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Use Hemingway’s Advice to Rewrite Like a Pro

by | Dec 30, 2013

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?