It might be Hemingway’s most famous piece of writing advice: “All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.”
Unfortunately, people always leave out the part that matters most. Here’s the full passage:
Sometimes when I was starting a new story and could not get it going, I would sit in front of the fire and squeeze the peel of the little oranges into the edge of the flame and watch the sputter of blue that they made. I would stand and look out over the roofs of Paris and think, “Do not worry. You have always written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.” So finally I would write one true sentence, and then go on from there.
Without the throwing-orange-peel-into-the-fire part, we can’t understand Hemingway’s advice. That was his one true sentence, the sentence that led to the one we all quote today.
Ironically, the situation it describes is quite the opposite of how Hemingway’s brilliant quip makes him look: Ernest Hemingway suffered from writer’s block. Thank God.
It was the only thing he knew to be true at the time: When I have writer’s block, I toss fruit into a fire. So that’s where he began.
Without realizing it, long before any scientist had ever researched the topic, Ernest Hemingway had made a great discovery: If you want your habits to stick, make them ridiculously small.
“We do not rise to the level of our goals, we fall to the level of our systems,” James Clear writes in his million-copy bestseller, Atomic Habits.
In the 21st century, we know a lot about habits. We know they’re automatic behaviors that help our brains conserve energy. We know they follow set patterns and that, if we adjust those patterns, we can make them work for us rather than against us.
“It’s not the writing part that’s hard. What’s hard is sitting down to write,” Steven Pressfield says.
Let me guess: 90% of your procrastination happens when you’re supposed to start writing or when you’re supposed to finish.
That’s why Hemingway’s advice is so brilliant: It allows us to start without pressure.
If Ernest freakin’ Hemingway gave himself permission to start with one measly sentence, why don’t we?
Do we think we’re better than Ernest Hemingway? That we should have higher expectations? If one sentence will do for the master, it should definitely do for us.
Just imagine that, for 30 days in a row, you would write down the truest sentence that you know. The result would be impressive. Sure, you’d take a while each day to think about your sentence, but you’d end up with good quotes, starting points for new articles, and a bunch of solid ideas.
You would also — most likely — have more than just 30 sentences. That’s the power of starting small — and a law that goes back to Isaac Newton: Objects in motion tend to stay in motion.
James Clear has wrapped this idea into a simple concept he dubbed the 2-Minute Rule:
“To overcome procrastination, find a way to start your task in less than two minutes.”
If your daily goal is small to the point of being ridiculous, your ego will guilt-trip you into achieving it. “Write one tweet? Write 100 words? Write one true sentence? A monkey can do that! Let me get right to it.”
Ahh, the beauty of tricking yourself on purpose.
When a fellow author asked him for advice about leaving a legacy, F. Scott Fitzgerald, who wrote The Great Gatsby, simply replied: “When I was young, I asked myself that question everyday. Now, I ask myself, ‘Can I write one good sentence?’”
Focusing on one sentence a day is the ultimate antidote to overwhelm. There’s no time to worry about the height of the mountain when you’re looking at the ground to take your next step.
Fun fact: Hemingway and Fitzgerald had the same editor. Coincidence? I think not.
What’s also not a coincidence is that Hemingway used another, similar trick to both write better endings and have even more inspiration to sit down and write each day. In his own words, he always “left something in the well:”
I had learned already never to empty the well of my writing, but always to stop when there was still something there in the deep part of the well, and let it refill at night from the springs that fed it. I always worked until I had something done, and I always stopped when I knew what was going to happen next. That way I could be sure of going on the next day.
To end a writing session, stop when you know what comes next.
It doesn’t have to be a half sentence. It can be a half paragraph, an unfinished dialog, or a new character’s first action after they enter the scene.
Whatever you do, leave something in the well. Don’t burn yourself out completely each day.
Have the courage to walk away while you’re winning so you can get back to winning the next day.
Hemingway’s well will train you to remember your best ideas. You’ll also come up with new ones. Who knows how you might finish that line the next day?
Most importantly, it’ll teach you to trust yourself.
Creativity is not a bookshelf. You don’t take off all your ideas, and then you run out. You can tap into your subconscious whenever, wherever. The shelf is never empty. Behind the scenes, the gears are always working.
Creativity is like a river. You can walk to any part of it, at any point in time, and fetch a cup of water.
When push comes to shove, when you stare at the blank page and don’t know what to do, remember Hemingway’s advice: All you have to do is write one true sentence. And you don’t even have to finish it.