Writing Advice to a Young Writer From Ernest Hemingway

An aspiring writer knocked on Hemingway’s Key West door in 1934, looking for help with his writing. It must have been a case of being in the right place at the right time, because, for some reason, Hemingway obliged.

Jennifer Geer
6 min readDec 27, 2019
Ernest Hemingway posing with a marlin, Havana Harbor, Cuba. Ernest Hemingway Collection. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston. July 1934. Public Domain.

Can you imagine seeking out the home of your favorite celebrity, and then being invited in and offered career advice? Times were different then, and in 1934, that’s exactly what happened to Arnold Samuelson, a 22-year-old aspiring writer from Minnesota. He hitchhiked to Florida on a coal car to get a chance to meet his favorite author and hopefully get a few minutes of his time and some tips on writing.

He did better than that. Hemingway was not impressed with Samuelson’s writing skills but must have been impressed with his tenacity. He invited the young writer to join his crew on a boat trip to Cuba, answering his questions along the way.

It must have surreal for Samuelson, to get Hemingway’s undivided attention. Well, it was probably somewhat divided, with all the drinking and the fishing, but you get the idea.

We can no longer come across Hemingway sitting at his favorite bar in Key West, with a mojito in his hand, willing to share his wisdom. But we have the next best thing. We have the articles and the books he left behind. And we have the article he wrote for Esquire Magazine, Monologue to the Maestro, that was inspired by his boat trip with Samuelson. What follows are my favorite pieces of his advice from that article.

As Hemingway said, the information he imparted “would have been worth fifty cents to him when he was twenty-one.”

Ernest Hemingway outside of his residence at 113 rue Notre-Dame-des-Champs, Paris. Ernest Hemingway Collection. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston. 1924. Public Domain

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Stop each day before you run out of ideas

Hemingway did this to avoid writer’s block. He wanted to wake up every morning with his stories fresh and ready to be told. He didn’t want to be worried about his writing when he wasn’t writing. “As soon as you start to think about it stop it.” He preferred to put his pencil down and do anything else to avoid thinking about his characters. He believed when he did this, his subconscious would take over, working things out, so he’d be ready to write fresh content the following day.

“The best way is always to stop when you are going good and when you know what will happen next. 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.”

Take in everything that happens around you

Hemingway thought a good writer should make their reader see what they saw and feel what they felt. His advice was to remember exactly how something looked, sounded, and felt, and write it all down. Remember what people said around you and think of it from their perspective. Don’t judge them, just try to understand how people feel and their motivations for their actions.

“As a man things are as they should or shouldn’t be. As a man you know who is right and who is wrong. You have to make decisions and enforce them. As a writer you should not judge. You should understand.”

Read over what you wrote every day

“When you start to write you get all the kick and the reader gets none.” Hemingway believed that first drafts were generally bad and needed a lot of reworking before it was anything anyone else would enjoy reading. He reread his work every day before starting again to keep the continuity. Once his novels grew too long, he’d read over the last few chapters before beginning, rereading the entire thing once a week.

He suggested writing everything out in pencil. This way you could go over it all again as you were typing it out. He said this gave you three chances to go over your material. Once when you write it, second when you read it, and third when you type it out. I wonder if Hemingway would have still done this if he had an iMac. We will never know, and most of us aren’t going to write out our manuscripts by hand. But we can still take his advice and take the time to read over our material and rework it.

“The best way is to read it all every day from the start, correcting as you go along, then go on from where you stopped the day before. When it gets so long that you can’t do this every day read back two or three chapters each day; then each week read it all from the start. That’s how you make it all of one piece.”


Hemingway believed truly listening to people was the key to understanding and being able to write about them in a way that was real and resonated with others. He said you should practice all the time at observing the people around you. Even watching the different ways they get out of their cars can give you insight.

“When people talk listen completely. Don’t be thinking what you’re going to say. Most people never listen.”

Write for 5 years before thinking about giving up

When Samuelson asked if Hemingway thought he would be a good writer, he told him he’ll never know if he doesn’t write.

“If you work at it five years and you find you’re no good you can just as well shoot yourself then as now.”

Write the truth

When asked what is good writing, Hemingway said, “Good writing is true writing.” He believed to be a good writer, you had to write about what you knew. That anything else was faking. He believed you needed to live life and have experiences to be able to write about them. He had more to say about it in his memoir, A Moveable Feast, the book where he recalls his early writing days in Paris. This book contains one of my favorite Hemingway quotes, and perhaps my favorite writing quote of all time. It’s the quote I think of the most when I’m stuck for inspiration.

“All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence you know.”

Ernest Hemingway in the cabin of his boat, Pilar. Ernest Hemingway Collection. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston. Circa 1950s. Public Domain

Hemingway was not perfect, he had his vices. Multiple wives, a drinking problem, animal cruelty (at least to bulls, fish, and lions). He did love his cats, I’ll give him that.

But his writing was magical and has transcended time. Almost 100 years later his words are still relevant, full of meaning and depth. His succinct style painted a picture for the reader without the heaviness of complex prose or ornate descriptions.

He woke up every day and started with writing his one true sentence.

What if we do the same? What difference would it make in our writing? Go on, what are you waiting for? What is your one true sentence for today?

It’s harder than you think to find it, but once you’ve got it, you’ll know where to go from there.

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Jennifer Geer

Writer, blogger, mom, owner of pugs, wellness enthusiast, and true crime obsessed.