The following is based mainly on William Cane’s “Write Like the Masters” (2009) and R. Andrew Wilson, PhD’s “Write Like Hemingway” (2009):
Ernest Hemingway took the newspaper prose style he learned at the Kansas City Star and turned it into high art. He wrote some of the best American novels of the 1900s and yet did it with a writing style built on short, simple words and short, simple sentences. He is why books from the 1800s seem overwritten.
On Hemingway’s first day at the Star the editor gave him the “Star Copy Style”: 110 commandments of writing. It starts out like this:
Use short sentences. Use short first paragraphs. Use vigorous English. Be positive, not negative.
Here is Rule #21:
Avoid the use of adjectives, especially such extravagant ones as splendid, gorgeous, grand, magnificent, etc.
He took the commandment thing seriously.
Later as a young writer in Paris, Gertrude Stein and Ezra Pound taught him what they knew as poets about rhythm, about less is more, about making words count and making them stronger. His prose rose above the everyday.
Here are some of the rules that Hemingway seems to follow in his writing:
- The point of writing is to be clear and easy to understand, not to show people how much education you have.
- Prefer short, everyday words. Faulkner said you did not need a dictionary to read Hemingway – as if it was a bad thing!
- Prefer strong nouns and verbs, avoid adjectives and adverbs. “Is” does not count as a strong verb.
- Prefer short, simple sentences of the subject-verb-object kind. Short means ten words or less. Use long sentences to speed up the action, show flowing movement or to give a short sentence that follows a stronger effect.
- Avoid commas and more advanced punctuation. It is a sign your sentences are becoming too long and twisted.
- Use “and” to make your sentences simpler: not “When it rained, he went inside,” but just: “It rained and he went inside.”
- Stick to the facts. Keep your opinions to yourself.
- Prefer dialogue, avoid long descriptions. A few well-chosen facts are enough for a description – your readers will fill in the rest:
- Iceberg Theory: just like 91% of an iceberg is underwater, the art of writing is knowing what your readers will fill in.
- Know your subject inside out: Hemingway not only went to see bull fights but he read all he could about them too.
- Write what you know but less than you know. Readers can tell when you are saying less than you know and that makes your writing seem deeper and ring truer.
- Read, read, read: half of writing is reading other authors. Hemingway read Sherwood Anderson, Joyce, Tolstoy, Chekhov, Dostoevsky and others. Oh, and Faulkner too.
Hemingway got up every morning at seven and wrote till noon. He produced about 400 to 500 words a day, but he spent three-fourths of his time strengthening sentences and cutting, cutting, cutting. Sometimes he cut as much as two-thirds of his words – but what remained was a jewel.
- Stephen King: On Becoming a Good Writer
- How to write like Orwell
- How to write like the Reader’s Digest
- style guide: rules for writing
- Other Hemingway stuff: