Hemingway's Four Rules for Writing Well

In interviews, I am frequently asked to name the writers who most influenced my writing. I always answer my earliest influencers were the Lost Generation writers like Ernest Hemingway, John Dos Passos, and Erich Maria Remarque. A veteran of the Vietnam Era, the writings of these WWI veterans seemed to hit home for me.

Hemingway’s writing had the biggest impact on my own writing. Like me, Hemingway had been a newspaper reporter. In that line of work, one needs to learn how to write tight and with precision. Hemingway’s minimalist writing style appealed to the journalist in me.

One of the United States’ greatest writers, Hemingway wrote several classics including The Sun Also Rises, A Farewell to Arms, and For Whom the Bell Tolls. In 1954, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature for “for his mastery of the art of narrative, most recently demonstrated in The Old Man and the Sea, and for the influence that he has exerted on contemporary style.”

Hemingway’s influence on contemporary style is seen in his four basic writing rules: use short sentences; use short paragraphs; use vigorous language; and be positive, not negative.

During the 18th and 19th centuries, writers often wrote long-winded sentences and even longer paragraphs. Anyone who has ever tried to wade through Moby Dick knows how tedious reading Herman Melville is. Hemingway was one of the 20th century authors who rebelled against that literary style. Hemingway may have honed his style by writing for newspapers, but he also was influenced by the straightforward work of early minimalist artists. He summed up his writing style this way: “All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.”

Hemingway also said to use short first paragraphs, no more than three to five sentences in length. He believed the shorter and tighter the first paragraph (and most paragraphs), the more likely you will grab the reader’s attention. Readers tend to skim over long, gray blocks of type.

What is “vigorous language?” Ask difference people, and you’ll get different answers. Some say it means writing with “passion.” Others say it means using words that are “muscular” or “forceful.”

To the editor in me it means using active language—active verbs and action words—and cutting out adverbs. There’s no room for padding in this kind of writing. As an editor, I too often see writers creating long, meandering sentences full of inactive verbs, adverbs (those pesky adjectives ending in “ly” that don’t add any meaning) and back-ended sentences that do nothing but slow the story pace.

You make your sentences short by getting rid of superfluous words and using the best single verb or descriptive word for the thought or action you’re trying to convey. They vigorously move the story along and bring the reader with it. But you don’t get there by typing furiously for thirty days as many do who take part in National Write a Novel Month each November. You get there by redrafting and rewriting and revising.

Contrary to what many people believe, Hemingway never said, “Write drunk, edit sober.” For one thing, Hemingway wrote standing up—hard to do when drunk. Papa, in fact, was a very disciplined writer who wrote each morning and avoided drinking at night so he could be ready to edit and write early the next morning. He completed multiple rewrites of each of his books and short stories, honing his writing until he was certain each word used was the right word. In 1934, he confided to F. Scot Fitzgerald that, “I write one page of masterpiece to ninety-one pages of shit. I try to put the shit in the wastebasket.”

But what did Hemingway mean when he said to be “positive, not negative”? You can search the internet and you’ll find this often interpreted as using positive words and not negative words. For instance, use “economical” instead of “cheap.” Not surprisingly, this is the interpretation of advertising copy writers. But this interpretation of Hemingway’s advice doesn’t match his writing style.

I believe what Hemingway meant is to be positive in your attitude to writing. He once explained his writing habits like this: “My aim is to put down on paper what I see and what I feel, in the best and simplest way.” He also said to stay positive about your writing, no matter how bad you may think it is. “If something is wrong, fix it. But train yourself not to worry. Worry fixes nothing.”

Perhaps his best advice was this: “The most solid advice for a writer is this, I think: Try to learn to breathe deeply; to really taste food when you eat; and when you sleep really to sleep. Try as much as possible to be wholly alive with all your might, and when you laugh, laugh like hell. And when you get angry, get good and angry. Try to be alive. You will be dead soon enough.”

That’s about as positive as you can get.