The world of 20th-century fiction wouldn’t be the same without the writing of Ernest Hemingway. Essentially the spokesperson for the post-WWI generation, Hemingway established a style that future writers either tried to emulate or avoid. If you want to learn how to write like Ernest Hemingway, you'll have to be willing to throw out everything unnecessary and leave only what is essential.
To write like Hemingway, write simply and concisely. Write with depth and authenticity.
This is easier said than done. With practice, though, you can say more with fewer words in the vein of one of America's greatest writers.
Ernest Hemingway was born in 1899 in Oak Park, Illinois. A journalist, short-story writer, and novelist, Hemingway was tremendously influential in the world of 20th-century fiction. On top of that, his adventurous lifestyle made him a larger-than-life character in the minds of later generations and the American public.
Much of his work was written between the mid-1920s and mid-1950s. During his life and posthumously, he published seven novels, two non-fiction pieces, and six collections of short stories.
His most famous works include:
Hemingway’s writing style was spare, tight, and minimalistic. His first biographer, Carlos Baker, said that Hemingway learned to:
"...Get the most from the least, how to prune language, how to multiply intensities and how to tell nothing but the truth in a way that allowed for telling more than the truth.”
He worked as a cub reporter for The Kansas City Star for six months after high school. Though his time with the newspaper was brief, he continued to use the paper’s style guide as the foundation for his writing. The style guide read:
"Use short sentences. Use short first paragraphs. Use vigorous English. Be positive, not negative."
Hemingway’s life experiences likely put most of us to shame. He was a man of action and adventure that hobnobbed with some of the greatest literary and artistic figures of the 20th century.
He and his wife moved to Paris in 1921, where they hung out with members of the famous “Lost Generation,” including:
For most people, the time spent in this incredible social circle would be enough to satisfy them for a lifetime. However, that’s only one short, concise paragraph in the fascinating life of Hemingway. He also:
In his later years, he suffered from both physical and mental deterioration. In 1961, Hemingway ended his own life at his home in Ketchum, Idaho. His legacy, however, lives on.
Ernest Hemingway is often considered one of the greatest fiction writers of the 20th century along with heavy hitters like John Steinbeck, F. Scott Fitzgerald, James Joyce, and George Orwell.
Even though it might seem like a lofty goal to try and write like Ernest Hemingway, there is a lot to learn from his simple and concise style that conveys so much with so little.
Hemingway makes writing prose look easy. There is tremendous depth and technique hidden in his simple style.
His main approach to writing can be found in the style guide of the Kansas City Star. Hemingway used basic grammar and common vocabulary rather than flowery or abstract language. Adjectives and adverbs were used sparingly and only when necessary.
His verbs were active, his sentences were often short, and he used positive rather than negative language.
A quick note– Hemingway didn’t exclusively write in short sentences. His sentence length varied, but his average sentences were quite brief. He also commonly strung simple sentences together with the word “and” using a technique known as polysyndeton. The impact of this was to accelerate action through language.
Hemingway tended to prefer short, simple sentences. This made it pleasant and easy for people to read his writing.
He knew all too well that people start to disengage from reading quickly and that even one convoluted sentence could lose their attention.
When sentences are long and flowery, the reader’s eyes can start to glaze over. Hemingway is well known for using short sentences frequently in his writing to add rhythm and punchiness. When you read Hemingway, you often feel as though you are being pulled along by the writing.
Hemingway believed that the first paragraph of a story should be short. In fact, none of your paragraphs should start sprawling out over the page if you want to write like Hemingway.
He was well aware that the attention of the reader is easily lost. This is particularly true in our modern world as attention spans continue to shorten thanks to our increasingly digital experience.
Writing isn’t just about the words you use– it’s about how they are laid out on the page. In design, it is important to leave white space so that the viewer’s visual field isn’t overwhelmed and the most important elements are highlighted. When writing, lean on the side of plenty of white space to help the reader stay engaged with the story.
We’re all aware of the concept of a “wall of text” and how disincentivizing this can be. Break your paragraphs up if they start to get too long– it will help the reader delineate the story’s action and keep their place.
Another one of the lessons Hemingway learned from the Kansas City Star was to be positive rather than negative.
This doesn't mean you should write about the world with rose-colored glasses. It means that you should choose positive language over negative language whenever possible.
When you talk about the way things are not it can be counterproductive. This is because the reader’s mind is still being directed toward the opposite of what is implied.
For example, if you were told a car was “inexpensive,” your mind still clings to the word “expensive,” even if toward its opposite. Instead, the speaker might choose to use the word “cost-effective.”
If you really want to write like Hemingway, convey your message using plain, everyday English. This aspect of his style made a huge impact on the literary universe and continues to influence the fiction and non-fiction world alike.
Hemingway was able to convey a tremendous amount of meaning through simple language and short phrases.
With varying levels of fluency, Hemingway spoke French, Spanish, Italian, German, and English. He found Spanish, French, and Italian to be richly expressive despite their limited vocabulary compared to English. It is possible that this awareness led to his deliberate use of a simple vocabulary.
Hemingway tended to use words with Germanic roots over words with Latin roots. The reason for this is that Germanic words tend to be more common and have fewer syllables.
Longer, less common words might take the reader out of the story by prompting him to look up the meaning of the word. When you use short words that everyone knows, the reader can stay fully absorbed.
It can be tempting when writing to get a bit out of control with adjectives and adverbs.
If you want to write like Hemingway, opt for precise nouns or verbs rather than modifying less precise words. This was something Hemingway learned from his time at the Kansas City Star, which was seminal in his formation as a writer.
When you leave modifiers out, you’re less likely to get carried away with abstraction. To write in Hemingway’s style, you’ll only want to use adverbs and adjectives when they alter the meaning of the word they are modifying.
For example, it is redundant and unnecessary to say that someone “screamed loudly.” The word “screamed” already implies a loud sound. However, to say that someone “screamed half-heartedly” actually modifies the meaning of the word “screamed.”
When writing in the style of Hemingway, use energetic, vigorous language. The copywriter David Garfinkel explained this aspect of Hemingway’s writing as follows:
“It’s muscular, forceful [writing]. Vigorous English comes from passion, focus and intention.”
This type of writing stems from a genuine connection and understanding of the topic at hand. It comes from having the courage of your convictions. When you are writing genuinely and you believe in what you are saying, you’re much more likely to write with vigorous English rather than beating around the bush or always qualifying what you’re saying.
Hemingway’s writing style is impressive, in part, because of his ability to write with both simplicity and depth at once. His prose could evoke intense emotion even though (or perhaps precisely because) he left much to the imagination of the reader.
Rather than explaining the way his characters felt, Hemingway showed how they acted and reacted to events. Instead of telling a long backstory for each character, he let the relevant details of a story unfurl a character’s past as the story progressed. Not one to take the reader out of a story, Hemingway wasn’t prone to using flashbacks as a device.
When you finish writing a piece, go back through and take out everything that isn’t essential to the emotion your story intends to evoke. You might be surprised with what is left over.
Hemingway coined a writing technique known as iceberg theory or theory of omission. When he was working as a young journalist, his writing focused on immediate events without much in the way of interpretation of context.
He kept this minimalistic style when he started writing short stories. Instead of delving explicitly into underlying themes, he focused on surface elements. It was his view that the deeper meaning of a story should implicitly shine through a story rather than being obvious on the surface.
He first developed this idea when he finished the short story “Out of Season. His biographer Carlos Baker said that Hemingway learned "how to get the most from the least, how to prune language and avoid waste motion, how to multiply intensities, and how to tell nothing but the truth in a way that allowed for telling more than the truth."
Baker also said that the iceberg theory style of writing suggests that the complexity of a story lies underneath the story’s surface.
Hemingway would throw away writing that started to become too showy or elaborate. He would then start again with a sentence that was declarative and true.
If you’re struggling to write with authenticity, refresh your mind with his famous quote:
“All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.”
If you are writing a fiction story, you can make your writing more genuine by:
One of the things that made Hemingway’s stories so compelling was that he drew from actual people he knew and events he’d experienced. For this reason, some of his writing blurs the line between non-fiction and fiction.
Hemingway believed that finding inspiration in real people and events gave more dimension and believability to his stories.
If you’re creating a fiction story, try creating characters and events that are amalgams of people you’ve met and experiences you’ve had. This can keep your characters and writing original and fresh.
It’s easy when writing to start to get showy. Take a page from Hemingway’s book and always come back to what you know to be true.
It can be all too easy to think about your writing in relation to the word count. The genius of Hemingway’s writing, in part, came from his willingness to throw away everything except what was necessary.
In a 1934 letter to F. Scott Fitzgerald, Hemingway said:
“I write one page of masterpiece to ninety-one pages of shit. I try to put the shit in the wastebasket.”
Don’t be afraid to throw away anything that is simply fluff. You might find that a diamond is hidden in that story you’ve been struggling with.
Novelists, poets, avid readers, and even copywriters have long revered Hemingway for his distinct and precise writing style. In a world full of distractions and short attention spans, learning to write like Hemingway can help you capture the attention and imagination of your reader.
Though the impact of his writing has been profound, the style guide Hemingway used to create his masterpieces was fittingly simple and brief. Despite the fact that he is one of the greatest American writers, his no-frills style isn’t out of reach even for amateur writers.
If you’re dedicated to honing your craft, make sure you check out the rest of our writing tips.
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