Hemingway and Revision

The ability to revise is what makes great writers.

As an example, I hold up Ernest Hemingway. I can prove the point. My proof does not lie entirely within the pages of Death in the Afternoon, or The Sun Also Rises, or A Farewell to Arms, or The Old Man and the Sea. Whether you love or despise Hemingway there is no arguing that these are great works of 20th century literature. Their popularity and influence is undeniable. The man won a Nobel Prize. For any beginning writer reading Hemingway is dangerous. His style is so strong that it is difficult to read him without copying it.

The style of Hemingway is carefully crafted. To find out where he got it, it is important to read his contemporaries, especially his good friend, Gertrude Stein. I was also surprised to find very Hemingway–ish passages in The Way of All Flesh by Samuel Butler. Hemingway worked hard to make sure his writing sounded a certain, distinctive way. The proof I spoke about is in the later books, published after his death. These include A Moveable Feast, Islands in the Stream, and The Garden of Eden. I am able to compare these to his earlier works because at the time of his death Hemingway was still so popular that his publisher was able to bring out books he hadn’t finished and still have them be best sellers.

I think that Islands in the Stream, besides lending its name to a Dolly Parton/Kenny Rogers song, was probably almost finished, the closest to publication. A Moveable Feast and The Garden of Eden both have wonderful passages, in which the strength of Hemingway’s skill shows clearly. They both also have parts that suck, where the magic is missing, or the lofty goals of the author have not yet been realized. By reading these books I began to understand how good Hemingway was at revision. The parts he worked on the most stand up against his best work. Where he did not finish his process, it is noticeable. Not because words are misspelled, or out of place, but because the overall effect is not up to the same standard.

Hemingway was a proponent of the subconscious work I was talking about yesterday. Write in the morning, then set it aside and don’t think about it for the rest of the day. He also rewrote endlessly. In the author’s note for his collection of short stories, Hemingway compared himself to a tool that had to be resharpened in order to produce the desired result. He believed in hard work.

When I revise, I like to change everything that catches my eye. When I can read through a passage without stopping, that’s how I know it’s done. I also revise by removal. I am not afraid to kill my babies. There has never been a cut in the history of cuts that was a bad idea. When I finish a novel, I try to take ten percent out. The remainder is always stronger because of the subtraction.

Finally, I make myself read my books. Cover to cover. I know that Hemingway read himself (of course he did.) I think this is something that writers skip a lot. I work so hard on the interior that I forget to look at the finished product, or else I’m afraid to. When I set my work aside for a while, and then approach it as a reader, I am always impressed with it.

Do yourself a favor. Be like Hemingway. Revise.


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