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23 Essential Quotes from Ernest Hemingway About Writing

Ernest Hemingway was one of the most influential writers of the 20th century. Writers such as J.D. Salinger and Ray Bradbury have claimed Hemingway as an influence. Most writers seem either love him—and are influenced by his clear, direct prose—or hate they him. John Irving said he objected to the “offensive tough-guy posturing—all those stiff-upper-lip, don’t-say-much men.” 

Regardless of your personal feelings, Hemingway’s insight into the craft of writing is unparalleled, as you’ll see.

23 Ernest Hemingway Quotes for Writers

All of Ernest Hemingway’s quotes in this article are from A Moveable Feast, Ernest Hemingway‘s memoir about his life as a writer in Paris:

1. “Do not worry. You have always written before…”

Ernest Hemingway quotes

I would stand and look out over the roofs of Paris and think, “Do not worry. You have always written before and you will write now.”

2. All You Need to Write Is…

The blue-backed notebooks, the two pencils and the pencil sharpener (a pocket knife was too wasteful), the marble topped tables, the smell of early morning, sweeping out and mopping, and luck were all you needed. For luck, you carried a horse chestnut and a rabbit’s foot in your right pocket.

3. Write One True Sentence

Ernest Hemingway quotes

“All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.” So finally I would write one true sentence, and then go on from there. It was easy then because there was always one true sentence that I knew or had seen or had heard someone say.

4. Cut Out the Ornamentation

Ernest Hemingway quotes

If I started to write elaborately, or like someone introducing or presenting something, I found that I could cut that scrollwork or ornament out and throw it away and start with the first true simple declarative sentence I had written.

5. Don’t Think About Your Writing When you’re Not Writing

It was in that room too that I learned not to think about anything that I was writing from the time I stopped writing until I started again the next day. That way my subconscious would be working on it and at the same time I would be listening to other people and noticing everything.

6. Write as Straight as You Can

Ernest Hemingway to F. Scott Fitzgerald:

“Write the best story that you can and write it as straight as you can.”

7. Write What You Know

Ernest Hemingway quotes

Up in that room I decided that I would write one story about each thing that I knew about. I was trying to do this all the time I was writing, and it was good and severe discipline.

8. Allow Painters to Influence You

I was learning something from the painting of Cézanne that made writing simple true sentences far from enough to make the stories have the dimensions that I was trying to put in them. I was learning very much from him but I was not articulate enough to explain it to anyone. Besides it was a secret.

9. Don’t Repeat Yourself

This book began magnificently, went on very well for a long way with great stretches of great brilliance and then went on endlessly in repetitions that a more conscientious and less lazy writer would have put in the waste basket.

10. Exercise

It was necessary to get exercise, to be tired in the body, and it was very good to make love with whom you loved. That was better than anything. But afterwards, when you were empty, it was necessary to read in order not to think or worry about your work until you could do it again.

11. Never Empty the Well of Your Writing

Ernest Hemingway quotes

I had learned already never to empty the well of my writing, but always to stop when there was still something there in the deep part of the well, and let it refill at night from the springs that fed it.

12. After You Write, Read

When I was writing, it was necessary for me to read after I had written. If you kept thinking about it, you would lose the thing that you were writing before you could go on with it the next day.

13. Let the Pressure Build

When I had to write it, then it would be the only thing to do and there would be no choice. Let the pressure build. In the meantime I would write a long story about whatever I knew best.

14. What Do You know Best?

Ernest Hemingway quotes

What did I know best that I had not written about and lost? What did I know about truly and care for the most? There was no choice at all.

15. Omit Anything You Want (As Long As You Know You’re Doing It)

It was a very simple story called “Out of Season” and I had omitted the real end of it which was that the old man hanged himself. This was omitted on my new theory that you could omit anything if you knew that you omitted and the omitted part would strengthen the story and make people feel something more than they understood.

16. Stay Sound in Your Head

All I must do now was stay sound and good in my head until morning when I would start to work again.

17. If You Can’t Write, Don’t Write

Ernest Hemingway quotes

To an aspiring writer: “You shouldn’t write if you can’t write.”

18. It’s Okay to Be Shy

… [F. Scott Fitzgerald] had the shyness about it that all non-conceited writers have when they have done something very fine.

19. But Don’t Pimp Your Writing

Ernest Hemingway quotes

[F. Scott Fitzgerald] had told me at the Closerie des Lilas how he wrote what he thought were good stories, and which really were good stories for the Post, and then changed them for submission, knowing exactly how he must make the twists that made them into salable magazine stories. I had been shocked at this and I said I thought it was whoring…. I said that I did not believe anyone could write any way except the very best he could write without destroying his talent.

20. Break Down Your Writing

Since I had started to break down all my writing and get rid of all facility and try to make instead of describe, writing had been wonderful to do. But it was very difficult, and I did not know how I would ever write anything as long as a novel. It often took me a full morning of work to write a paragraph.

21. Forget Living the “Literary Life”

I was getting tired of the literary life, if this was the literary life that I was leading, and already I missed not working and I felt the death loneliness that comes at the end of every day that is wasted in your life.

22. Don’t Drink While You Write

My training was never to drink after dinner nor before I wrote nor while I was writing.

23. Don’t Judge Your Writing Until the Next Day

After writing a story I was always empty and both sad and happy, as though I had made love, and I was sure this was a very good story although I would not know truly how good until I read it over the next day.

Bonus Quotes from Hemingway’s Mentors

The following are not Ernest Hemingway’s quotes. Instead, they are tips to Ernest Hemingway from his friends and mentors which he captured in A Moveable Feast:

24. Be Careful About Writing About Sex

“It’s good,” [Gertrude Stein] said. “That’s not the question at all. But it is inaccrochable. that means it is like a picture that a painter paints and then he cannot hang it when he has a show and nobody will buy it because they cannot hang it either.”

innacroachable, def (via Wiktionary)

  1. (of a painting) unable to be hung (or sold), especially because of its sexual content
  2. (of a book) unable to be published, for the same reason

25. What We Lack Most

“We need more true mystery in our lives, Hem,” [Evan Shipman] once said to me. “The completely unambitious writer and the really good unpublished poem are the things we lack most at this time. There is, of course, the problem of sustenance.”

26. Only Read What Is Good

Gertrude Stein told Ernest Hemingway:

You should only read what is truly good or what is frankly bad.

Which of these Ernest Hemingway quotes is your favorite?

PRACTICE

I love Hemingway’s questions for himself, “What did I know best that I had not written about and lost? What did I know about truly and care for the most?”

Ask those questions of yourself, then write whatever story comes to mind.

For this practice, write for fifteen minutes. When your time is up, you can post your practice in the comments section below to get feedback. Afterward, feel free to continue working on your story. And if you post, please make sure to give feedback to other writers.

About Joe Bunting

Joe Bunting is a writer and entrepreneur. He is the author of the #1 Amazon Bestseller Let's Write a Short Story! and the co-founder of Story Cartel. You can follow him on Twitter (@joebunting).

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  • ruth

    These quotes are amazing! Nothing like reading a great author for inspiration. Thanks, Joe!

    • http://joebunting.com Joe Bunting

      Aren’t they? Thanks Ruth.

      • ConcernedEditor91

        Joe,
        Please fix the third sentence in your opening paragraph from “hate they him” to “they hate him”.

  • Chloee

    What did I know about truly and care for the most?” Family and friends.

    I walked down the weed riddled sidewalk to the old country store down the block in my old little town the hot sun beatin down on my freckled face. My red pig tails bouncing up and down as I skipped mama and pop said I could have some penny candy. My older brother Tom and Will were over at the creek going fishin I wanted to go but momma said it wasn’t ladylike to fish. I love fishin though and Tom and will would try to take me as long as momma never found out. Well Momma found out the last time I went fishin and was competly horrified.

    I opened the door and the little twinkling sound of the bell rang alerting Mr. Olly’s old beagle Trigger that there was a coustmer. Settle down trigger! Mr. Olly said. Trigger gave one more throaty bark then layed down to fall asleep snugglin into his once brown fur now grey with age. He smiled down at me. What can I do for you little Roxanne. Mr. Olly my name’s rocky you know how I hate Roxanne that’s a girly name! I said grinning. Okay then Rocky. I thought you would be fishin with Tom and Will down at the creek? I tried but momma found out and now I’m banned. I cross my arms as I spin on the little stool at the counter.

    Mr. Olly rubbed his head full of grey hair with his old wrinkled hand. I see your Momma said you couldn’t go? I nodded grumpily. How about I tell her you went to go play with the Jones girls down the road and you can go sneak down to the creek? Mr. Olly said. I clapped my hands in glee. Thank you sir! Now if only I could talk momma into lettin me wear jeans instead of dresses. Me. Olly chuckled. One thing at a time Rocky. His blue eyes twinkled as i raced out the door to the creek.

    • http://www.toodlesbookclub.blogspot.com Kym Bolton

      The makings of a fairly decent piece of story telling. Speech marks would have made it much easier to read.

      I would be interested to see how it will progress after a slight re-edit.

    • http://thewritepractice.com/ John Fisher

      I think it’s a really good story and I think quote marks can be optional as a matter of style. Faulkner and Joyce didn’t always use ‘em! Gives me a real summery feeling and brings up fond memories of the little town close to a river where my uncle lived a long time ago. The little girl’s frustration with the mother’s expectations of “femininity” are classic, but truly told here.

  • Gruff

    This is wonderful and inspiring. Thank you!

    • http://joebunting.com Joe Bunting

      My pleasure, Gruff. Glad you found them inspiring.

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  • http://jimwoodswrites.com/ Jim Woods

    Such great concepts here. Absolutely love it!

    • http://joebunting.com Joe Bunting

      Thanks Jim!

  • George McNeese

    Such great quotes from a truly unforgettable man. Thank you for posting

  • Luther

    I expected- no let me say that I didn’t know what to expect from the 10 AM appointment at the home of my 14 year old probationer, who had been suspended from school the day before and was in violation of the courts rules. The offense that got him the probation sentence was minor, although 40 years have passed and my memory of that offense has faded.
    I parked on the tree lined street in front of the home with a beautifully manicured lawn and walked the sidewalk to the front door. About half way up the sidewalk, I became suspicious that this would not be an ordinary home visit as I could hear very loud rock and roll music coming from inside. I had to ring the door bell several times, but my probationer finally answered with a wide grin on his face.
    Suddenly, windows on the sides of the home opened and people could be heard scrambling outside into the shrubbery. As John stood there, holding a clear glass with a purple liquid inside and obvious from the smell, marijuana smoke wafted around him, out the door and to my nose. John said, “I forgot you were coming!”
    Meanwhile, I could see and hear other teenagers continuing to escape the home and what they thought would be some type of consequences. I said to John, ” Is it OK if I come in?” He just continued grinning and said,”Sure!”
    I stepped into the foyer and rounded the corner to the living room, still seeing bodies flying out the windows and more to my surprise there was another probationer, Greg, who quickly and discreetly dropped a marijuana roach behind a piece of furniture. What a bunch of clowns, I thought to myself. I looked back at John and then at Greg and said with some pity,” You guys knew I was coming. Are you both idiots?” They of course had no answer and both shrugged their shoulders.
    I advised them that they both were under arrest for probation violation and should get their personal items and lock up the home. We were headed to the courthouse!
    I really cared for these kids and the others that I had on probation over the 10 years of my career in that field. I often wish that I had paid more attention and recorded some of the details of my many incidents and people that I encountered. A lot has been lost!

    • http://thewritepractice.com/ John Fisher

      Well told, with good detail and clarity.

      I find that memory is an amazing thing, that memories I’d thought were lost come back with some time and reflection. I think Hemingway was right when he said, “What is it that I have not written about and lost? What was it I knew about truly and cared about the most?” That can be a great motivator. I believe you when you say you really cared about these kids. Their stories could add to the dialog about young people who get in trouble in a positive way.

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  • http://www.toodlesbookclub.blogspot.com Kym Bolton

    This is my first time taking part. I am trying to exercise my writing muscles:

    Ernest
    Hemmingway said “What did I know best that I had not written about
    and Lost? What did I know about truly and care for the most?”

    In
    my case one of those things would be my mother, and it’s a story that
    is tragically simple, or simply tragic, depending on which side of
    the coin you view it.

    From
    my side it is tragic, and funny I guess because of the things I will
    do to not talk, or indeed, write about my feelings, and I admit it,
    some of the things I have done.

    For
    instance, I would rather wash up a whole load of dirty dishes; mop
    the floor; clean a bathroom after a slobbering 20 year old male –
    who, by the way has the worst aim in the history of man. I could
    walk the dog, clean up dog poop in the garden, rod the bloody drains
    … anything, but have to talk about her.

    Explain
    just why I feel so angry, disappointed, furious, and {taking a
    deep breath and heaving a big sigh} JEALOUS. There, I’ve said
    it; it’s out in the open for all to know now. Of course, I would
    never actually admit that to the old cow.

    Actually,
    I would never admit anything to her, just because Mr Ernest
    Hemmingway has prompted me to write about it, and admit in some small
    way that word “jealous”, still doesn’t make it easy to explain to
    you the reason.

    I
    suppose the time is now ripe to explain a short portion of why my
    mother and I don’t speak, let alone communicate. Did I mention that
    we live next door to one another?

    Bloody
    hell, there are still 6 minutes remaining on this bloody timer that
    was set for The Write Practice. How the hell, can I prevaricate a
    bit more to stall explaining the whole sorry story. Especially, when
    I know for certain – like the kind of certainty that England is
    crap at football, and will never win the World Cup again certain,
    that it will, and does, make me look bad. Never mind that if viewed
    from my side, it also makes her look pretty bloody shitty too.

    Can
    I just put it out there, in case you were wondering, I really am not
    a horrible person. She, my grey haired 76 year old mother, and her
    60 year old creepy toy boy lover make me behave like a truly
    horrible, disgusting and vengeful person.

    So,
    let me explain why our 50 year old loving (in the most part)
    mother/daughter relationship has gone from happy, or happy’ish, to I
    could kill you, and be happy to spend the next 17 years in jail
    celebrating the fact.

    Why,
    oh why Mother dear, did we choose to move to this village of the
    damned?

    On
    the outside it seems a perfectly normal, middle class, exceedingly
    polite, friendly even … in the case of my neighbour, too bloody
    friendly ….

    THANK
    THE LORD, THE TIMER HAS GONE OFF … MY 15 MINUTES HAS ENDED!

    • http://thewritepractice.com/ John Fisher

      It’s a start. I hope you keep trying to get it out. It could well be a story the world needs to hear, not for any lurid quality or salacious curiosity’s sake but for a lesson perhaps in why we ought to treat each other better. I identify with the reluctance to out with my own less-than-stellar behavior.

  • Jackrich

    My comment? I’m up way too early in the morning not to be having something true to say…. Lets see where this goes…
    How do you hate somebody to their face? I hate it when Oostred shows up at my house. All of the booze that I’ve been saving for – whatever, gets gone and I’m left, somehow, with a house full of drunk, skinny, white chicks and one whiny, punk rocker talking about how his super world gets heavy every once in a while.
    He sits there with a bag full Grilled Sammy Taco’s (he knows I love tacos) and he tells me about his latest spill from his most recent tour.
    With a lit cigarette in one hand, and a Cajun-Stuffed Taco in the other (like he can’t decide which he’d rather have at that second) Oosie spills it: Jake Marzzallo is dead.
    “And I will not grieve for him,” he says after he takes a pull, “Ok, that sounds a little heavy, Georgie, I don’t want to say that I’m not gonna be sad now that he’s gone. I just, don’t want to be sad anymore.”
    I don’t catch what he says next, cause I’m kinda caught at that first little bit. Steve…shit.
    “You ok, Gg?” he asks me.
    “Naw… naw, Oosie, I’m fine. I just, nobody told me.”
    He puts the still lit cig on my ashtray, and leans back in my couch while unwrapping his taco, “I’m surprised you didn’t read it in the newspaper. You’re a newspaper guy, aren’t you?”
    “I’m a guy with a cellphone, Oosie. You could’ve called when you were on tour.” I’m on my feet, and I feel like I gotta start moving. I suddenly realize that I’m still wearing my tie and apron from The Greco, and I just feel- so…fucking…lame…
    ….

    And that’s more than 15 minutes… I might keep this, even if it feels like those two might start fighting. I just hate that people like Oostred might be able to walk out of something like that without even a “sorry” or give Georgie a chance to cry it out; Gg knew Steve as much as he did, and didn’t deserve to be out of his life…even if Gg’s life may have been too boring for Oosie or Jake…

    I’m definitely feeling the rocker life after I read up on Steve Conte’s blog: http://thecontes.com/bioSteve.asp?OldNews=Yes
    That Steve Marriot story really caught me by the throat.

    Any way, time to try to get more sleep before i have to fly away to more work. Good Morning, people.

    • http://thewritepractice.com/ John Fisher

      I like the danger implied by Oostred’s callousness and Gg’s rising anger in response to it. Also Gg’s feeling so lame and boring in his tie and apron. I got lost trying to identify all of the characters amid names and nicknames.

      However the scene is plain enough to understand. I like phrases like “I’m a guy with a cell-phone, Oosie.” which identify the anger.

      This could be a good scene imo in a larger story…….Thank you for sharing it, and I wish you luck. I read up on Steve Comte, his brother(?), and the Steve Marriott story. That’s rocknroll!

  • http://goinswriter.com/ Jeff Goins

    Glad you liked the book, Joe.

  • http://thewritepractice.com/ John Fisher

    He stood at the pulpit, looking out over the familiar faces, many of which in earlier versions he remembered from earliest childhood. His parents beamed encouragement up to him, already knowing the import of what he had to say. They knew, and not only did they accept him just as he was, they supported him fully.

    He would speak only true words of three or less syllables. He took a deep, deep breath and plunged in:

    ” I am gay. I have been gay since I can remember.”

    Gasps and grumbles from the congregation. From the edge of his vision the pastor rose from his bench and quickly stepped up beside him. He realized that his time to speak was already at an end.

    “I’m sorry, Edward,” said the pastor, laying a hand gently on the boy’s shoulder, “you know we all love you, we have loved you all your life, but son, you are confused and you need the instruction of the Holy Spirit to correct and admonish you in the ways of the Lord, for His ways are right.” The hand on Edward’s shoulder firmed. “I’m sorry, but you simply may not stand up in this church and say such things. It just isn’t right.” The pastor’s large, intense eyes searched his. “I think it would be advisable for you to leave now.”

    Walking to his car, he became aware that a group of boys from the church was following him, one of them dangling a quart beer bottle from his hand.

    They used it on him in just such a way as one might imagine, all the while shouting at him with evangelistic fervor that it was the instrument of the Kingdom of God, and just how much God loved him and wanted his repentance.

    • Jay Warner

      to me, what is more frightening is not the boys with the bottle, acculturated in a hateful viewpoint, but the pastor whose rejection of Edward is swift and final and hinges entirely on a three-letter word. Chilling, deflating, scary.

      • Jay Warner

        and exceptionally well written, John.

        • http://thewritepractice.com/ John Fisher

          Thank you, Jay! A friend of mine actually had this experience many years ago and this is my attempt at re-telling it.

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  • Jacob Mathews

    There were
    moments, in between all the… nothingness… things remembered… moments. Touching
    her hand, sunlight through her hair, the wind whipping at us, the sun, winter
    in a park, lovely day, brisk and cold…

    That was a
    moment.

    And he sat
    there and focused on flowers… flowers there before him. The same flowers that
    he looked at yesterday, but not the day before. He had looked at those flowers
    before he knew that much, but he also was quite aware that while the flowers,
    red and burnished purples, dark, full, tall in the sunlight, straining stood
    there before him and his eyes were very much focused on them, and he was not
    blind… he did not see them.

    Moments.

    A soft
    series of moments, wheelchair bound, it must be said. Sometimes he was in bed,
    sometimes asleep but more often not. Sometimes he just stared and sometimes he
    saw and sometimes he did not.

    There was a
    shower of which he was very aware. The warm water struck his body and it was
    awkward bliss. That feeling, that sensation, that was perhaps joy, maybe made
    everything else bearable… that moment felt real, there and then, and then it
    was over.

    Awkward.
    Moments.

    He saw and
    he stared and sometimes he saw and sometimes he did not. He could not comprehend
    a lot of it and sometimes he asked himself.

    How and
    why? Why do you all do what you do? What are you doing? Any of you? And they
    smiled and they spoke, their eyes filled with compassion and warmth, sometimes
    not. Sometimes they were tired or just not there. Absent. Those times, they
    were the best.

    He could
    then just stare and they did whatever it was they were doing and neither of you
    were there.

    Moments.

    He was
    thinking about nothing. His mind worked and he thought things, he knew he did
    but sometimes these thoughts were very painful so he mostly thought about
    nothing at all. Sometimes, a lot of them time, his mind would just soar and
    explore, the universe it seemed. The world and life and everything. Sometimes
    he remembered making a quiche. Out of nowhere. So he would think of that and
    look into the world around him unseeing and he would not be able to remember
    all the ingredients so he would try to remember and suddenly wonder about
    carrots.

    He would
    look at the sometimes still world (when he was being pushed it was all a
    movable feast for the eyes, he did not have to strain or even move, he could
    sit, watching) and he would think about vegetables and their strange shapes and
    colors and smells and he would wonder why, why they came to be how they came to
    be.

    And he
    would sit and stare and sometimes drool and he would think about natural evolution
    and the millions of years that had passed and just like the stars that soar so
    too do his thoughts and people come and look at him sympathetically and
    sometimes reminisce in front of him, like he is not entirely present, about how
    he once was in the past.

    But he is
    gone now. His mind is gone, somewhere. Somewhere he can just stare and not
    think about all that stuff he really doesn’t want to think about. He can watch.

    Stuck in
    these eyes.

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