How to Write Like Hemingway, the Minimalist Writer
I think most critics understand that Hemingway, as a writer was first and foremost a minimalist.
How can you write like he did?
This list of 10 ways Hemingway wrote like a minimalist should point you in the right direction, and here’s the video version too, if you prefer:
1. The “Hard Boiled” Style
Hemingway wrote in a masculine, scientific, and at times rigid and abrupt way. In a letter to Mary Downy Pfeiffer he referred to his writing as “Boiling it down always rather than spreading it out thin.” His critics coined his style “hard-boiled”, which came to mean writing that was unemotional, calloused, rough, and without sentiment. He discarded flowery descriptions and wordy metaphors and replaced them with simple, straight to the point and down to earth words.
2. Be Efficient
Hemingway despised superfluous literature. In the 16th chapter of Death in the Afternoon he writes, “If a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things.” Efficiency is one of the things Hemingway preferred in his writing, and he felt that if he wrote the truth well, his readers would be able to visualize his story without being “spoon fed”.
3. Write the Truth
“All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.” He believed that the emotions, memories, and overall thought process of his readers would only become fully engaged when they sensed the truth. This has become my most admired approach to writing, and I use this piece of advice as the foundation for all of my work. But how does this apply to the philosophy of minimalism? Exaggeration and fluff is wordy. Writing only the truth chops away the extra fat, leaving only what matters. The truth is powerful because it is sharp and to the point; it arouses the most dormant emotions of joy, then turns on the reader with piercing, relentless pain. Despite it’s simplicity, the truth is the most effective form of writing, and is indeed, minimalist by nature.
4. Find Solitude
Minimalist living is about eliminating clutter from your life. Busy locations, background noises, and the bustle of everyday life are distracting and “cluttering”. Not all writers find success using the same strategies. Some writers recharge with their friends and family. Others seek solitude. Hemingway belonged to the latter group of writers.
“Every morning as soon after first light as possible. There is no one to disturb you and it is cool or cold and you come to your work and warm as you write.” Although far from a recluse, Hemingway always wrote in solitude or near solitude when conditions didn’t allow.
In A Moveable Feast he recalls the cold of his room, warmed by sticks in the winter: “It was either six or eight flights up to the top floor and it was very cold and I knew how much it cost for a bundle of small twigs, to make a fire that would warm the room.”
At times it became to cold to write effectively, which drove him from his preferred solitude into a nearby cafe which was a “Warm, clean and well lit place”. But the people that surrounded him were not as welcome: “The only thing that could spoil a day was people. People were always the limiters of happiness except for the very few that were as good as spring itself.”
5. Write Standing up
In 1958 a reporter named George Plimpton interviewed Hemingway. He wrote: “A working habit he has had from the beginning, Hemingway stands when he writes. He stands in a pair of his oversized loafers on the worn skin of a lesser kudu – the typewriter and the reading board chest-high opposite him.”
Standing up when you write keeps you from getting drowsy or lazy, plus it’s better for your back. The habit of writing while standing up is essentially replacing a lesser habit with a better one – one of the most effective activities of the minimalist.
6. Find a Secret Writing Place
This is not just a place of solitude, but a different place than your normal haunts. Fuentes, in his biography Hemingway in Cuba gives insight into Hemingway’s secret writing place: “Sometimes Hemingway would weigh anchor and hide out for a few weeks at Cayo Paraiso (Paradise Key), called Megano de Casigua in the navel charts. It lies approximately five miles off La Mulata Bay, in Pinar del Rio province. The writer would go there with his wife and Gregorio, his Royal portable, a few reams of writing paper, and half a dozen number-two pencils. He found a good place to work among the barrier reefs of Cayo Paraiso, a private place, one the press never knew about.” There’s something about a secret writing place that brings new inspiration to writers, and again, the solitude of a secret location helps as well.
7. Write With Pencil and Paper
It’s not everyone’s forte, especially in the modern world of laptops and wi-fi. But this was Ernest Hemingway’s way. “You know that fiction, prose rather, is possibly the roughest trade of all in writing. You do not have the reference, the old important reference. You have the sheet of blank paper, the pencil, and the obligation to invent truer than things can be true.” There is something simplistic and almost elegant in writing with pencil and paper. There’s no power cords, wi-fi issues, restarting, or searching for power outlets in the local cafe. It’s straightforward and simple – efficient. Sound familiar?
8. Short Sentences Are Successful
Hemingway was once challenged to write a story using only 6 words. He wrote: “For sale: baby shoes, never used.”
9. Use Language Aggressively
That doesn’t mean cuss every other word, although at times Hemingway did that too. The more energetically forceful words are, the less need there is for more of them. Consider these Hemingway examples:
For Whom the Bell Tolls: “Then, through the hammering of the gun, there was the whistle of the air splitting apart and then in the red black roar the earth rolled under his knees and then waved up to hit him in the face and then dirt and bits of rock were falling all over and Ignacio was lying on him and the gun was lying on him. But he was not dead because the whistle came again and the earth lurched under his belly and one side of the hilltop rose into the air and then fell slowly over them where they lay.”
The Old Man and the Sea: “In the dark the old man could feel the morning coming and as he rowed he heard the trembling sound as flying fish left the water and the hissing that their stiff set wings made as they soared away in the darkness.”
“In modern war… you will die like a dog for no good reason.”
“There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.”
10. Keep the Good, Trash the Bad
In 1934, Hemingway told F. Scott Fitzgerald: “I write one page of masterpiece to ninety-one pages of sh**. I try to put the sh** in the wastebasket.”
This is a good reminder to keep our writing as minimalist as possible – Hemingway’s approach is quality over quantity. If the mindset is “bigger is better” we tend to lose effectiveness as our quality work is swallowed up and hidden by the mediocre.