Ernest Hemingway is an author a lot of writers aspire to emulate. With his distinctive style of simplicity, brevity, and understated powerful emotions, he is remembered in history as one of the greats. If you’d like to write like Hemingway—not just in the “it’s good writing” sense, but in the “I want to cop that guy’s style a lil bit” sense—you came to the right place.
Obviously, the best way to learn someone’s specific writing style is to read a ton of their work. But assuming you’ve already done that, let’s look at a few actionable steps you can take to add some Hemingway flair to your own writing.
Here are 10 ways to write like Hemingway:
- Simplicity of Language
- Short Sentences
- Show, Don’t Tell
- Focus on Dialogue
- Omit Needless Information
- Embrace Brevity
- Create Subtext
- Revise and Edit
- Capture Emotion in Simple Moments
1. Simplicity of Language
Hemingway’s prose is known for its simplicity and directness. Choose straightforward and unpretentious words to convey your ideas. Avoid unnecessary adjectives, adverbs, and clauses. Go further than that and avoid dialogue tags. Literally, any little scrap of ink that isn’t wholly necessary needs to go.
Further than that, Hemingway was also very direct with his narrative—straight to the point without fluff. Like in The Old Man and the Sea: “He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish.”
While another writer might spend time setting up that scene, describing the weather, starting wide and zooming in on our character to introduce him with description (and there’s nothing wrong with that approach), Hemingway just says, “Look—there’s an old guy who can’t catch a fish.” And he’s so right. That is an old guy, and he isn’t catching any fish. It’s like I’m there.
Because of his short, sometimes clipped sentences, Hemingway uses a lot of punctuation throughout his writing. While a few classic authors drop punctuation because they’re simply too good of writers to require it (lol), Hemingway is surprisingly punctuation-heavy for such a minimalistic writer.
Now I’m not saying you should sprinkle commas like salt, but don’t shy away from properly punctuating your sentences. We’re not trying to be Cormac McCarthy out here.
3. Short Sentences
Like I said, Hemingway often employed short, punchy sentences. That may be solely because he was a minimalist writer, but it also creates a staccato rhythm that became iconic to his writing. Don’t use exclusively short sentences—variation is usually best—but give it a try on a few of them!
4. Show, Don’t Tell
Hemingway believed in letting readers infer emotions and meanings through actions and dialogue, rather than explicitly telling them. (This technique is known as show, don’t tell.) Use dialogue, gestures, and actions to reveal character traits and emotions. In Hills Like White Elephants, a couple engage in a conversation loaded with subtext. The actual topic of their conversation and the premise of the story is barely alluded to and never mentioned directly. We get a clear picture of who they are as a couple and how they feel about each other in the space of a couple pages, just through the way they act.
5. Focus on Dialogue
Hemingway’s dialogue is crisp, authentic, and often laden with subtext. Pay special attention to how you write dialogue to make sure it’s strong, characterizing, and carrying some unseen meaning.
6. Omit Needless Information
Hemingway’s style is known for what he leaves out, possibly even more than what he actually includes. To write in the style of Hemingway, you have to trust-fall into your reader’s waiting arms, because they’re going to need to carry a lot of the mental load. Avoid excessive exposition and background information. Trust the reader to fill in the gaps with the crumbs you give them. Essentially, to write in Hemingway’s style, you should include ONLY what is necessary for the clever reader to be able to piece together. A lot of readers will be left by the wayside, so distract them with pretty prose and shiny objects so they also have a good time.
7. Embrace Brevity
Ernest Hemingway conveyed complex emotions and themes with just a few carefully chosen words. To write like Hemingway, strive for brevity while still conveying depth of meaning. Not only should your sentences be brief, but the shorter the story the easier it is on the reader.
8. Create Subtext
Hemingway’s writing often relies on what is left unsaid, allowing readers to infer underlying emotions and conflicts—like we mentioned above with Hills Like White Elephants. Use subtext to add layers of meaning to your narrative. Think about what your characters aren’t saying. If your story and dialogue exchanges have no subtext, think carefully about what each character wants, both in the story and from that specific conversation.
9. Revise and Edit
Hemingway was known for his rigorous editing process. After you write the story, review it critically. Chop up anything remotely unnecessary or repetitive, and make sure every single word is intentional. Oftentimes, you can swap a few words or a phrase for a single, more poignant word. That’s usually the better option, especially when we’re trying to write like Hemingway.
10. Capture Emotion in Simple Moments
Hemingway had a knack for infusing powerful emotions into seemingly mundane or simple moments. In Hills Like White Elephants, a couple is sitting at a table ordering drinks and being passive aggressive, but the story is about the conflicting feelings and forces that come with considering an abortion. Look for opportunities to evoke emotion through small, everyday actions, rather than relying on grander settings and events.
It can be a ton of fun—and an educational exercise—to learn from and find inspiration in other writers. Learning to mimic lots of styles can help you hone your own. Just make sure you focus on finding your own voice and developing a style that suits your unique perspective and writing goals. After all, we’ve already had an Ernest Hemingway.