Tag Archives: Editing

Creating great content – Hemingway style

Ernest Hemingway, 1939

Ernest Hemingway, 1939

The two habits of successful content creators are simple ones: write and cut.

It’s as easy – and as complicated – as that. Put as much of the good stuff down as you can, and then start paring it back. When you’re finished paring it back, rewrite it. Then repeat the process.

When you’re done, proofread it. Then proofread it again.

The process may sound mechanical, something which goes against the creative flow, but each revision will improve the work.

The ‘rinse, repeat’ strategy came to mind this week as I read Paul Hendrickson’s recent biography of Ernest Hemingway.

At one point Hendrickson recounts the guidance Hemingway gave to aspirant writer Arnold Samuelson.

“Don’t get discouraged because there’s a lot of mechanical work to writing. There is, and you can’t get out of it,” the author told his friend, before issuing his often-cited advice on revision.

“Every day go back to the beginning and rewrite the whole thing and when it gets too long, read at least two or three chapters before you start to write and at least once a week go back to the start. That way you make it one piece. And when you go over it, cut out everything you can.”

This may explain why Hemingway wrote 47 endings to A Farewell To Arms and revised the entirety of Across The River and Into The Trees 206 times (or so he wrote to a pal).

Whether you call it writing or authoring or content creation, and whether you’ve an hour, a day or a week to do it, the secret to the best content is fiendishly simple. Write, cut and repeat.

Ernest Hemingway's first-page draft for “A Farewell to Arms.” Pic: John F Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum

Ernest Hemingway’s first-page draft for A Farewell to Arms. Pic: John F Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum

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Want to communicate? Then simplify, simplify

With Antonio Carluccio, Glasthule, April 2015.

With Antonio Carluccio, Glasthule, April 2015.

Antonio Carluccio knows it. So did Joey Ramone. So did Ernest Hemingway, and Leonardo da Vinci and Frederic Chopin.

Simple is best. As Henry David Thoreau put it: “Our life is frittered away by detail. Simplify, simplify”.

If only it were that easy. Confronted with vast amounts of information every day the task of refining, digging to the core or even finding it, is not an easy one.

Unlike Thoreau most of us don’t have the option of going off-grid to a hut in the woods. We have to engage with the information avalanche. And having sorted through it we then have to utilise the useful bits.

I do more of this than most. I work in the communication industry. As a journalist I process large amounts of information every day, filtering it down and then re-communicating the key elements to readers.

Books have been written, theses published and academic careers built upon analysing this process – how best to sort through the mound of content and find the ‘news hook’, the golden thread of the new or the interesting. It’s a constant process – as the news cycle changes day to day so must I.

Joey Ramone, 1980 Pic: Yves Lorson

Joey Ramone, 1980
Pic: Yves Lorson

After a day of such work I recently had the pleasure of attending an event and meeting Italian restaurateur Antonio Carluccio. I can’t cook like the 78-year-old but I can apply his method to the communication field.

In his autobiography Carluccio explains the culinary theory he formulated in the early 1980s. Finding that the nouvelle cuisine of the time amounted to much extravagant kitchen technique Carluccio argued that simple dishes were best.

He called his theory ‘mof mof’ – minimum of fuss, maximum of flavour.

In content terms this translates to ‘less noise, more nub’. It’s a practice those mentioned above applied to their own respective disciplines, like Ramone’s ‘Hey! Ho! Let’s go‘ or Hemingway’s “one true sentence“.

Like those declarations ‘mof mof’ is far simpler in theory than in practice. It requires distillation, refinement and constant revision to get to the purest message possible – to cut through the fuss and find the flavour.

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Revise, revise…and then revise

Hemingway's first-page draft for A Farewell to Arms. Pic: John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum

Hemingway’s first-page draft for A Farewell to Arms.
Pic: John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum

Ernest Hemingway’s war novel A Farewell To Arms could have ended any one of 39 ways.

We know this because Hemingway told us so but also because, two years ago, an edition of the book was published containing each of those endings, and a further eight more to boot.

Some are more optimistic than the final, fatal closing paragraphs, some are minor variations, some entirely different to what was published.

But, as far as the writer was concerned, it took 39 attempts to nail it, “39 times before I was satisfied”.

Three decades later, asked what had made the task so difficult, Hemingway answered, simply: “Getting the words right.”

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A 2012 news story on the new edition of the novel was shared with me this week by M, a fellow soldier in the journalistic trenches.

It sparked my interest. My daily workload involves revision, three or four times for every article edited, reading closely for facts and legal. This blog likewise.

But I doubt I’ve subjected any piece of writing to more than a dozen revisions, let alone three dozen, before filing it away.

The Beatles, 1964

The Beatles, 1964

Hemingway’s dogged rewriting of his novel’s closing paragraphs put me in mind of Malcolm Gladwell’s observation on the success of The Beatles.

He estimated that the group performed 1,200 live shows in the four years before they broke through to stardom, in 1964.

Reading Hemingway, or large parts of his work at least, or listening to The Beatles, it’s easy to presume that finely tuned words or close-to-perfect melodies occur, when they do, more or less naturally.

Such artists laboured on their art, of course, but their inspiration surely ran far beyond Edison’s fabled one per cent?

However, the older I get the clearer the importance of revisiting, remaking and repeating, becomes.

To the extent that the secret of producing the best creative work can be reduced, for me, to a simple practice.

To improve it, revise it; when you can’t revise it any more, you can’t improve it.

Ernest Hemingway in London at Dorchester Hotel 1944. Pic: NARA

Ernest Hemingway at Dorchester Hotel, London, 1944.
Pic: NARA

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Note: I like the idea of ‘life hacks’ – pieces of advice, knowledge, insight, admonitions; discrete mind shots that improve life and produce an awareness of living.
The Lifehacks section of the blog is where I’m collecting and collating them.

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