Better Writing: The Four Years When Hemingway Became Hemingway

Jan 7, 2020 | Better Writing

See page for author [Public domain]100 years ago, this month, Ernest Hemingway showed up at the Toronto Star looking for freelance work. A friend introduced him to the editors, and Hemingway’s charm and enthusiasm did the rest.

His timing was good. Toronto Star founder, Joe Atkinson, was building a world-class newspaper. He wanted scoops and aggressive reporting. He started the Star Weekly to showcase his writers.

Hemingway wrote a few anonymous pieces. Then he got his first byline. It was about getting a free shave at a barber school. He’d worked for the Kansas City Star in the United States for almost a year without getting a byline.

In December of 1921, the Star sent him to Europe. When he got there, he covered stories of all kinds and met all kinds of people. He interviewed Mussolini. He went to Turkey to cover the war between Greece and Turkey.

The Star gave him a lot of latitude to pick his subjects. They gave him money to support himself. And they let him travel all over Europe. It was heady stuff.

In the evening, he was working on his literary writing. Those were the short stories and novels he wanted to make his reputation. In December of 1922, he thought he had a great opportunity.

Hemingway was in covering a peace conference in Geneva when he met Lincoln Steffens. Steffens said he wanted to see some of Hemingway’s writing. Hemingway contacted his wife, Hadley, who was at their Paris apartment. He told her to bring all his writing so he could show it to Steffens.

Hadley was sick. She had to rush to make the train to Switzerland, so she frantically packed all Hemingway’s manuscripts and carbon copies in a small valise.

After she had gotten on the train in Paris, she realized that she was in for a long trip. So, she jumped off the train to get a bottle of water. When she got back the valise with Hemingway’s manuscripts was gone.

Suddenly, Hemingway didn’t have any of the writing he’d worked on for years. Later, he would call that his “juvenilia.” It was probably the stuff that young people write. Given the literary models of the time, it was probably very Victorian in style. That meant lots of subordinate clauses, a plethora of commas, and long, elaborate descriptions.

When he went back to work, Hemingway didn’t write like that anymore. He wrote like the reporter he had become. The style that we know him for grew directly out of his work for the Toronto Star. Hemingway wrote almost 200 pieces for the Star between 1920 and 1924. He was proud of that work. He kept his Star clippings in pristine form until the end of his life.

Okay, You’re Not Hemingway

You’re not Ernest Hemingway. You’re probably not as talented and not as driven. You’re not a reporter. And you haven’t had the opportunity to travel all over Europe sucking up stories and details. But you can still learn from Ernest Hemingway’s time at the Toronto Star. Here are three lessons.

Write Clean

We have no idea if Hemingway would have changed his style to be more journalistic. We know that, because his manuscripts were lost, he had to start over. When he did, he chose to write like a reporter.

Reporters write clean. There’s not a lot of detail and excessive description. That’s a good way to write if you’re going to write a nonfiction book. Write clean. Write simple sentences. Use vocabulary anyone can understand. You won’t become Hemingway, but you can become a better writer.

Crave the Concrete

Good reporters write about concrete details. Your brain loves that. It’s easier for your brain to get the message if you write about concrete things, not abstract things. That’s true whether you’re writing a news report or a nonfiction book. Craving the concrete won’t make you into Hemingway, but you can become a better writer.

Enrich Your Inputs

The Toronto Star gave Ernest Hemingway the opportunity to go to Europe. He’d been to Europe before, as an ambulance driver in World War I. It wasn’t very long.  It wasn’t very much fun.

Working for the Star, Hemingway covered lots of news and lots of subjects. He met lots of people. Almost all the people and subjects found their way into his fiction later.

You may not be writing literature. But even if you’re writing for business, you will be a better writer if you increase the quality of your inputs.

Read more. Read more widely. Seek out opportunities to do new things and meet new people.

Increasing the quality of your inputs won’t turn you into Hemingway. It can turn you into a better writer.

Bottom Line

Ernest Hemingway’s four years at the Toronto Star turned him into the Hemingway we think of today. Learn from that transformation. Write clean. Crave concrete detail. Enrich your inputs. You won’t become Hemingway, but you can become a better writer.

Note: The picture of Ernest Hemingway is a 1923 passport phoro in the public domain. I sourced ir from Wikimedia Commons.

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