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Writers on Writing: Advice from Ernest Hemingway

Writing Novels That Sell with Adrienne deWolfe

Writers on Writing: Advice from Ernest Hemingway

If you’re going to listen to writing advice, you might as well listen to the most acclaimed authors in the world, right?  That’s why I’m featuring this series of posts based on fiction-writing tips from literary masters. 

Today’s tip for writing great fiction comes from Ernest Hemingway: 

“To get started, write one true sentence.”

Hemingway has often been quoted as offering this advice.  However, this quotation was excerpted from a much more insightful passage on the subject of performance anxiety (which some folks like to call writer’s block.)

Let’s look at what Hemingway had to say about getting started (or moving forward) on a project day after day. The following quote was taken from Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast:

“It was wonderful to walk down the long flights of stairs knowing that I'd had good luck working. I always worked until I had something done, and I always stopped when I knew what was going to happen next. That way I could be sure of going on the next day.

"But sometimes when I was started on a new story and I could not get going, I would sit in front of the fire and squeeze the peel of the little oranges into the edge of the flame and watch the sputter of blue that they made.

"I would stand and look out over the roofs of Paris and think, 'Do not worry. You have always written before, and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence you know.'

"So finally I would write one true sentence, and then go on from there. It was easy then because there was always one true sentence that I knew or had seen or had heard someone say. If I started to write elaborately, or like someone introducing or presenting something, I found that I could cut the scrollwork or ornament out and throw it away and start with the first true simple declarative sentence I had written.”

What exactly is a true sentence?

  • You can think of it as a simple, declarative sentence. 
  • You can think of it as strong writing, uncluttered by adverbs or adjectives.
  • You can think of it as a thought-provoking idea delivered without apology or embellishment.
  • You can think of it as “showing” rather than “telling.”
  • You can think of it as a metaphor for some grander theme (such as a criticism of politics or a lament about environmental pollution.)
  • You can think of it as a “word picture” that evokes emotion by involving each of the reader’s five senses.
  • You can think of it as grammatically accurate. (But that goes without saying, right?)

Love Hemmingway?  Check out these seven fiction-writing tips compiled by Larry W. Phillips in his bookErnest Hemingway on Writing

Hemingway’s Seven Fiction-Writing Tips:

1: To get started, write one true sentence.
2: Always stop for the day while you still know what will happen next.
3: Never think about the story when you’re not working.
4: When it’s time to work again, always start by reading what you’ve written so far.
5: Don’t describe an emotion — make it.
6: Use a pencil.
7: Be brief.

Stay tuned for next week’s installment of Writers on Writing, featuring the wit and wisdom of Mark Twain.