NOW Ernest Hemingway Drops It: How To Be A Good Writer, Sense The Vengeance

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Ernest Hemingway never was one to beat about the bush. He was once asked to tell a story in six words, he wrote “For sale: baby shoes, never worn” and called it his best work. Here we have another renowned master of language, but in a completely different light to that of Georgie Orwell. It’s almost as if Hemingway took two of Orwell’s rules, and lived his life by them; Never use a long word where a short one will do, and if it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out. His work is THAT tight and in many ways simplistic, but still somehow wrought with the deftest emotion and meaning. Taken from A Death In The Afternoon, Hemingway explicates his style using “the Iceberg Theory”:

“If a writer of prose knows enough of what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an ice-berg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water. A writer who omits things because he does not know them only makes hollow places in his writing.”

In Fight Club Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt) is asked which celebrity he would fight, alive or dead, who’d be tough?, he replies ‘Hemingway’. Here is a hand-picked selection of juicy Hemingway wisdom, to act as guidance in your quest for the Nobel Prize in literature, or whatever:

  • “A good writer should know as near everything as possible.” When was the last time you read an Encyclopaedia/Wikipedia? This wholly relates to the Iceberg Theory mentioned above.
  • “I write one page of masterpiece to ninety one pages of shit,” he confided to F. Scott Fitzgerald in 1934. “I try to put the shit in the waste-basket.” Very similar to The Infinite Monkey Theorem, where monkey’s with typewriters will eventually produce Shakespeare. Pah. That aside, this is to say that not every word you write will be the best ones straight away, the crucial thing is to not let this deter you, and please refer to extreme Flaubert example below.
  • First, there must be talent, much talent. Talent such as Kipling (Rudyard, not the cake maker) had. Then there must be discipline. The discipline of Flaubert. The hardest thing, because time is so short, is for him to survive and get his work done.” Flaubert was a French writer considered among the greatest of the western novelists, an unshakeable perfectionist he was prone to locking himself away in complete solitude, sometimes for weeks on end in a bid to find the ‘right words’ and painfully arrange them in his ideal order. A prime example of an artist intent on letting the inspiration come to him, a tedious waiting game. Its no surprise his masterpiece Madame Bovary (an entry in the BBC list) took him five years to complete. One page of masterpiece to ninety pages of shit…at around 300 pages, that’s 300 pages of masterpiece, to 27,300 pages of shit. Blimey.
  • “Real seriousness in regard to writing being one of the two absolute necessities. The other, unfortunately, is talent.” No matter what happens, unflinching dedication is paramount! Sebastian Faulks wrote the latest Bond thriller ‘Devil May Care’ in just six weeks, which sounds like a very short time to churn out a novel. But to achieve such a goal, Faulks suggests writing a minimum of 2500 words a day, and taking no breaks for lunch if you can help it. [1] The Independent, 31st October 2010 And whilst Hemingway acknowledges a need for talent, it must be noted that practice does make perfect.
  • “When you first start writing stories in the first person, if the stories are made so real that people believe them, the people reading them nearly always think the stories really happened to you. This is natural because while you were making them up you had to make them happen to the person who was telling them. If you do this successfully enough, you make the person who is reading them believe that the things happened to him too.” This is the problem a lot of famous songwriters have in regards to fans searching for meaning in often empty lyrics. But naturally, if this does happen to you, you can only take it as a compliment and a significant indicator in the credibility of your work.

* Wisdom extracted from “Ernest Hemingway On Writing”.

Hemingway had 4 rules for writing, and they were those he was given as a cub reporter at the Kansas City Star in 1917, a time he spent sharing desks with another famous contributor Theodore Roosevelt. You’ll never guess who delivered the company newspapers as a little boy, only Walt Bloody Disney! Hemingway later called The Star’s famous style sheet “the best rules I ever learned for the business of writing.” Here they are in notoriously pithy glory:

1. Use short sentences.

I really want to be able to explain this and shed some much needed light on the complexity of this first rule. But I just can’t. Sorry.

2. Use short first paragraphs.

Again, words fail me. Looks like these first two rules will remain a mystery!

3. Use vigorous English.

Vigorous, when taken in the context of language, usually means forceful. Use strong and assertive English to convey yourself.

4. Be positive, not negative.

This is similar to Orwell’s decision to always use the active tense over the passive. It’s not telling you to write about happy-go-lucky fairy stories as opposed to grim depression, but rather to embed positivity within your language. If somebody asks you how an interview went for example, a negative response would be “well, it wasn’t terrible”, when the better more positive reaction would be “it was quite good”. Focus on what something is, rather than what it isn’t.

It’s up to you which writer’s rules you decide to abide by, or you could utilise a culmination of the two. Either way, shoo now, get writing!

-James Godwin, January 9th, 2011

Copyright © 2011. James Godwin. All rights reserved.