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Ernest Hemingway's top 4 tips for writing well

Hemingway was one of the great American writers of the 20th century. He published seven novels, six short story collections, and two non-fiction works - and he won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1954.
This list of rules was given to him in 1917, when he was a fresh-faced reporter at the Kansas City Star. They're the four basic rules of writing that he would carry with him the rest of his life. He said in 1940:

"Those were the best rules I ever learned for the business of writing, I've never forgotten them. No man with any talent, who feels and writes truly about the thing he is trying to say, can fail to write well if he abides with them."

The list is short and insightful, a must-read for anyone interested in writing effectively:

1. Use short sentences - Hemingway was famous for his 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 six words:

For sale: baby shoes, never used.

Short sentences are easier to digest. They make it easier to follow each point of your argument.

2. Use short first paragraphs - see rule 1.

3. Use vigorous English - this rule is really a reminder to do your homework and fully understand what you are writing about.

In most cases, if you've done your homework, you'll write with authority and vigour.

4. Be positive, not negative - which means you should say what something is rather than what it isn't. For example:
Instead of saying something is inexpensive, say it's affordable.
Instead of describing something as unclear, say it's confusing.

Being positive makes your writing more direct. Whether they realise it or not, readers are turned off by vague writing.

Hemingway did have another tip, which he confided to F. Scott Fitzgerald in 1934: "I write one page of masterpiece to ninety-nine pages of shit. I try to put the shit in the wastebasket."

About James Hurford

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