Several years ago, I came across a 1935 article Ernest Hemingway had written for Esquire magazine.
He told the story of a 22-year-old aspiring writer named Arnold Samuelson who traveled to Florida to see if he could get some writing advice from the author he idolized.
That author, of course, was none other than Ernest Hemingway.
Samuelson managed to find Hemingway at home and begged him for just a few minutes of conversation. Hemingway gave Samuelson much more than that.
He told Samuelson that he was leaving Florida soon on a fishing trip. But would Samuelson like to join the crew of his boat? That way Hemingway would have time to read Samuelson’s work and mentor him as a writer.
Of course, Samuelson said yes.
In the article, Hemingway shared some of the writing advice he gave Samuelson during their time at sea.
One piece of advice was a 3-step writing exercise that would help Samuelson sharpen his observational skills so he could vividly describe his experiences on paper.
Hemingway’s 3-step exercise gives us a fanastic way to practice “show, don’t tell” in our writing.
Step 1: Pick a situation to observe closely and then try to retell it in words.
For Samuelson, this was fishing. For you, it might be commuting to work or shopping at a store or eating at a restaurant or playing with your kids.
Pay close attention to everything that is happening and the emotions that you experience. Hemingway writes,
Watch what happens today. If we get into a fish see exactly what it is that everyone does. If you get a kick out of it while he is jumping, remember back until you see exactly what the action was that gave you that emotion. Whether it was the rising of the line from the water and the way it tightened like a fiddle string until drops started from it, or the way he smashed and threw water when he jumped.
Remember what the noises were and what was said. Find what gave you the emotion, what the action was that gave you the excitement.
Then write it down making it clear so the reader will see it too and have the same feeling you had. Thatʼs a five finger exercise.
This first step forces you to avoid vagueness in your writing. Don’t just tell us catching a fish is exciting. Be specific. Show us why.
For example, in Hemingway’s book The Old Man and The Sea, he uses vivid description to transport us to the fisherman Santiago’s boat.
He makes us feel the salt spray, the sun on Santiago’s face, and Santiago’s strength and then exhaustion as he desperately tries to reel in a marlin. After reading the book, we know a lot more about what it means to be a fisherman.
He looked across the sea and knew how alone he was now. But he could see the prisms in the deep dark water and the line stretching ahead and the strange undulation of the calm. The clouds were building up now for the trade wind and he looked ahead and saw a flight of wild ducks etching themselves against the sky over the water, then blurring, then etching again and he knew no man was ever alone on the sea.
Step 2: Practice empathy by paying attention to the emotions and reactions of others in the situation you’re observing.
Empathy is the ability to understand and be sensitive to the feelings of others, to be able to see the world through another person’s eyes.
Hemingway told Samuelson that it was vital for a writer to develop a sense of empathy:
Then get in somebody elseʼs head for a change. If I bawl you out, try to figure out what Iʼm thinking about as well as how you feel about it. If Carlos curses Juan, think what both their sides of it are. Donʼt just think who is right. As a man, things are as they should or shouldnʼt be. As a man, you know who is right and who is wrong. You have to make decisions and enforce them. As a writer, you should not judge. You should understand.
To use The Old Man and the Sea as an example again, Hemingway describes Santiago so well that the character feels like an old friend by the time we finish the story.
Hemingway lets us get into Santiago’s mind and see his dreams and passions, his courage and his loneliness.
But in the dark now and no glow showing and no lights and only the wind and the steady pull of the sail he felt that perhaps he was already dead. He put his two hands together and felt the palms. They were not dead and he could bring the pain of life by simply opening and closing them. He leaned his back against the stern and knew he was not dead. His shoulders told him.
As you observe a situation, try to think about the feelings and motivations of those around you.
What might that person be thinking who tried to cut in line in front of you? Why do you feel bored when you take your kids to the park while they feel excitement? Imagine what it’s like to be in the other person’s shoes.
Step 3: Repeat steps 1–2 (in other words: practice, practice, practice)
Writing more descriptively can be learned. Hemingway told Samuelson,
You should be able to go into a room and when you come out know everything that you saw there and not only that. If that room gave you any feeling you should know exactly what it was that gave you that feeling. Try that for practice. When youʼre in town, stand outside the theatre and see how people differ in the way they get out of taxis or motor cars. There are a thousand ways to practice. And always think of other people.
The ability to describe something vividly is an essential skill for every writer to master, no matter whether you’re a blogger, novelist, or copywriter. Vivid descriptions transform your paragraphs from vague and boring to engrossing and memorable.
This three-step exercise helps us get closer to mastering this important skill so we can craft words that emotionally connect with our readers.
Hemingway once wrote,
All good books are alike in that they are truer than if they had really happened and after you are finished reading one you will feel that all that happened to you and afterwards it all belongs to you: the good and the bad, the ecstasy, the remorse and sorrow, the people and the places and how the weather was. If you can get so that you can give that to people, then you are a writer.
(I shared more of Hemingway’s advice from the magazine article in a guest post I wrote for Jeff Goins’ website here.)
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Nicole Bianchi is a writer, copywriter, and storyteller at nicolebianchi.com. By day, she works with business owners and creatives to help them clarify their websites’ messaging and craft compelling words that resonate with their audience. By night, you’ll probably find her writing a story or reading a good book.