Ernest Hemingway on getting the words right

 In Author, Delivery, Journalist, Learning from Luminaries, Luminary, Meetings, Message creation, News, Politicians, The Winning Voice, What not to do

Below is part of an interview with Nobel Prize winning author, Ernest Hemingway from an article titled “The Art of Fiction,” which appeared in the Paris Review in 1956.

Interviewer: “How much rewriting do you do?

Hemingway: It depends. I rewrote the ending of ‘A Farewell to Arms’, the last page of it, thirty-nine times before I was satisfied.

Interviewer: Was there some technical problems there? What was it that had stumped you?

Hemingway: Getting the words right.”

Consider this.

How much time do you spend getting the words right,

before you speak them?

Now I’m not suggesting 39 revisions before you speak your words.

But when a message is important, it will often pay to take more time than usual, to craft the right words and sequence them in the right order.**

Thomas Paine, American political activist, philosopher, political theorist and revolutionary, during the American Revolution, penned a sentence in his Common Sense pamphlets that is still remembered by many Americans today.

Let me suggest that if Paine used any of the below words and syntax for his sentence . . . 

Men’s souls are tried by these times.

These are trying times for the souls of men.

Times like these try men’s souls.

These times try men’s souls.

Trying times for men’s souls are these.’

. . . it would not, still be remembered 245 years later.

Here’s Paine’s version:

‘These are the times that try men’s souls’.

** One definition of effective communication – that you might consider before you deliver an important message – is this:

‘Saying the right thing, to the right person, at the right time, at the right place, in the right manner, for the right reason’.

Own the Conversation

Implementation suggestion:

  1. Reflect on someone who needs to hear an important message.
  2. Schedule a block of time to think about the message.
  3. Craft the least number of words and syntax to express the message, and save it.
  4. After a few days revisit the message, revise it and decide on the final message.
  5. Deliver the message (considering the definition above **) and then reflect on its impact.


p.s. I was conducting a workshop yesterday Plan and deliver memorable messages for senior officials of the New South Wales, Department of Planning Industry and Environment.

During workshop one participant said, that the delivery and feedback drilling they did, underscored the importance of doing dry run with a colleague, before an important presentation to a departmental secretary or minister.

Prior to one of your upcoming presentations, might a dry run with a colleague reap rewards?

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