If there’s one surefire way to become a better writer, it’s learning how to become a better reader. After all, reading the masters is as close to studying with them as you can get… And a love of reading is a prerequisite for writers. Here are some writing tips we can glean from closely reading Ernest Hemingway’s short stories and books.
In his novels, especially For Whom the Bell Tolls and A Farewell to Arms and short stories, including “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber” and “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” American writer Ernest Hemingway explored themes like restlessness, war, loss and death in an inimitable style. In the process, he became an enormous influence on modern literature. Writers of all genres and styles can learn a great deal from reading the works of one of the greatest writers of the twentieth century.
Hemingway is famous for his classic novels and his minimalist style of writing. Here are three tips we, as writers, can take away from Hemingway’s work.
1. Make every word count.
That doesn’t mean you have to write in the concise, clipped style of Hemingway. It does mean that every word needs to count, regardless of your writing style. The words that make up lush, poetic sentences are still required to do their jobs along the way, and having an elaborate style is no excuse for filler. As you revise your work, make your sentences as tight as you can – even if they do go on for half a page.
2. What you don’t say is at least as important as what you do say.
One of Hemingway’s most famous stories is “Hills Like White Elephants” in which a couple discusses an abortion without ever mentioning the word. It’s a masterpiece of subtlety and an excellent lesson in how to write about emotive experiences without succumbing to melodrama. Hemingway’s use of the objective point of view in which we as readers are never permitted inside the characters’ heads also provides an interesting lesson in how to use dialogue, imagery and the actions of the characters to convey plot and meaning. The story is a powerful illustration of the writing adage to show, don’t tell.
3. Draw on personal experience.
Hemingway had a fascinating life that included enlisting as an ambulance driver during World War I and a stint as a journalist during the Spanish Civil War. Hemingway’s life and travels included safaris to Africa and time spent among other writers and artists in Paris and provided the backdrop for many of his stories. It isn’t necessary, however, to live such a life in order to compellingly write what you know. Every life is rife with powerful experiences, strong emotions and compelling people and relationships, and you can draw on those experiences to add depth to your fiction.
Regardless of how helpful Hemingway is as a writing teacher, he’s still a controversial figure in writing circles. His writing style is sometimes parodied as stilted and flat, and some of his attitudes towards women (in his fiction) and extremely masculine pursuits like big game hunting have made him more than a few enemies. That said, his fiction has stood the test of time and critical scrutiny.
What authors have taught you how to be a better reader… and writer?