the start and you especially have to be hurt like hell before you can write seriously. But when you get the damned hurt use it – don’t cheat with it. Be as faithful to it as a scientist – but don’t think anything is of any importance because it happens to you or anyone belonging to you

to F. Scott Fitzgerald, 1934

qtd. in On Writing, p19

As writers we must channel a range of emotions into words that compel readers to feel, but we have to stay grounded and level-headed in order to focus that feeling appropriately and effectively. We are not special snowflakes.

 Start truthfully:

…sometimes when I was starting a new story and I could not get it going, I would sit in front of the fire and squeeze the peel of the little oranges into the edge of the flame…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

A Moveable Feast

qtd. in On Writing, p28

Starting a story is usually the hardest part, but if we believe in our words and we begin with truth, we can create realistic worlds, characters, and emotions for our readers. Writing is about conviction, and truth is the most obvious place to start.

Determination is key:

You just have to go on when it is worst and most helpless – there is only one thing to do with a novel and that is go straight on through to the end of the damned thing

to F. Scott Fitzgerald, 1929

qtd. in On Writing, p45

Perseverance is so integral to being a writer, not just with novels but with any piece. The amount of short stories that I’ve got lying around in half-edited Word documents is ridiculous. But if you don’t finish them, all you’ve really got are half-arsed attempts at something good when your writing has the potential to be great. Laziness only lets yourself down.

Hemingway study
Step into Hemingway’s study…
Image Credit: Ola Christian Gundels via Flickr Creative Commons.

The Worst Advice

Similes and dictionaries:

If a writer needs a dictionary he should not write. He should have read the dictionary at least three times from beginning to end and then have loaned it to someone who needs it. There are only certain words which are valid and similes (bring me my dictionary) are like defective ammunition (the lowest thing I can think of at this time)

to Bernard Berenson 1953

qtd. in On Writing, p38

Seriously? When there’s a world of books out there (and you could drop dead at any moment) who’s got time to read the dictionary three times over? Also, similes are my writing’s bread and butter. They make me so happy to write and to read. There’s nothing low about a great simile!

The weather is everything:

Remember to get the weather in your god damned book – weather is very important

to John Dos Passos, 1932

qtd. in On Writing, p37

Is weather really that important? Most books I read, weather is just filler. Sometimes, yes, it serves a metaphorical purpose and sometimes it propels the action. But is seasonal change really a main priority when it comes to writing? I’m unconvinced.

Don’t teach:

Mice: That isn’t the way they teach you to write in college.

Y.C.: I don’t know about that. I never went to college. If any sonofabitch could write he wouldn’t have to teach writing in college

By Line: Ernest Hemingway

qtd. in On Writing, p135

Who the hell do you think you are? Get out.


Works Cited:

Hemingway, E 1999, Ernest Hemingway on Writing, Larry W. Phillips (ed.), Simon & Schuster, USA.

Kyra Thomsen

Kyra is a writer and editor from Wollongong. She works full-time as a content writer while reading on the train and drafting short fiction stories in her spare time. Kyra won the 2012 Questions Writing Prize and has been published in Kindling, Seizure Online, Space Place & Culture and Tide. She enjoys admiring her bookshelves, watching cheesy shows on Netflix, and browsing her Tumblr. You can learn more about Kyra's previous publications, plus find fortnightly posts, on her website: kyrathomsen.com.

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