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Writing advice from Ernest Hemingway

In author, writers, Writing on January 31, 2012 at 8:54 am

Last night, while reading Hemingway: A Biography by Jeffrey Meyers, I came to what I consider the best part in any literary biography: a breakdown of the subject’s writing process. Even if reading the biography of an author I don’t necessarily enjoy, I’m always fascinated by the way they work and the approach they take when hunkering down with a manuscript. Last week, I posted Ian Fleming’s advice on writing. Here, according to Meyers, is Hemingway’s strategy:

    Study the best literary models.
    Master your subject through experience and reading.
    Work in disciplined isolation.
    Begin early in the morning and concentrate for several hours each day.
    Begin by reading everything you have written from the start or, if engaged on a long book, from the last chapter.
    Write slowly and deliberately.
    Stop writing when things are going well and you know what will happen next so that you have sufficient momentum to continue the next day.
    Do not discuss the material while writing about it.
    Do not think about writing when you are finished for the day but allow your subconscious mind to ponder it.
    Work continuously on a project once you start it.
    Keep a record of your daily progress.
    Make a list of titles after you have completed the work.

An interesting list, to be sure. The one thing that struck me was his advice to stop writing when things are going well to ensure you have something to write about the next time you’re at your desk. I’ve done this from the beginning, and it serves me very well. Working in “disciplined isolation,” however, is not something I can do. With a 10-month-old baby in the house, I have to change my fair share of diapers!

As for not discussing the work in progress . . . that’s a rule I break all the time. I tend to obsess on a story once I get going on it. If I’m stuck, I complain bitterly to my wife. If things are going really well, then I’m more than happy to blather on about it. I also never read a manuscript I’m working on until I’m completely done with the first draft. I think reading what you’re putting down on paper as you go along is a terrible idea. Personally, I’m guaranteed to fall into the trap of early editing and start rewriting everything before I have the rough draft done. That, for me, is the kiss of death.

I don’t write early in the morning but late at night when the house is dark and quiet. I’ll write for several hours if I can—but if the words aren’t flowing, I won’t force it. Admittedly, I don’t write slowly or deliberately. If the idea is fully formed in my head, I frantically pound the keys to get it down on paper before it vanishes into the ether. My revisions are slow and deliberate, but my first draft is a race to get the story out.

According to Meyers, “It often took Hemingway all morning to write a single perfect paragraph.”

Wouldn’t it be nice to have that luxury of time?

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