Hemingway didn’t write like you think he wrote.

If you have spent more than a few seconds following the writing blogosphere, searching for writing tips and stuff like that you will have found variations of these two statements: “Write short, clear sentences“, sometimes followed by a “like Hemingway did.” Either as an example of simple, clear writing or as a description of his style, the universal, known-by-everybody message is the same: he wrote short sentences, and that’s the style to emulate.

And he did write short sentences. A few. Sometimes. Not many really. In fact, the average length of his sentences is way above the contemporary writer’s.  But that’s not what most people claim or know. A few examples, and from influential or “reputable” sources:

SENTENCE LENGTH – True, Hemingway wrote short sentences. And true, he is known for simplified, direct prose.

Writers Digest: Write Like Ernest Hemingway, August 25, 2009


Hemingway was famous for a terse minimalist style of writing that dispensed with flowery adjectives and got straight to the point. In short, Hemingway wrote with simple genius.

Perhaps his finest demonstration of short sentence prowess was when he was challenged to tell an entire story in only 6 words:

For sale: baby shoes, never worn.

Ernest Hemingway 5 tips for writing well, Copy Bloger, October 30, 2006

Here’s another from Cliff Notes but, unlike the others, this one points out that there’s more than it seems:

  • Short sentences (“It was a fine morning.”) or long sentences consisting of short phrases and clauses connected by conjunctions. Here’s an example of the latter: “After a while we came out of the mountains, and there were trees along both sides of the road, and a stream and ripe fields of grain, and the road went on, very white and straight ahead, and then lifted to a little rise, and off on the left was a hill with an old castle, with buildings close around it and a field of grain going right up to the walls and shifting in the wind” (The Sun Also Rises, Chapter X).

That’s NOT what anybody would consider short. It may be… concise, perhaps, ¿but clear? Yes if you have enough memory to remember how the sentence started once you reach the end, but… short, journalistic? No. Unflowery? Sure. Lacking abstract adjectives? Fair enough. But short, unpretentious, direct, and natural? No.

Another, from Wikipedia:

Like Mark TwainStephen CraneTheodore Dreiser and Sinclair Lewis, Hemingway was a journalist before becoming a novelist; after leaving high school he went to work for The Kansas City Star as a cub reporter.[11] Although he stayed there for only six months, he relied on the Starstyle guide as a foundation for his writing: “Use short sentences. Use short first paragraphs. Use vigorous English. Be positive, not negative.”

I’m writing this post because I saw The Pulp Archivist quote Tom Simon at Bondwine Books. He wrote (quite a few years ago) a post about, among other things, style in science fiction, and he mentions Hemingway:

In fact, the most successful experimental writer of the 1920s and thereabouts is not even recognized as experimental anymore, because his experiments succeeded too well. That was Ernest Hemingway. The essence of his genius was to apply ‘telegraphese’*, the compressed and allusive language of the transatlantic cable reporters, to the short story and the novel. Look at any of Hemingway’s novels side by side with his contemporaries, such as Fitzgerald, Woolf, or Joyce himself, and then with a randomly chosen bestseller from any later period up to the 1980s or thereabouts. You will probably find that Hemingway’s language is much more like the latter-day bestseller than any of his contemporaries.[…] Few later authors could equal the pith and force of Hemingway’s style, but they imitated it as well as they could, until it became the default ‘transparent’ style for even garden-variety commercial fiction. Heinlein’s enormous reputation as a science fiction writer rests partly on his being the first writer to successfully apply the Hemingway technique to SF.

*By the way, I have sometimes used the expression “telegraphic” for certain styles, but this is not what I meant.

Well, I’m quite sure all I have boldened is wrong, or the implications anyway (and, I’ll admit, I haven’t read the whole piece, I’m just looking for Hemingway references that reflect what I suspect are popular misconceptions; the rest of the post may be spot-on.)  The conclusion, that many bloggers seem to endorse, is that Hemingway is sort of… a non-style style, perhaps? Unadorned, unflowery, simple, journalistic, short, etc. Something to emulate, and one of the current advice they give you in any writing workshop: show, don’t tell; write short sentences; write about what you know, start with a hook, etc. They are all wrong, by the way, or, at least, they are not that simple and they are quite dangerous for a novice writer.

Simon states, in fact, that we all write in Hemingwayese, to some extent and better or worse, of course. His post quoted above also mentions other writers, claiming that Hemingway is closer to your average bestseller (perhaps even random potboilers?) while people like Fitzgerald use a language that, in contrast, must be much different and exotic. Well, I’m sure that applies to James Joyce (who Hemingway admired, by the way) but I don’t know about the others…

Here are two random quotes (really, I just went to a web that has the book and started clicking blindly) from Fitzgerald most famous book, The Great Gatsby:

I sat on the front steps with them while they waited for their car. It was dark here in front: only the bright door sent ten square feet of light volleying out into the soft black morning. Sometimes a shadow moved against a dressing-room blind above, gave way to another shadow, an indefinite procession of shadows, who rouged and powdered in an invisible glass.

That doesn’t look that strange. A bit unnecessary, perhaps, but that’s what many writers do, for they seem obsessed with descriptions of light, color, and whatnot. Another one:

We all looked in silence at Mrs. Wilson who removed a strand of hair from over her eyes and looked back at us with a brilliant smile. Mr. McKee regarded her intently with his head on one side and then moved his hand back and forth slowly in front of his face.

That’s pretty… standard? You can find writing like this in any literary magazine of moderate or even low quality. I actually would highlight quite a few issues if I had to proofread that (like what the hell is “moves his hand back and forth slowly in front of his face” supposed to be.)

Now, here’s a sentence from Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms:

The next year there were many victories.

Hah! See? Short, dense sentence! Yeah… but this is the following sentence:

The next year there were many victories. The mountain that was beyond the valley and the hillside where the chestnut forest grew was captured and there were victories beyond the plain on the plateau to the south and we crossed the river in August and lived in a house in Gorizia that had a fountain and many thick shady trees in a walled garden and a wistaria vine purple on the side of the house.

Yes, that’s a single sentence, with 0 commas. An unfortunate coincidence? Well, perhaps, but I can tell you I have never read a sentence like that in any popular bestseller in my whole life. Now, another rando from For Whom the Bell Tolls:

At one time he had thought Gaylord’s had been bad for him [yay! Short sentence!] It was the opposite of the puritanical, religious communism of Velazquez 63, the Madrid palace that had been turned into the International Brigade headquarters in the capital.

Ok, that’s more average and an example of a competent writer. Let’s see… Death in the Afternoon:

Once I remember Gertrude Stein talking of bullfights spoke of her admiration for Joselito and showed me some pictures of him in the ring and of herself and Alice Toklas sitting in the first row of the wooden barreras at the bull ring at Valencia with Joselito and his brother Gallo below, and I had just come from the Near East, where the Greeks broke the legs of their baggage and transport animals and drove and shoved them off the quay into the shallow water when they abandoned the city of Smyrna, and I remember saying that I did not like the bullfights because of the poor horses.

What the hell was that? That’s certainly not an “experimental style that succeded too well.” Nobody writes like that. Oh, and the sentences that follow it are just slightly shorter.

Here, two sentences I just found from The Old Man and The Sea:

[1]The boy had given him two fresh small tunas, or albacores, which hung on the two deepest lines like plummets and, on the others, he had a big blue runner and a yellow jack that had been used before; but they were in good condition still and had the excellent sardines to give them scent and attractiveness.[2] Each line, as thick around as a big pencil, was looped onto a green-sapped stick so that any pull or touch on the bait would make the stick dip and each line had two forty-fathom coils which could be made fast to the other spare coils so that, if it were necessary, a fish could take out over three hundred fathoms of line.

Now, I don’t think this is the style of today’s popular literature. If anything, Fitzgerald is  closer to what is now popular (because it’s more natural) than Hemingway. There’s really nothing natural or short about Hemingway. Oh, sure, he did write some (very famous) short sentences, and you can’t write a whole book only with half-page sentences anyway, and he did play with sequences of short sentences, then followed by unholy, 200-word abominations, but he did NOT write in journalese or like a “telegraph.” It’s true, however, that he had a DIRECT style (and a phobia of commas, I guess,) with little to no abstraction, emotions, or introspective digressions. Perhaps from there his fame of writing concise, direct literature comes from, but you certainly can’t jump from there to “he wrote short, simple, clear sentences, like today’s bestsellers.

If anything, a lot of what I read in fantasy and science fiction is decidedly anti-Hemingway: painfully short sentences (and quite telegraphic ones, in the bad sense of the word) fragmented descriptions/ideas, with paragraphs so short that sometimes they are just a single sentence. This could be a (hypothetical but inspired by real ones) example of your average writer, too terrified of writing long sentences that he can’t add a single clause without suffering a psychotic attack:

“The hero found the dark, brooding temple. He climbed the stairs. Inside, it was dark, shadows lurking in every corner. A cry of pain echoed from inside. He whipped out his sword and readied himself.”

Is this bad? Well… kinda. Yes. I mean, it’s not wrong, but it’s… dull. It does the job and it’s functional, but that’s it — and reading 300 pages like that can be torture. It’s also clear that writers like those (and there are many) are constricted, terrified of something, so afraid of breaking some unnamed writing law that they mutilate their texts and don’t allow them any freedom. And it gets even worse when action scenes kick in since some fool once said that short sentences enhance the immediacy and strength of action, and now everybody writes stuttering, two or three-word action-scene sentences.

But I’m getting sidetracked here and the post is already long enough. I have quite a lot to say about these things, but this should be enough for today, and I made my point quite clear I believe: sure, write like Hemingway if you want, but he didn’t write like you think he wrote.




6 thoughts on “Hemingway didn’t write like you think he wrote.

  1. Pingback: Sensor Sweep: Han Solo, James Bond, Tarzan, Hemingway – castaliahouse.com

    1. emperorponders

      Well, it’s an old post, and, really, as I said, it wasn’t even about what he wrote, I was just scanning for popular conceptions of Hemingway and that one seemed to fit the bill.


  2. Pingback: Bad Writing: Amazon bestsellers edition – Emperor's Notepad

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