Earlier this week, I read this article about Ernest Hemingway’s writing tips. While my relationship with Papa is long, storied, and not exactly positive (I’ve never really been a fan and reading The Paris Wife made me hate him as a person, but I want to read A Moveable Feast. . . See, if I were trying to talk about mine and Hem’s relationship on Facebook, I’d be forced to pick “it’s complicated”), I actually really enjoyed this article. Except for the part that nailed me right between the eyes, because while I call myself a writer, not much actual writing has been accomplished this year.
So, let’s take a look at Hemingway’s tips—with a little discussion from me (as an editor).
1. Write and speak with authority.
OK, Hemingway was dead-on with this one. As an editor and a reader, I don’t want to read articles that are passive and full of mealy-mouthed phrases and words like “maybe” or “it might be possible.” If you’re writing on a topic, you need to consider yourself the expert and write like it. People are reading your article to know what to do about that subject matter in their lives, whether it’s buying shampoo, picking out eye shadow, or working through grief. If you can’t write with authority on the topic, you probably shouldn’t be writing about it.
2. Avoid adverbs.
I get where Papa was coming from here, but I don’t think I hate adverbs as much as he did. I think sometimes a well-placed adverb adds to the description and feel of the story. But I do whole-heartedly agree with this section of that writing rule: Don’t describe the verb, use a more descriptive one.
Too often in writing, we spend all our time adding in words to describe what’s happening. We say people talked softly or walked slowly or ate quickly. Think about how much more descriptive (and how much more fulfilling the mental picture you paint for your reader is) when you write whispered, meandered, or gobbled instead.
3. Don’t write for “the reader.”
I think the idea here was that when you sit down to write, don’t think about who’s going to read it, what would be most palatable to them, what they like, or how you can make them like you and your writing more. And I agree with that. But I also think that after that really bad first draft (see Ann Lamott’s Bird by Bird), you do need to sit down and read through your honest, no-holds-barred piece and read it like an editor. You need to think about “the reader” then and you need to think about the parts of the article that might be problematic for your editor. If it’s important and a hill you’re willing to die on, by all means, keep every bit of it in there. But if it’s not important and you’ve pulled in something controversial just to be controversial, you should probably think again. You should never avoid a controversial subject because you think people are going to disagree with you—especially if it’s a controversial topic that the world needs to hear the capital-T truth about—but you shouldn’t sit down to write with the intent to be controversial or anger people either.
4. Have a set writing schedule.
This one I agree with whole-heartedly. If you want to be good at anything, you have to spend time practicing it. If God has given you talent in writing, you still have to hone that craft and be a good steward of that talent. And, as a writer, this is an area in which I consistently fail. Life gets busy. I read words all day long and write my own stuff and rewrite others’ as part of my job. It’s easy for me to tell myself it’s OK to take a break and skip that time I’ve set I’d spend writing. And I have about four barely started writing projects to show for it. So, if you’re a writer, take this piece of advice to heart. Set a specific time each day and spend it writing. Don’t answer calls, watch TV, look at Twitter or Facebook. Just write. It doesn’t even matter if it’s good; it just matters that at the end of that time, you put some words onto paper.
5. Leave stuff out.
If you’ve read Hemingway, you know he was a big fan of this one. You don’t have to tell your reader everything. You don’t have to explain every minute detail or answer every question. The best stories are those that invite questions or cause us to want to know more. I’m currently re-reading Daphne DuMarier’s novel Jamaica Inn. At the end of that novel, the heroine, Mary Yellan, hops on a wagon beside horse thief Jem Meryln and rides off to the future. I’ve spent a lot of time wondering what happened after that. Did they get married? Was it a happy life or a hard one? Did Jem stay reformed from his dishonest ways? That’s a good story. Sometimes, writers, it’s OK to not explain away every detail. Just make sure you cover the big ones and don’t leave a big plot hole or important information out.