“Write Drunk” and 5 More Great Writing Tips from Ernest Hemingway

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Given his notorious reputation as a prolific drinker, you’d be excused for taking Hemingway’s famous prescription to “write drunk; edit sober” literally. But in truth, the phrase has a deeper, more esoteric meaning. While writing, you should allow yourself to be overtaken by passion and the intense feeling of creating something—but when editing commences, you should approach your work with an objective, dispassionate eye. That wasn’t the only kernel of writing wisdom Hemingway dispensed, despite the fact he detested discussing the craft and process of writing.

5 Read

Hemingway didn’t see any value in writing something someone else had already written before—unless you could write it better. Of course, you have no way of knowing if someone’s already written something and what you need to do to write it better, unless you’ve read their work. For this reason, he advised reading as many great works of literature as you could. However, what if you read these great works as a young, beginning writer and find them intimidating or discouraging? Hemingway didn’t care. “Then you ought to be discouraged,” was his response to that concern.

4 Quit When You’re on a Roll

It seems counter-intuitive, but Hemingway’s key advice for productivity was to quit writing when you were on a roll and knew what was going to happen next—that way you’d know what needed to happen when you picked up working the next day and you could continue on with ease. If you stop writing when you’ve hit a wall, that wall will still be there the next day. However, if you stop while the words and ideas are flowing, you’ll be ready and enthusiastic for the next day’s work.

3 Listen and Observe

The idea that people don’t listen and aren’t observant isn’t new and to Hemingway’s way of thinking, you couldn’t be a writer if you didn’t do both well. He advised writers to actively listen in conversation and to be constant and vigilant observers of everything going on around them. It wasn’t important to him to know how an observation could be of use later on, and he didn’t advise consciously or intentionally looking for a story. Just keep your eyes and ears open to the world around you.

2 Make, Don’t Describe

In Hemingway’s own version of the timeless “show, don’t tell” advice, the good writer doesn’t describe emotions, events or circumstances—he makes them happen. A writer paints a more vivid picture in the minds of his readers if he creates and directly expresses a character’s sadness, for example, rather than saying “John was sad.” The same applies to characters—a flat character that is simply described becomes a caricature, but a character created from experience and imagination has all the dimensions that a real person does.

1 Eliminate the Unnecessary

Hemingway cut his writing teeth in journalism and learning the value of clear, declarative sentences. A news story presents facts relevant to the story in a concise manner, and Hemingway brought this same sensibility to fiction writing. Eliminating descriptive elements and unnecessary background allows readers to fill in those details themselves. Giving readers the freedom to do this makes your story more memorable and relatable because readers make the story their own. When they’ve finished your story, they feel as though it’s happened to them, because so many details have been supplied by their own memories and experiences.
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