Use Hemingway’s Advice to Rewrite Like a Pro

Use Hemingway’s Advice to Rewrite Like a Pro

It’s common knowledge that almost every published book or article emerges from many drafts. However, it remains mysterious how any writer rewrites what probably seemed just right only a short time before. And then does it again. And again.

How did Ernest Hemingway, for instance, turn that “shitty first draft” into the short story “Big Two-Hearted River or the novel The Old Man and The Sea?

Hemingway’s archives hold an answer: a concrete record of the specific changes he made in each project from one draft to the next. You’d learn something from studying them, of course, but you might also miss a simpler and more useful lesson:

Hemingway, like all experienced writers, showed a willingness to sacrifice each fresh layer of words in order to stay true to his overarching story.

How can you separate a story from its words?

In order to answer this question, it helps to first consider translations and retellings of myths, epics, and fairy tales — same story, different words.

And then there’s an even more informative correlation between watching a movie on the screen and the film that unspools in your mind when you’re reading an absorbing novel or narrative nonfiction work.

It’s that second movie, what author John Gardner calls a “vivid and continuous dream” that writers actively seek to create. The words of any piece, like a screenplay, are a vehicle for doing so.

You’ll make a conceptual leap forward when you recognize that each draft you produce represents only your latest attempt to capture the ideas that fired your imagination in those words that will have a comparable effect on your readers.

Don’t be preoccupied with choosing the perfect words in your first draft

The quality of any sentence matters to the extent that it delivers your message. It may take you several drafts to first discover that message, and only then can you cut away those sentences and paragraphs that fail to convey it.

It’s this kind of vision that development requires. And development is the missing link between drafting and refining (or polishing).

Much that sounds good may not actually contribute to advancing a story’s plot, deepening character, amplifying theme, or enhancing the rigor and direction of your argument.

After you’ve confirmed that your copy holds the key ideas you want to express and presents them in the most effective way, then you’ll be truly ready to tighten that copy, devoting timely energy to shaping sentences, correcting errors, and clarifying awkwardness in grammar and vocabulary.

But how do you develop this kind of vision? How do you know when it’s finally time to refine? And up to that point, how do you figure out what to develop?

Let’s conclude with a few simple tips to help you open your eyes and write on:

Give yourself some distance

Don’t confuse taking time away from a project with slacking off or quitting. A little distance may give you a new vantage point from which to look again. The word revise comes from the Latin revisere, “to look at again.”

Tell your story aloud

Share your story over coffee (or on the phone) with a friend or acquaintance. If you can, record yourself doing so, using free conference calling or pairing Skype with Audio Hijack or another program. Then listen back.

When telling stories aloud we tend to make more automatic decisions. What’s your opening sentence? What information do you share first? What gets cut? How does your listener respond?

If the story you’re telling differs substantially from the one you’ve drafted, then you’ll want to ask yourself why.


Even if you don’t outline on the front end, you can do so on the back end with good results. Try to distill each paragraph of your draft to one sentence that clearly captures its purpose.

If you can do so, then you’ll know it’s earned the space in your final draft — and yes, you’ll get there.

What other strategies help you move from one draft to the next?

Filed Under: Craft


  • Toni Graeme says:

    I find the editing of passive words immensely helpful. I learned that from experience traveling in countries where people do not have much experience speaking English even though they studied it in elementary school, and, when I coached Chinese students in English conversation. More recently it has come in handy posting on Twitter, now to apply it to my books! Thanks to you are those who share in comments, most appreciated.

  • Sarah Rudd says:

    Thank you, Sierra. Starting to read your book now!

  • Sierra says:

    Thanks, Sarah! It does sound like you’ve answered your own question, and the importance of generating and answering your own questions lie at the heart of my father’s and my book. I hope you enjoy it.

    Feel free to get in touch here or via my website if more questions arise.

  • Sarah Rudd says:

    I just realized my story has evolved from my original intention to empower
    young, African orphans to one of saving elephants. The latter has a more
    dynamic storyline, which is why my beginning about the savannah and the main character’s life of being raised by a grandmother who is the village storyteller, was cut by an editor and re-directed to the compelling scene of an elephant kill. But I am left wondering whether my deeper intention to demonstrate a path to empowerment through one’s life experience, and the legacy and power of storytelling, is too secondary. What is my argument? That Africa is our most ancient homeland and elephants are faced with extinction, or that orphans can rise to their challenges to live a life of self-fulfilled by paying attention to what moves their spirit. I may have just answered my question: although the story begins with an elephant kill, it is also the way my character realizes her destiny.
    Yet, which is the mail plot? I’m still confused and would appreciate some thoughts. Thank you!

    • Sarah Rudd says:

      *main plot. A half hour later, and after more research on your site as to what sort of beginnings publishers particularly dislike, I completely understand why I received that edit at the SCWBI conference and feel better about the evolution to go with an emphasis on how my character saves a local herd of elephants (with the backstory in my hip pocket). Thank you for your offering! I have signed up to receive updates as posted and am looking forward to learning more. Even though I am currently interested in writing transitional, multi-cultural picture books for older children, I believe there is so much to be gained from your insights for all writers and thus I am ordering your book as well.

  • Robyn LaRue says:

    I love the idea of telling the story (after first draft for me) and seeing what is emphasized and what is left out. My writers group will love it, too!.

  • Great advice Sierra! Another simple tool that I find helpful while rewriting a manuscript is having a checklist of words to consider omitting. My list continues to grow, but it often includes adverbs, adjectives, and words that create a passive voice (such as “that”, “was”, and “were”). If the words aren’t necessary, then there is no reason to keep them. In the long run, it will make your writing more effective.

  • Sierra says:

    Thanks for writing, Ibidun. Indeed, it’s all about moving from one real draft to another. In our book, my dad and I write about a crucial step that falls between drafting and refining: development. We call it “the missing link” because it enables to transform and not just clean up their work.

  • You are so right Sierra, it is critical to get through that first draft and not get caught up with getting the perfect words out!
    In my writing, I have to constantly keep myself on track to finish the first draft before I start refining.
    When I get through the first draft, I review my original ideas to renew my perspective, then I dive in and start refining and moving on to the next draft

  • Sierra says:

    Thanks, Andre! Good to discover The Word as well. You’ll find a lot more detail on the outlining strategy in one chapter of The Creative Compass called “Allegiance to Story.”

  • Andre Cruz says:

    I agree with taking time to step back from your writing project, Sierra. When you spend months with a project you can start to see things that aren’t really there.

    That is why I also agree with sharing your story with others and reading it aloud.

    I have to try making an outline of each paragraph. I think that is a wonderful idea to find the message of each paragraph.

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