Hemingway’s top style tips

Ernest Hemingway helped pioneer the literary styles of the twentieth century; sparse, clean – honest. Real. He helped set writing on the direction it has taken since. Which is why we need to listen to his lessons. Luckily for us he talked – he talked about a lot of things, including writing. It was an emotional exercise for him. But so it should be. For all of us.

Ernest Hemingway (left) and Carlos Guiterrez, 1934. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

How important was Hemingway? Even Jack Kerouac – one of my favourite authors – extended the direction Hemingway and a few others of his ilk started, nearly a century ago. Authentic focus on human emotion – not the details of the room the characters sit in or even what they do in it, except as a window to the truth of their human reality. And many of his comments have survived – perhaps out of context, even reduced to aphorisms, but apt and important nonetheless. Here are a few of my favourites – with what I understand them to mean:

 “Show the readers everything, tell them nothing.”
Probably the oldest lesson rammed at novice writers – show, don’t tell. There is actually a case, every so often, to tell; but not that often. How do you ‘show’, rather than telling? I’ll detail that in another post – but in a nutshell, it’s about how the character sees things; their reactions to events, not the events themselves.

“Prose is architecture, not interior decoration.”
Structure, structure, structure! Structure counts – florid descriptions don’t. They did once, but that was in the eighteenth century – and Hemingway was reacting. You should too.

“All my life I’ve looked at words as though I were seeing them for the first time.”
Writing should have a freshness, and there is only one way to get it. Stepping back; getting abstracted from it – from every part of it, including the words that make up the mechanics of written prose.

“If a writer stops observing he is finished. Experience is communicated by small details intimately observed.”
Again, it’s to do with the reaction of the character to what they see, not lists of what is around them. You can paint pictures of character – as Hemingway did – by viewing things through their eyes. But to do that an author has first to know all those details themselves. Including the way that characters process them through the lens of their own persona.

“Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words? He thinks I don’t know the ten-dollar words. I know them all right. But there are older and simpler and better words, and those are the ones I use.”
Plain vanilla English is best. It carries absolute clarity, and it isn’t pretentious. Why say ‘discourse’ when you mean ‘talk’?

These rules still hold good today – more so, in fact. The human condition has not changed (talk to me about that – it’s a whole book of itself and I’d love to discuss it). Styles have – if anything, prose has become sparser. Technology has shifted the ball game fron Hemingway’s day. But it hasn’t changed the focus of writing; the onus is on writers – professionally published, self-published, indie, or aspiring – to push quality. Like Hemingway.

Do you have any thoughts on Hemingway? A favourite book of his? Or some thoughts you’d like to share about his lessons? Talk to me!

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2012


12 thoughts on “Hemingway’s top style tips

    1. He had an awful lot to say about his craft. I recall seeing that Woody Allen movie recently, featuring Hemingway in Paris, which I suspect was a pretty good take on how he said a lot of it.

  1. I admit I’ve read a single short story by Hemingway to date (which is sort of ironic because I’m in college; you’d think I would’ve read something of his in high school), but I’m sure getting an English major will fix that in the coming semesters, heh. The one short I did read was very impressive in its lack of detail and focus on the characters and their reactions in a single conversation. He told a lot by showing, and leaving out quite a bit for someone to infer or assume the details.

    1. Yes, he was an absolute master of ‘show not tell’. I remember being tortured by ‘The Old Man And The Sea’ at school – the English teacher had a knack of reducing fabulous literature to boring in one easy lesson. It took years for my interest in literature to actually re-kindle…

  2. I love all of the Nick Adams stories but perhaps my favorite is “Hills Like White elephants,” which has never left me. The Sun Also Rises is my favorite novel but I am a real Hemingway fan and have been ever since I discovered him decades ago.

    This is such a fine post, Matthew, not only for writers but for all readers who enjoy a writer who loved language and was able to create life after life, word by word. Whenever I read a Hemingway story or novel, I settle in completely not only to story but to a time and place, as if my life was playing out. Your post brought back many fond memories. Thank you.


  3. Glad you enjoyed the post – yes, Hemingway was a fantastic talent. And it was, I think, the simple honesty of what he said. I find his style appealing – and I think it is far harder to write lean, to write ‘with holes’, with just the right balance to get the reader’s mind working – than it is to fill the page with words.

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