This is the big Kahuna. The guy with an app named after him. The generalissimo of sturdy, stark, macho American prose. The one and only author that your dad, your boss, your pothead roommate, your English teacher, and that Guy in Your MFA all agree is a Good Writer™.
Can you learn to write like America’s most consistently admired author? Indeed you can. But there are five very important steps you must take.
Who is Ernest Hemingway?
20th-century novelist, short story author, and journalist Ernest Hemingway was born about 10 miles outside of Chicago in 1899. After a boyhood straight out of Boys’ Life — hunting and fishing at a cabin in Michigan in the summer; boxing, football, and other competitive sports during the school year — he went straight from high school to a newspaper job.
After a stint of World War I military service, Hemingway spent the 1920s writing in Paris. Besides churning out scintillating prose for the Toronto Star, such as his 1922 article, “A Canadian with $1,000 a Year Can Live Very Comfortably and Enjoyably in Paris,” and hanging out with Gertrude Stein, James Joyce, Ezra Pound, and F. Scott Fitzgerald, Hemingway began to produce fiction. In 1926, he published the novel that put him on the map: The Sun Also Rises.
The hits kept coming: a book of short stories titled Men Without Women in 1927, the novel A Farewell to Arms in 1929, the war-time novel For Whom the Bell Tolls in 1940, and your grandpa’s favorite novella, The Old Man and the Sea, which gained a wide audience thanks to its publication in Life magazine in 1952 and garnered Hemingway the Pulitzer Prize.
Hemingway was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1954. He committed suicide in 1961 at his house just outside of Idaho’s famed Sun Valley ski resort.
What’s so special about Ernest Hemingway’s writing?
Hemingway’s extremely simple, journalistic writing style was a breath of fresh air to the post-war literary landscape of the 1920s. It’s a style that remained largely unchanged throughout his career, and it still appeals to 21st-century readers both casual and scrupulous. Whether you’re a kid halfway through the fourth grade or a grad student, a CEO or a factory worker, Hemingway’s precise deployment of nouns and verbs can make a complicated scene come to life.
The hills across the valley of the Ebro were long and white. On this side there was no shade and no trees and the station was between two lines of rails in the sun. Close against the side of the station there was a warm shadow of the building and a curtain, made of strings of bamboo beads, hung across the open door into the bar, to keep out flies. The American and the girl with him sat at a table in the shade, outside the building. It was very hot and the express from Barcelona would come in forty minutes.
“Hills Like White Elephants” by Ernest Hemingway
No muss, no fuss. No SAT vocabulary words. No semi-colons. No exclamation points! No adverbs. Nearly no adjectives. It’s a writing style any English-speaker can understand, yet through the power of rhythm, repetition, and ironic understatement, it rises above the clunky naiveté found in basically-worded texts like children’s books or school essays.
Write like Hemingway in five easy steps
Let’s Hemingway-ify what many consider to be the worst piece of prose ever written in the English language.
It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents, except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the house-tops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness. Through one of the obscurest quarters of London, and among haunts little loved by the gentlemen of the police, a man, evidently of the lowest orders, was wending his solitary way. He stopped twice or thrice at different shops and houses of a description correspondent with the appearance of the quartier in which they were situated, and tended inquiry for some article or another which did not seem easily to be met with.
Paul Clifford by Edward Bulwer-Lytton
Step 1. Simplify the sentences
All those run-on sentences, taped together with semi-colons and commas? Turn them into simple sentences. If you’ve got more than twelve words in a sentence, cut five. If you’re concerned that your sentences are too short, staple three at time together with ands.
Step 2. Delete all the adverbs
While you’re at it, delete most of the adjectives, too. And substitute one-syllable words for any words more than three syllables.
Step 3. Change the setting to Spain or Paris
And make sure a world war is underway. Don’t forget to mention the names of the streets your protagonist walks down and landmarks they glimpse.
Step 4. Make sure your protagonist is a manly man
Don’t describe him. Give him a manly sport to engage in: a rugged, dangerous activity that’s typically done solo. Bullfighting, fishing, and big-game hunting are all safe bets. If he feels an emotion, we don’t want to hear about it. Should a woman happen to stray into your story, keep her at arm’s length for the reader with a vague, slightly unsympathetic characterization.
Step 5. Add alcohol
Your characters should always be drinking. Do not mention famous name-brands, but do state the specific type of liquor they are consuming. They can get drunk, but never sentimental. Sentimentality has no place in Hemingway’s prose style.
Okay, let’s take a look at our Hemingway-ified text:
It was night and it was dark and rain was falling on the streets of Paris. The rain fell hard and the wind blew along the rooftops and the yellow flames in the street lamps flickered.
Nick Adams walked down the Rue des Criminels. He walked alone. He went into the bar in the Hotel de Chien for a glass of fine de Bordeaux but there was none tonight because the supply lines had been cut by the Germans. He walked to the Rue de St. Martin to buy a newspaper. The evening edition was sold out. He asked for the bullfight reports from Barcelona and paid the old woman two francs for the papers and went back out into the rain.
Your turn! Are you trying to write ad copy that will appeal to a broad audience? An essay for school? A business report for work? Then Hemingway’s unadorned, direct-to-the point, jargon-free style will serve you well.
Just don’t, um, include the booze.
Katherine Luck is the author of the novels The Cure for Summer Boredom and In Retrospect. Her latest book, False Memoir, combines the high stakes of a gritty psychological thriller with the guilty pleasure of a sensational true crime tell-all. You can read more of her work, including the “Dead Writers and Candy” series, at the-delve.com.