Writing Routines

Ernest Hemingway’s Writing Routine: “All you have to do is write one true sentence.”

Ernest Hemingway was an American novelist, short-story writer, and journalist, best-known for his many works such as For Whom the Bell Tolls and The Old Man and the Sea which are now regarded as literary classics.

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. 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.

A Moveable Feast | Ernest Hemingway

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Ernest Hemingway lived a rich, adventurous life. As an 18-year old, he enlisted to be an ambulance driver in Italy during World War I, after failing to enlist in the U.S. Army due to poor eyesight, and was subsequently wounded by mortar fire.

He later wrote about his experiences in his 1942 anthology, Men at War. “When you go to war as a boy you have a great illusion of immortality. Other people get killed; not you. Then when you are badly wounded the first time you lose that illusion and you know it can happen to you.”

Following World War I, Hemingway moved to Paris where he took a job as a foreign correspondent, and also wrote and published his debut novel, The Sun Also Rises. Over the years, Hemingway continued his work as a journalist, covering the Spanish Civil War and World War II — he was embedded with Allied troops during the Normandy landings and the liberation of Paris.

During all of this time, Hemingway also hunted lions in Africa, caught giant marlins in the Bahamas, and boxed religiously. But no matter what, he always found time for writing.

Ernest Hemingway’s writing routine

In a 1950 New Yorker article, Hemingway said he always woke up at daybreak, because his “eyelids were especially thin and his eyes especially sensitive to light.” He told the journalist, Lillian Ross, that the reason she was there was because he had worked all morning and now wanted someone to talk to.

“I wake up in the morning and my mind starts making sentences, and I have to get rid of them fast—talk them or write them down,” he said.

During a 1958 interview with George Plimpton for The Paris Review, towards the end of Hemingway’s life, the American author revealed that he likes to stand when he writes — a habit he’s had since the beginning of his writing career. He also kept track of his daily word count on a large cardboard chart on his wall.

“The numbers on the chart showing the daily output of words differ from 450, 575, 462, 1250, to 512, the higher figures on days Hemingway puts in extra work so he won’t feel guilty spending the following day fishing on the Gulf Stream,” according to Plimpton.

In the same interview, Hemingway also described his daily writing routine:

When I am working on a book or a story I write every morning as soon after first light as possible. There is no one to disturb you and it is cool or cold and you come to your work and warm as you write. You read what you have written and, as you always stop when you know what is going to happen next, you go on from there. You write until you come to a place where you still have your juice and know what will happen next and you stop and try to live through until the next day when you hit it again. You have started at six in the morning, say, and may go on until noon or be through before that. When you stop you are as empty, and at the same time never empty but filling, as when you have made love to someone you love. Nothing can hurt you, nothing can happen, nothing means anything until the next day when you do it again. It is the wait until the next day that is hard to get through.

Ernest Hemingway, The Art of Fiction No. 21 | The Paris Review

One of Hemingway’s biggest influences on future writers was his advice to stop writing for the day when you know what will happen next. “The best way is always to stop when you are going good and when you know what will happen next,” he wrote in a 1935 article for Esquire. “If you do that every day when you are writing a novel you will never be stuck. That is the most valuable thing I can tell you so try to remember it.”

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