Brain Pickings

How to Be a Writer: Hemingway’s Advice to Aspiring Authors

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“As a writer you should not judge. You should understand.”

Ernest Hemingway has contributed a great deal to the collected advice of great writers, from his famous admonition against the dangers of ego to his short and stellar Nobel Prize acceptance speech. But some of his finest wisdom springs to life in this excerpt from his 1967 nonfiction piece By-Line, found in the altogether excellent Hemingway on Writing (public library) — a compilation of the celebrated author’s most insightful meditations on the craft, culled from his published works and his private letters. Writing as “Your Correspondent,” abbreviated to “Y.C.,” Hemingway addresses the archetypal aspiring author, nicknamed “Mice,” and offers this characteristically wise-in-a-no-bullshit-way advice on becoming a writer:

MICE: How can a writer train himself?

Y.C.: Watch what happens today. If we get into a fish see exactly what it is that everyone does. If you get a kick out of it while he is jumping remember back until you see exactly what the action was that gave you the emotion. Whether it was the rising of the line from the water and the way it tightened like a fiddle string until drops started from it, or the way he smashed and threw water when he jumped. Remember what the noises were and what was said. Find what gave you the emotion; what the action was that gave you the excitement. Then write it down making it clear so the reader will see it too and have the same feeling that you had. That’s a five finger exercise.

MICE: All right.

Y.C.: Then get in somebody else’s head for a change. If I bawl you out try to figure what I’m thinking about as well as how you feel about it. If Carlos curses Juan think what both their sides of it are. Don’t just think who is right. As a man things are as they should or shouldn’t be. As a man you know who is right and who is wrong. You have to make decisions and enforce them. As a writer you should not judge. You should understand.

MICE: All right.

Y.C.: Listen now. When people talk listen completely. Don’t be thinking what you’re going to say. Most people never listen. Nor do they observe. You should be able to go into a room and when you come out know everything that you saw there and not only that. If that room gave you any feeling you should know exactly what it was that gave you that feeling. Try that for practice. When you’re in town stand outside the theatre and see how the people differ in the way they get out of taxis or motor cars. There are a thousand ways to practice. And always think of other people.

Hemingway on Writing is a treasure trove of Papa’s wisdom from cover to cover. Complement it with more notable advice on writing, spanning from the practical to the philosophical, including Elmore Leonard’s 10 rules of writing, Walter Benjamin’s thirteen doctrines, H. P. Lovecraft’s advice to aspiring writers, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s letter to his daughter, Zadie Smith’s 10 rules of writing, David Ogilvy’s 10 no-bullshit tips, Henry Miller’s 11 commandments, Jack Kerouac’s 30 beliefs and techniques, John Steinbeck’s 6 pointers, and Susan Sontag’s synthesized learnings.

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