Hemingway’s Amazing Four Rules for Writing

We can all learn from the masters. In this video I provide some insight about how the 20th century’s greatest novelist went about the writing task.

Video Transcript

One of America’s greatest writers, Ernest Hemingway, followed four basic steps to better writing. He urged others to follow them too.

I’m going to share them here along with my own notes about what he meant.

Ernest Hemingway was a powerful, original writer, and anyone who puts words to paper can benefit from learning about his writing style. He was such an excellent writer that it’s easy to get lost in the stories and forget to look at their construction.

He’s best known for The Sun Also Rises, For Whom the Bells Toll, The Old Man and the Sea and The Snows of Kilimanjaro. He won a Pulitzer Prize in 1953 and the Nobel Prize for fiction in 1954.

What Hemingway says applies to all kinds of writing fiction and nonfiction and any kind of media whether you’re writing books, brochures or for the Internet.

Hemingway’s Style

Hemingway was best known for his sparse dynamic writing style he learned that style at his first job as a reporter for the Kansas City Star. Here are the writing principles he applied to all his work.

1. Hemingway said, “Use short sentences.”

If you look at 18th and 19th century books you will see that the pages are filled with long sentences and paragraphs that extend over many pages. Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray comes to mind –the second paragraph of that book contains a single sentence that is 127 words long.

Hemingway was instrumental in changing that tedious style in the 20th century. He applied a journalistic style to literary work.

2. Hemingway said, “Use short first paragraphs.”

People are reading more than ever thanks to the Internet. However, the Internet is the source of a lot of bad reading habits. People are more likely to graze than actually read. You must grab their attention instantly if you want them to read all that you have to say.

How long should a first paragraph be? The 3 to 5 sentence range is probably best.

Besides being short, your first paragraph needs to grab your reader’s attention. They will not continue if you do not arrest their attention in that first paragraph.
Once you’re happy with your opening paragraph, edit it some more. A polished first paragraph is so important that it deserves all the time you can give it.

3. Hemingway said, “Use vigorous English.”

What’s the source of vigorous language? It springs from the passion you have for your topic. To be vigorous, language must be highly focused. How you achieve that?

Well, it’s not in the writing, but in the rewriting of your work.

Hemingway wrote his brother when he completed The Old Man and the Sea. He told him he had revised and honed the story so thoroughly that he did not believe there was a single wasted word in the entire book.

Today, too many writers think only in terms of completing a first draft.

Once it’s finished they think their work is done. That’s far from the truth. After the first draft is completed, the real writing begins. Your work is transformed in the revisions you do.

4. Hemingway said, “Be positive not negative.”

What did he mean? Well, he was saying that writers need to be thoughtful about the words they use.

In particular, write what something is rather than what it is not. For example, instead of saying, “inexpensive” — say “economical.” Instead of saying, “My experience wasn’t bad,” — say “My experience was good.”

Such directness enhances all writing. The best writing is positive even when discussing negative things.

Virtually any negative thoughts can be translated to place the emphasis on the positive. A different mindset is required for positive writing, and that may be a major shift in thinking for some writers.

Simple Rules for All

In later years Hemingway talked about these four Kansas City Star principles for good writing.

He said, “Those with the best I ever learned for the business of writing. I’ve never forgotten them. No person with any talent, who feels and writes truly about the thing he is trying to say, can fail to write well if he abides with them.”

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