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How Toosday: six tips from Ernest Hemingway to improve your writing

Estimated read time: 6 minutes

Back by popular demand – well, after a friend told me he thought I was creating a series of these things and I thought it seemed like a good idea – it’s time to take another look at what the great writers can teach us about their craft. Because, after all, whether you’re writing a tweet, a webpage or an entire prospectus, it’s all writing. You might as well make sure you’re doing a good job of it!

For previous entries in what we’re now tentatively calling a series, check out tips to improve your writing from Stephen King and from George Orwell.

Today, I’m pulling from another big hitter; Ernest Hemingway.

Allow yourself to suck at first

Hemingway famously said “the first draft of everything is shit.”

This is a good thing and should always be held in mind. When you do, it’s liberating. Bash that first draft out and then start to shape it. No-one has to see that first draft except you.

You should have seen the first version of this article…

In fact, accept that you might well suck quite a lot

We’re not perfect. Humans are not designed that way. As such, no matter how good a writer you are, your fingers won’t be tapping gold every time you work on something.

How can I be so sure on this? Well, if someone like Hemingway can admit to someone like F Scott Fitzgerald “I write one page of masterpiece to ninety-one pages of shit” then us mere mortals are going to have to go some to do better.

Again though, it’s fine. Especially when you take into account this next tip.

Treat writing and editing very differently

Another famous quote from Hemingway was his advice to “write drunk, edit sober”. Now, I am not advocating drinking at work and certainly don’t follow this tip in a literal sense – unless you can get drunk on tea, that is.

No, it’s more about mindsets; writing and editing require different ones. When you write, you should be relaxed and creative. When you’re editing, that red pen comes out and you have to be tough.

As such, don’t try to edit your work straight after writing it. Take a break and allow yourself to transition from one state to the other – to sober up, if you like.

Don’t aim too high

There’s lots of wisdom out there to suggest that you should aim for your copy to have a fairly low reading age. For instance, at The Native we try to aim for around 15 and you can use a tool like Readable to help guide you.

But, perhaps even that is too high? If you run Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea or The Sun Also Rises through such a test, they come out as being suitable for 9 and 10 year olds.

No, really – Nobel prize-winning works that kids who haven’t reached double digits could read.

And don’t just think this is about dumbing down your writing. Far from it; this about making it accessible. With that in mind…

Be bold and clear

There’s a great tool called the Hemingway app that will help you out here. Paste what you’re working on into the app and see what it comes back with.

Aside from pointing out where you might want to shorten or declutter a sentence, it will also pick out any instances of the passive voice, any adverbs and any words you’ve used where a simpler alternative would do.

Give it a go – it’s dead useful. And, while you’re at it, ditch any jargon, gobbledegook and mind-numbing acronyms too. Thanks.

Use short sentences

Perhaps the defining tip on writing from Hemingway. He was famous for doing away with unnecessary extras and getting to the point.

That’s not say he made every sentence short. Oh no. He used longer ones too. It all depended on what worked best for the rhythm of his writing and what sounded good when read aloud – without being too tiring to read.

The beauty with short sentences is that they are still highly effective. Perhaps the most effective.

Take, for example, the piece of Hemingway writing you’ve been expecting to see the whole time you’ve been reading his article. Yep, we’re about to play the ‘Hemingway tells a story in six words’ card…

Brace yourself…

“For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”

I don’t really have anything that can follow such genius as that, so I won’t bother trying.

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