Ernest Hemingway’s writing hasn’t always intrigued me.
In fact, when I was a high school student and had to read A Farewell to Arms for my AP Literature and Composition class, I happily employed the use of Sparknotes summaries at least twice for sections of the book I hadn’t read.
I mean, I tried to read the whole novel … OK, maybe I could have tried harder.
Taking a lot of literature and reading classes throughout my education, Hemingway had been substantially built up. To me, Hemingway felt like a micro-deity English teachers and students told me about: He was in the sky or somewhere very distant from me, wearing a white robe with a cigar in his mouth, watching life happen below him—but I couldn’t touch him.
I couldn’t even speak to him. I just pictured him in my mind and wondered what it would be like to be in his presence.
I know it sounds a little magnified, and I wish I could say it’s an exaggeration.
Then I finally had the chance to read one of his works. And I was crestfallen.
Based on how I visualized Hemingway, I thought his words would transport me with their luster, sending me to a landscape I only saw in history textbook pictures. Instead of reading paragraphs crowded with dates, I could drift like a ghost into fields of green, or beside a nurse walking past bedridden amputees to greet a handsome yet weary-eyed soldier.
Instead, I only felt disappointed. I wondered, What about the emotion? What about the romance? What about the gripping story arc?
Read: This is really, really boring.
My disappointment with Hemingway (along with several other well-known writers) ensued for several years.
It wasn’t until a college writing class that I turned back to him. My professor hadn’t even mentioned his name prior to my newfound curiosity. He said to do one thing, if nothing else in fiction writing, and it lit the match for me to go back.
“Write in narrative, not expository writing.”
Something about this suggestion made me think of Hemingway. Hadn’t others explained he had done the same? Isn’t that why people raved on and on about him?
To be honest, I wasn’t completely sure if that was true or not—but I had a feeling it was. I was determined to discover why others were so moved by his writing and why he’s known as a master.
So, while I took the class, I started my own literary adventure: Discover what made Hemingway a great writer, and see what happens if I try to write more like him.
If you’re looking to learn from great writers, these lessons will benefit your own writing, too.
Favor Narrative, Not Expository Writing
Of course, there is expository writing in all of Hemingway’s works. He briefly explains the past of a character, or how a coincidental experience leads them to a connected memory.
Because this is not technically part of the story, only a reference to an idea, it is expository writing.
At the same time, if you were to break down each of Hemingway’s books and compare the amount of narrative to expository writing in them, you’d likely find that you’re not left in the heads of the characters for long.
We’re walking with the character, sitting by them as they have a conversation, or climbing into a boat with them as they set out to catch fish.
This is a clear indicator of narrative writing.
I didn’t appreciate and realize Hemingway’s skill of doing this until I started reading more literature—and it’s thanks to his past as a journalist that he does this so effectively.
Let’s take a look at this more in-depth with a snippet from A Farewell to Arms:
“I went to the window and looked out. The gravel paths were moist and the grass was wet with dew. The battery fired twice and the air came each time like a blow and shook the window and made the front of my pajamas flap” (13).
Compare how that makes you feel to this one:
“I wondered if America really got into the war, if they would close down the major leagues. They probably wouldn’t. There was still racing in Milan and the war could not be much worse. They had stopped racing in France. That was where our horse Japalac came from. Catherine was not due on duty until nine o’clock” (145).
Do you feel like you’re more involved in the story in the first section, or do you feel that way about the second section?
Chances are, you felt more submerged in the first example.
As the character describes exactly what happens in the moment, it feels like you’re standing beside him, or perhaps even in his place. You can see the window even though it’s hardly described. You can see the landscape in front of Frederic. You can see his pajamas flap from the blow of the battery.
This is active storytelling, so it’s narrative.
But in the second example, you can’t visualize the horses racing, or America and whether America got into the war. That’s because these are only ideas.
They’re not technically part of the main story, so this is expository writing.
It is that way with much of Hemingway’s work. In The Sun Also Rises, The Old Man and The Sea, and For Whom The Bell Tolls—his most-known novels—we are brought along on a journey; the journey of the main character. We’re not simply following their thoughts.
In fact, Hemingway topples over his contemporaries with the amount of dialogue in his work.
That was my first takeaway of studying Hemingway’s work, and I quickly implemented it into my own. He won the 1945 Nobel Prize for Literature in part for his “mastery of the art of narrative,” afterall.
All of this is to say: storytelling is an asset in any kind of writing, and even in our careers.
Chances are, if you have a brand, there’s a story behind it. Stories are powerful because we naturally want to connect with the main character, the brand, or the experience. Our emotions are drawn out; we imagine places we’ve never physically been to.
Expository writing, on the other hand, doesn’t take us on this journey. It is less emotional and there is less to connect with. Instead of being presented with characters and stories, we are presented with facts and reasoning.
I noticed how much more powerful my writing became as I focused my writing on storytelling, and wondered if I could learn anything else from the novelist.
Be Blunt and Don’t Censor Yourself
How can you concretely implement these abstract ideas into your own writing?
There’s a few tricks that can help you be blunt and not censor yourself.
Before I started writing this article, I tried out the Hemingway Editor App. It suggests opportunities to take out passive voice and adverbs almost completely, simplifying sentences by cutting down the word count, and omitting words that seem to detract from a sentence.
These are logical suggestions. Hemingway’s average amount of words per sentence is just above 10—seven words shorter than average. Furthermore, his average word length is between one and six characters.
In fact, when Faulkner questioned Hemingway’s writing abilities due to his preference toward shorter words, to which he replied, “People think I’m an ignorant bastard who doesn’t know the ten-dollar words. I know the ten-dollar words. There are older and better words which if you arrange them in the proper combination you make it stick.”
As for passive voice, I can’t say that Hemingway forbid it from his writing—in fact, the beginning of The Old Man and The Sea employs the use of passive voice to a great extent. But in general (especially in his earlier work) we rarely see Hemingway rely on passive voice.
There are two reasons I would recommend this app to professional writers: to learn how to write sentences boldly by minimizing the use of passive voice, and to shorten sentences to make them more direct.
When we use passive voice, and make sentences unnecessarily long or jumbled with “fluff” words, we take the power out of our words.
Compare these two paragraphs:
- I looked at the oak tree in front of me. It had been raining earlier in the day, and there were little transparent dots spotting the leaves. I was reminded of being a child and how I used to dance in the rain without an umbrella. After that, I picked up my purse and walked back home.
- I looked at the oak tree in front of me. It rained earlier in the day, and little transparent dots spotted the leaves. The droplets reminded me of when I was a child; I often danced in the rain without an umbrella. I picked up my purse and walked back home.
In the second sentence, we see what it looks like to trim off the fat.
Instead of saying “it had been raining,” (passive voice) use active voice to firmly state that it rained. When describing the water droplets on the tree, do the same thing: “little transparent dots spotted the leaves.”
After that, we’re told that the droplets reminded the character of when they were a child. Since the memory of being a child and the memory of dancing in the rain without an umbrella connect to one another, we can show that by adding a semicolon. It removes the unnecessary clunkiness of “and.”
Finally, stating “after that” actually detracts from the progression of the story. It can be assumed without saying those words, simply by saying “I picked up my purse and walked back home,” that the character was probed to act.
The key takeaway here is to be bold. Do you mean that it rained earlier in the day? Then say it! Don’t shy away from it by using words that don’t add to the progression of the story.
Think about what you really want your readers to know: Is it about an idea you feel on-fire about? Or how vibrant a certain cafe feels when you walk in? Use active voice and cut the words you don’t need. You have a story to tell.
When You’ve Got Writer’s Block, Start With One True Sentence
He said this to himself—and the way he said it, it sounded like a personal mantra for the times he faced writer’s block.
In A Moveable Feast, Hemingway’s memoir of Paris in the 1920s, he writes,
“I would stand and look out over the roofs of Paris and think, ‘Do not worry. You have always written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence … So finally I would write one true sentence, and then go on from there.”
Now, what does that actually look like?
Look outside. What do you see?
A man just walked out of the coffeeshop wearing a white collared shirt tucked into black slacks. He was wearing sunglasses, and he pushed the door open just enough so that the woman following out behind him could walk out, too. There is an unoccupied wiry black table with two chairs by the door where they went.
These are all true sentences. Just as Hemingway did, I described what was going on around me. I’m not making up stories about the characters—not yet. I’m simply writing from observation.
This is a valuable technique to try when you’re in a writing rut. Often, we get stuck in our minds, thinking, What’s the best thing I can say now? How can I grab the reader’s attention? How can I write something elaborate and beautiful and captivating?
In all honesty, it’s the truth that makes writing compelling.
The uncomplicated truth.
Hemingway’s writing wasn’t complicated.
His writing career began as a journalist. He was used to writing from observation. As noted previously, we are usually only given the action in his stories: that is, what is actually going on (narrative) rather than background information (expository).
You don’t need to have the most amazing vocabulary, see the most breathtaking views, or have the most unbelievable experiences in order to be an inspired writer.
Sometimes just recording what you see from your balcony is enough to get you started on something outstanding.
Implementing What I Learned (and How You Can Do it, Too)
So, I’m going to share a bit of my drafted novel with you. It’s one thing to say all of this works. It’s another to give it a try and see it if really holds up.
Here’s the very first draft I wrote for a section of my novel:
The late-summer air was still chilly at this hour. It was the end of August. Fishers Island was quiet and barely populated year-round, qualities Ramona enjoyed about it. She arrived about a week ago on a Sunday by a 45-minute ferry ride. She was freshly graduated out of RISD, carrying with her a Master’s in Painting and ten successful exhibitions based in Rhode Island and New York. She was well-received and recognized for her abstract-impressionist watercolors on vellum which explored our relation to time and its effects on our relationships with others. By studying people intricately, mostly just out of interest, she read, understood, and empathized with others well—qualities she was proud to possess.
She opened the black satchel by her hip and searched for a graphite pencil and her sketchbook. Any time she faced difficulty in the studio, she went outside and copied from life. A drawing class professor at school reinforced this technique on her and she found it useful in allowing her mind to contemplate the simplicity of a pile of dried leaves or curves of a landscape caving in on each other. She found the task quite meditative.
She sat on a navy blue bench that faced a body of water. She placed her satchel beside her on the sand and propped her left leg up on her right knee, providing a makeshift table. And then she began to draw seagulls, sand, waves ebbing into shore, gradations of the sky. Boats dotted the distant water like small flags bobbing from the surface. She noted all these things—and the smell of clams unshelled, seaweed mingling in foamy beds and the quiet scratch of crab legs dragging through terrain where her uncovered feet lay.
Here’s the second version, implementing what I learned from Hemingway. I eliminated almost all of the passive voice and expository writing, changing it to active voice and narrative. I trimmed off the details, words, and phrases that I thought weren’t serving the greater story, making my writing bolder and more direct:
The late-August air was still chilly at this hour, even with a sweater on. Ramona opened the black satchel by her hip to grab a graphite pencil and her sketchbook. A drawing class professor at RISD prompted her to go outside whenever frustrated in the studio, and she resorted to this technique throughout her Master’s education. Most times she found practicing the technique to be worthwhile: it allowed her to contemplate simple forms that already existed as opposed to conjuring something original from her mind.
She sat on a navy bench, plunked her leather satchel on the sand and propped her left leg up on her right knee to provide a makeshift table. Then she began to draw everything within her line of vision: seagulls gathered onto the sand, waves subsiding into shore, and boats dotting the distant water like small flags. The smell of clams unshelled and seaweed melding in foamy beds suffused her nostrils, and the quiet scratch of crab legs dragging through terrain meddled around in her ears—things she couldn’t exactly depict with a pencil, but hoped would be infused into her sketch nonetheless.
A few things to note: Of course, the second version is much shorter than the first. It also contains much less expository writing, and therefore creates a picture more easily in the mind. The story sticks in your mind, too, because there’s less expository writing to take you out of it.
Additionally, the second version is simpler to read because it avoids unnecessary details and sentences. Only what adds to the story is there.
Though the first draft isn’t bad by any means, I actually prefer the second.
Although the details about Fishers Island and Ramona’s education give some nice information about the story’s setting, I find myself more compelled by and interested in visualizing Ramona’s actions.
If the background information is truly necessary to the larger story, I would rather those details unfold through encounters with others or Ramona’s other experiences. That is, perhaps a store owner notes how quiet the island usually is when the artist residency isn’t being held.
Essentially, I prefer being shown instead of being told.
At the same time, I differ from Hemingway on some writing preferences: I enjoy a certain poeticism to my writing. I love when there’s an effortless meter to my prose, or when there’s several sentences that describe the pungent smells of marine life.
I looked to Hemingway to learn how to write bolder, more succinct, and more captivating stories. To punctuate my writer’s voice.
To me, I succeeded in my own way.
Learning From Hemingway and the Other Greats
Though as a teenager I could not understand the appeal of Hemingway’s writing for the life of me, through reading and writing a lot of unsatisfactory fiction, I learned that I had a lot of learn from the guy. Eventually, I made my way to pick up his books again.
Sure, you may be wholeheartedly devoted to one of the Brontë sisters; you may swoon over Genet’s lyricism.
If you still don’t understand why Hemingway is considered a great, don’t worry: you’re not the only one.
But he was a pioneer in many ways, and we can learn a lot from him, as I did.
So, my 22,661-word document is still in the works. Studying Hemingway certainly made me feel inspired to write day after day. And though I’m no master at sitting down to finish it, I think looking back at one of the greats can help you along in that process.