Ernest Hemingway’s Top 5 Tips for Writing Well

Ernest Hemingway’s Top 5 Tips for Writing Well

Reader Comments (370)

  1. Is a mac painless or stable? As the marketer would you prefer the windows users to think about the pain they are going through or is stable still a better choice?

    • You’d have to clearly have data on how Windows users were viewing their products at the time, and market to them correctly.

      If you are marketing to a fairly satisfied group, I would go with Brian’s advice.

  2. This is really great. I see that this post is not apart of a series. I think it should be. I think you should do a series like “Wisdom from grandmasters” and add Stephen King, Hemingway etc. just like your tutorial series. (Ok, I admit, I’m an addict for series — just like comic books…)
    Thanks for a great post! Happy Halloween.

    • That would be awesome. I’m a sucker for these writing tips posts. I swear every time I see one of these posts with 5 Tips, 5 Secrets, 7 Ways to, I’m on it like jelly on peanut butter.

  3. I’m sure Stephen King would have plenty to say about ending your blog posts – cliffhangers every time and not revealing your conclusion until 500 posts later!

  4. Great post, Brian. I have to admit Hemingway is one of my heroes of writing and just for the reasons stated above: His (mostly) short and direct style cuts to the core of things.

    I agree with Yu: This is a topic well worth turning into a series. Does the Aristotle post count, though?

  5. Great post. Coetze, who’s writing is similiar to Hemingway, is one of my favortites, for his ability to write terse, powerful prose.

  6. Great post. I love Hemingway. It’s important to remember what he wasn’t good at too. His novels, um, suck. They are melodramatic and simplistic.

    His short stories and novellas on the other hand are absolutely brilliant.

    Brian, I’m assuming you read the Wired collection of 6 word stories?

  7. Mark, I didn’t… got a link?

    I don’t think anyone will ever beat Hemingway on that one though, at least in my book (as a father).

  8. I remember reading an article comparing the reading level by grade of various newspapers, authors, etc. The NY Times was noted as a 10th grade reading level. NY Daily News rated a 7th grade-level read.

    Hemingway came in at between 3rd and 5th grade, most notably for his shorter, less complex sentences.

  9. Oh Brian, I think anyone can be a pretty decent copywriter when they have a good coach, great resources, true passion for the product and genuine respect for the prospect…

    … all while writing meaningfully and persuasively at the 3rd grade level. So maybe not Fitzgerald, but definitely Hemingway :=)

  10. Roberta’s comment made me think. Maybe after we write the copy we should have it run through those tests that tells you which level it is. It can act as check. But if you’re already following the ‘copywriting’ rules then it should come up in a lower level.

    It’s kinda funny because people usually aim for higher level writing and in copywriting it’s reverse logic…

  11. Roberta and Yu’s comments about reading level reminded me of my teaching days. A reading specialist helped me explain reading level guidelines to the writers for a site I work on. (We were getting too much esoteric academic work.)

    Figuring out a piece’s reading level can be a little trickier than I realized, but Fry’s readability graph simplifies the process. His graph looks at the # of words per sentence and the # of syllables per word.

  12. Be wary of using the word “but” in your copywriting.

    Whenever you use the word “but”, everything you say before it is perceived to be a lie.

    Example: I really like you Nick, but….

    Once she said “but”… I knew I was getting dumped.

    Just some food for thought.


  13. Yes Nick, I’ve read Michel Fortin’s advice on that (which is contained in the post I link to above), but it’s too simplistically asserted to make me avoid using “but” in many cases.

    Now, look at the sentence I just wote. Does my use of the word “but” negate the fact that I knew and had read the source of your advice? No, it reinforces the fact that I HAD read it and that the advice is nowhere near universally applicable.

    In fact, the use of the word “but” is a powerful rhetorical tool for shooting down specious arguments. 🙂

  14. True.

    I guess you just need to understand the context you’re using it in.

    Good point about using the word “but” in shooting down specious arguments.

    I should clarify, I don’t follow the rule to eliminate “but” from everything I write.

    I do try to make sure it works in whatever I’m writing though.

    I shouldn’t have used the word “Everything” in my statement above of “everything you say…” – that was a pretty bold statement, and you quickly proved it wrong.

    My bad.


  15. I found it quite humorous that you used Michael’s example of “positive” language: “discomfort” as a positive replacement for “painless” – do as a say, not as I do! 🙂

    Otherwise, a very useful post.


  16. I got here through an unreproduceable series of clicks that started at, so it’s likely I’ll never find my way back.

    The one thing I think you left out, that business writers simply cannot be taught to emulate, is that Hemingway always had something to say.

  17. That is key, isn’t it Keith? 🙂

    Bu I don’t know that a business writer “cannot be taught” to know what to say, though. It’s usually just a matter of changing someone’s perspective.

    And a lot of people *do* know what to say, but think they have to write a bunch of complicated prose. Hemingway proves that when you have something to say, it’s best to just say it as clearly as possible.

  18. Wow, I found my way back. Amazing!

    Yes, true, but.

    Having something to say really starts with having a clear thought. You’re never going to boil the words down to the bone if you don’t know what the thought is.

    That’s the biggest problem I’ve seen in business writing. It’s not the writing. Writing comes second. It’s the thinking.

  19. But Mickey Spillane was a better writer,
    he didn’t get bogged down trying to impress other intellectuals, must be why he isn’t well known or appreciated today.

  20. Dental work is fun! I’m with Keith, by the way on writing as the expression of thinking. It’s a great way to think yourself to the point. But you have to be willing to rewrite, edit and polish to give readers the quickest and most persuasive route, a process which feels much like dental work, come to think of it.

  21. While I enjoyed this feature, I felt like I was left dangling. What were the other four rules Hemmingway received as a cub reporter for the Kansas City Star?

  22. I think I am falling in love with your blog!

    I’ve bookmarked this post and I’m sure it’s one I’ll be returning to as I progress with the Harry McFry story.

    Many thanks!

    Thomas Hamburger Jnr

  23. Every copywriter (marketing especially) should live by Hemingway’s six word story. It’s a powerful example of how much information you can convey in a really short space.

    ‘six-word story – lesson in brevity’ 🙂

  24. I was able to read a lot of Hemingway when I was in high school. I think his writing helped me when I started writing as a sophmore. When I wrote my first book I really attributed my work load to Hemingway’s influence as well as other writers. I titled my first book Cry of the Panther: Quest of a Species. To my utter amazement it ended up as a New York Times besteseller. I still pinch myself. As an aspiring writer I went on and worked hard at my second book I called How To Awaken The Writer Within that I put on my website (Is it okay to mention my website?) There is one of Hemingway’s rules that I really picked up on-Use Vigorous English. Thank you.
    Jim McMullen

  25. Brian:

    I did a search on “Hemingway,” and was directed to this post.

    Another one germane to productivity and/or writing better was the following:

    “Always stop when you are going good and don’t think about it or worry about it until you start to write the next day. That way your subconscious will work on it all of the time.”

    “Ernest Hemingway on Writing” by Larry W. Phillips, page 42.

  26. Great article on Hemingway!
    I was fortunate years ago in college to have studied Hemingway’s writing and novels. As a result, he was highly influential in my published writing. Though I eventually developed my own style, still today I can see his influence seeping into my sequel on the endangered panther/cougar in the Everglades. These tips should be read several times over by all writers to let them seep into your subconscious like rain swollen river current in the swampland. Again, superb article!

    Thank you,

  28. In case you’re wondering, I have no idea why I called point three “point six” in my opening paragraph; otherwise, I’m happy with the previous post.

    I’m more accustomed to forum posting than commenting on blogs. In most forums, you can edit your own post right after making it.

    It’s a minor matter, in any case… but scrupulous self-editing is a must for writers.

  29. I would add that a good writing requires autor to write the text because he or she likes it, not because they are expected to get paid. But this works for bloggers… experienced writers know that very well.

  30. The last tip of Hemingway’s I believe you have to read between the lines. Life is full of shit -isn’t it? One great big game and I think Hemingway wasn’t willing to keep playing the big game.
    Hemingway was a very gifted artist in his field.
    I don’t get how one makes money from a blog or e-books.
    In the past , I have given advice away free for joining my newsletter.
    I also have a monthly draw on my book if you join my newsletter.

  31. Perfect. As Krug joked, “Eliminate half of what you’ve written, then eliminate half of what’s left.” Make a point.

  32. What if english is not your language? Should you try to make your self understandable in english or keep your website in your own language?

  33. Okay, I’m clearly really late getting to this article, but I really loved it.. #4 changed the way I write.

    Thanks a lot! 🙂

  34. I thought that six-word story was Fitzgerald’s, not Hemingway’s. According to the anecdotes I’ve read anyway. The only decent Hemingway novel was the cross-dressing one he suppressed.

  35. Hemingway tried to put the shit in the wastebasket. People of our time (including me) put it in their blogs. SCNR 😉

  36. I believe Hemingway’s style is effective for marketing because it’s honest. People relate with and trust in people who write to be understood, not to impress.

  37. #4 proves to be very useful. I’m fond of using prefixes before to indicate negativity but I found out that applying this rule makes the quality of the article better… Choice of words does matter a lot.

  38. Hemingway understood and Bukowski understood and Steinbeck understood most of the time. Many do not understand. Faulkner understood, but he was too drunk to break down his work. You must break down your writing. Updike had potential, but he went to Harvard and Harvard killed it.

  39. I wrote an essay on my Love Life for my Girlfriend, and she used to read it everyday for more than a month. Even I still enjoy reading it again and again.

    I’m a programmer. Most of the things I write is for meachines. I rarely write a good essay for humans…

  40. Very interesting post. I always find I try to explain things in my writing that take up 20 words, when really I could say the same thing in fewer than 10.

    I definitely agree shorter the better, straight too the point. I tend to waffle on when writing.

  41. What would you say J.Steinbeck’s 5 tips for writing well would be?

    My dentist always says just before putting in the needle, it will pinch a bit. Last visit I said, I know, I know, it’s going to hurt like heck! I hope next time she says it versa visa, might only then only feel like a pinch ?

  42. Hemingway said there were two kinds of writers: Putter-inners, and taker-outers.

    He was the latter, and worked diligently to pare every non-essential word from his writing. His basic message was to always rewrite, rewrite, rewrite to find your style.

    His writing vocabulary was about 5,000 words, the equivalent of a five-year-old child. But every one of them was perfect.

    It’s not about how many bricks you use to build a wall, but how you place them.

  43. I think I am falling in love with your blog!

    I’ve bookmarked this post and I’m sure it’s one I’ll be returning to as I progress with the Harry McFry story.

    Many thanks!

  44. But Mickey Spillane was a better writer,
    he didn’t get bogged down trying to impress other intellectuals, must be why he isn’t well known or appreciated today.

  45. Great article on writing tips. I am definitely bookmarking this page for future reference. This is the first post of yours I read, you got me curious so I’m off to read more.

  46. There are two “rulebooks” for writing that I love — Stephen King’s On Writing, and Elmore Leonard’s Ten Rules for Good Writing. Not a lot different from Hemingway’s advice. If you ever have to write dialogue, there is no better teacher than Leonard.

    This one goes in my posts to keep file

  47. Don’t agree about the upword rule. I think the concern about pain, for example, is built in to to the idea of dental work. Why talk about “no discomfort” when painless gets right in there? Just grab the bull by the horns and directly address the concern. Also don’t think this should be a rule. I like the sound of economical better than the sound of inexpensive but it’s a nuance issue. Inexpensive makes me think I’m still spending money, just less of it. Economical makes me think I’m saving money, even if I’m spending it. And cheap would be even better, depending on the context – you’d use it for air fare, but not for a cruise, which is all about being pampered. Cheap plane tickets, affordable cruise. It’s all about nuance, psychology and your target’s mindset, not rules.

  48. Raymond Chandler, James M. Cain, Andrew Vachss. Action, dialogue, and conflict. If it has merit, say it. Editors can make it presentable. Show don’t tell. Action verbs. 6th grade vocabulary. Then rewrite, rewrite, rewrite! That’s the magic key. My credo.

  49. Ripper post, Brian. Many thanks. I can barely imagine what line you’ll take when you finally get around to writing about the Teletubbies, but I can’t bloody wait! Best regards, P. 🙂

  50. Hemingway was a raging alcoholic. We have a lot in common.
    Great post and proof that things never really do change (basic standard truths and foundations). What worked then, works now. Computer keyboard, pen and paper…no matter. Words are timeless.

  51. Yes, I likey. These are good classics I have heard.

    Per #1 :

    Some writers take it too far though, I think. Like Augusten Burroughs (Running with Scissors), for example, he writes quick good reads, but the sentences are all so short, I feel it lacks a little in what literature is all about — words and sentences and paragraphs. It is what it is and it is good, it’s just that in the reading of his material, I am left feeling the want of some good old fashioned literature.

    To me, sentences can be too short. I think people like me who might have a tendency to ramble on to unnecessary ends should strive and aim to meet all these rules because I won’t achieve them even when I try my best, but the people who are already short-winded should not get too carried away in following these rules, especially if it means a loss of style or description.

    Oddly, I find on the Internet, a place where people really need to keep their sentences short and tight to meet the attention span of their audience, bloggers can be exceptionally boring in their long-winded-windiness.

  52. “I write one page of masterpiece to ninety one pages of shit,? Hemingway confided to F. Scott Fitzgerald in 1934. “I try to put the shit in the wastebasket.?

    …that line makes me feel like we all have a chance at greatness if we only put in the work for it.

  53. It’s “Using vigorous English” that I find the most difficult. As I understand it Hemingway mostly wrote standing up. He was also a great sportsman. So, plenty of vigour in his life. I think I’ll go out now and take some exercise before writing more.

  54. Thanks Brian. There’s a part in ‘Ernest Hemingway on Writing’
    (referred to above) where he talks about the importance of knowing who you have to beat. In his world, it was famous novelists; in ours it’s the great copywriters.

  55. “Publication is not all that it is cracked up to be. But writing is. Writing has so much to give, so much to teach, so many surprises. That thing you had to force yourself to do – the actual act of writing – turns out to be the best part. It’s like discovering that while you thought you needed the tea ceremony for the caffeine, what you really needed was the tea ceremony.”

    Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird, xxvi.

  56. Nice post, thanks. I love Hem’s obsession with editing, and think it’s excellent advice for copywriters.

    As well as being a short story writer, Hemingway was also of course a novelist. That means that some of his most famous works – Fiesta, For Whom The Bell Tolls – were many hundreds of pages long. They also contain lots of long sentences. So Hem can also teach us about long copy writing – and the importance of rhythm and sentence length too.

    In fairness though, Hem’s writing was as carefully styled and affected as anybody else’s. As you rightly point out, he was a savage critic of his own work. Hem was as vain as any of his contemporaries about his writing – and there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s probably why he was so good!

  57. I like the idea of using “up” words. Psychologists call them affirmative language use. They would say to never tell a kid, “don’t cross the street” because the kid will focus on “cross the street.” Instead say, “stay over on this side of the street.” Very deep and relevant. Thanks, CB! Kinda reminds me of my latest blog title. I say “Do More than ‘Net Work and Network” instead of, “Get Off the Internet Sometimes.” LOL

  58. I really like the tips of Heming, really very useful. I have tried to follow the good advice in them write each of my articles more than 4 rules and always posititive. It’s just that I have not been able to refine writing using Bahasa vigorous, and therefore the above lessons really helped me.

  59. This great post and the comments after it inspired me to write a Hemingway post of my own. It reveals Hemingway’s secret weapon for writing killer copy. I’d love to know what you folks think – just click on my name to see it! Cheers

  60. I really enjoyed this article. I’m relatively new to the whole writing thing and, since discovering CopyBlogger, have become fascinated with it!

    Although I must admit Hemingway is not one of my favourite authors, all these tips definitely make complete sense logically and I will most definitely be sure to concentrate on implementing them.

    For somebody who is constantly trying to improve his writing, this – as well as every other article on CopyBlogger – is heaven.

  61. I’ve heard Hemingway has fallen out of favor as America’s Great Writer. Please say it ain’t so.

    #4 reminds me of Softspeak – the soothing language we use for people in the dental chair. Jarring negative language is a turnoff. We avoid saying stuff like “Don’t WORRY, this NEEDLE won’t HURT you.”

    It’s the mothers in the room that say stuff like that… and little Johnny’s knuckles go white as he grips the chair.

  62. You’re right Rich. I was “drunk” when I wrote it. Thanks for the edit.

  63. Brian, I disagree with Point 4:

    1. “Mothers For Driving Sober” is not as effective as “Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD)

    2. “Drive Sober” hasn’t got the wallop of “Don’t Drink & Drive.”

    3. “Private Property” informs. “No Trespassing” warns.

    4. “Warning,” “Danger,” “Don’t Cross,” “Caution,” etc.

    Sometimes, the most positive results are achieved through negative propositions.


  64. He had another rule that I’ve always liked.

    Hemingway believed that if you are speaking to a friend, you always end your sentence with their name, instead of beginning the sentence addressing them.

    Example: What a lovely post, Brian.
    Rather than: Brian, what a lovely post.

    The first sentence sounds more friendly, doesn’t it?

    Hemingway is not my favorite writer–not by a long shot–but I find this technique incredibly useful.

    Anyways, thanks for the post–I enjoyed the literary break. Made me want to go fly fishing and drink rum. 🙂

  65. It is wonderful how incisive that writers such as Hemingway and Orwell were about writing for medium when it hadn’t been invented.

    One of my favorite Hemminway quotes is, ” Most writers slough the most important part of their trade – editing their stuff. Honing it and honing it until it gets an edge, like a bulfighter’s killing sword”.

    It just goes to show that ‘stuff’ is a good descriptive word…

    And re point 4. Be Positive, Not Negative – here is one mistake a recently made until corrected by a colleague.

    Don’t forget = always remember.

    I see this post is 4 year old. It is still applicable and timely.


  66. He was definitely one of the good ones.

    I liked the 4th point. It’s very easy to be lazy and negative when a more appropriate, positive description is there. Another defining element of Hemingway’s writing was his lack of qualifiers. This is also something we should try and copy.

  67. I love the first rule. It’s a part of my list as well. Next to using simple words, short words.

    I know from experience that I only write long posts when I don’t have the time to make them short.

    I believe writing short sentences is the biggest challenge for any writer. Thus I’m very inspired by the way you write Brain. How you play with sentences. Keep them short.

    You blog could be about sand and I would still read it. Because I know it’s improving my own writing. Just by reading it.

    I also recommend making a list of different sentence- starters. Good to have, especially if English is not your native language. Use it when you are proofreading. To many sentences starting with “when? and “it? is normally not a good quality sign (Unless to make a point).

    Another key word is: variation. Synonyms are your best friends.

  68. Lol, I just wrote a post with four “I ” sentence-starters. Next time i`m using more Paragraphs to hide them hehe.

    You should add a edit function, so sleepy writers get a second chance;)

  69. Oh my goodness! Isn’t that the truth!

    “I write one page of masterpiece to ninety-one pages of shit,? Hemingway confided to F. Scott Fitzgerald in 1934. ”

    I can’t help but see, he’s ninety-one pages of shit was all worth the one page of masterpiece.

  70. Awesome post. I love Hemingway’s writing and style! The last quotation is very insightful, but I think I personally find it hard to throw away anything I’ve written, even if it isn’t worth a “shit.” Despite the fact it may totally suck, I STILL feel like I put work into it and I STILL want to publish it somewhere. Perhaps I need to work harder to overcome this urge, or perhaps I just need to work on said shitty piece long enough for it to be not shitty anymore.

  71. Hemingway is great. I like your post. Short sentences are difficult. Only Hemingway could master them. My sentences are juvenile.

    Positive news is good. I found that interesting.

  72. While Hemingway is a wonderful author, I disagree with this article. His style was done well and he certainly began a new trend in writing. But that trend has lent us some of the worst writing in history, IMO.

    Scenes have been degraded to: he did, he saw, he ran…, he thought. I miss the vivid imagery and narrative helping me to know the characters, feel like I’m right there, and creating a familiarity with characters. I have found myself drawn to classic literature; because of it.

    In business writing (which is an entirely different animal than creative writing) the short, minimal style of writing is more acceptable. Even there though, writing has become so boring that many people skip through messages because they lack any feeling. There is no personality that divides one business from another and I am convinced this is not good for marketing and sales. The idea of a good marketing piece should be to stand out from the crowd and draw interest. With business standards creating the same writing across the board, this seldom happens. Be inventive! Tell your story in the most interesting way possible! Stand out from the crowd and you’ll find people following YOUR style.

    I loved Hemingway…he was a master with frugality. Most of us are not. Bring back language, please!

  73. Completely agree with David’s less is more comment – when it comes to blogs, I believe you want to get a discussion going and not just a long ramble.

  74. I love reading Hemmingway. I don’t know if I’d concider him on of the better writers I know but his works are classics and they’ve influenced many a writer after him

  75. Wonderful post!

    One of the fastest ways to make your copy easier for your readers to consume (and focus on) is to use what you mentioned in your very first point: Use short sentences.

    They work. They really do! That’s because in real life, we tend to use them a lot. In writing though, we often opt for lengthier sentences.

  76. I have studied Ernest Hemingways book The Old Man and The Sea.

    All the points above make a lot of sense. I strive to use the 5 points daily.

    Thanks a million

  77. I love hearing that great writers find it difficult to write. That quote at the end of the post is a ripper. I’d just love to write that 1 page of masterpiece…I live in hope.

  78. This is very true. Short sentences and short paragraphs better retain short attention spans. I’m also a skim reader, unless something really grabs my attention, and short sentences and short paragraphs are easier to take in when skimming.

  79. It’s funny, I still see some fairly popular bloggers make all these mistakes. It’s by virtue of their content and following that they are still succeeding. But for new followers, it can be challenging to follow, since they make their content hard to digest at times.

  80. I find the use of sub-headings to segment an article or even an email message to be effective. Ditto for the use of bullets which is like a sub-heading followed by the points. I’m finding myself writing shorter and shorter paragraphs in my emails as well as my blogs.

  81. A series would be really interesting. We could all learn a lot from those writers who have changed the world of writing. There is a lot of potential there!

  82. “It’s the difference between putting in a good effort and TRYING to move a boulder… and actually sweating, grunting, straining your muscles to the point of exhaustion… and MOVING the freaking thing!”<—best metaphor ever; can really see it in front of me.
    The “be positive” point: wow, can really feel the difference, when reading those words; “stable” gives you 10x better vibes than “error-free”.

    “In his world, it was famous novelists; in ours it’s the great copywriters.”<—yeah, but focus on giving as much as you can possibly give; rather than beat someone. Gary Bencivenga, for example, has his focus on building freidnships with his readers; how aggressive is that..?

  83. Grat Post, I have to smile about point 5. So simple things can make the difference. I have found your blog a few minutes ago, but i do come now often. Great!

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