Hemingway on writing in the first person.

Written by Cole Schafer


Ernest Hemingway is revered for having had a writing style that was economical and understated; one that embodied the definition of brevity.

However, something that is not often explored or discussed was his deliberate choice of writing in the first person. Almost all of Hemingway’s books –– if not all of them –– were written in this tense.

In his memoir, A Moveable Feast, Hemingway shares story after story of his time in Paris during the roaring twenties where he crossed paths with other prolific writers, poets, painters and thinkers like Scott Fitzgerald.

In this particular book, he dedicates an entire chapter to writing in the first person and sheds light on why he chooses to craft his prose in this tense…

On writing in the first person.

Hemingway is typing now…

“When you first start writing stories in the first person, if the stories are made so real that people believe them, the people reading them nearly always think the stories really happened to you.

That is natural because while you were making them up you had to make them happen to the person who was telling them. If you do this successfully enough, you make the person who is reading them believe that the things happened to him too.

If you can do this you are beginning to get what you are trying for, which is to make something that will become a part of the reader’s experience and a part of his memory.”

This is not easy to do.

I’ve taken Hemingway’s advice to heart.

Whether I am writing one of my weekly newsletters, a book of poetry, a copywriting guide or doing freelance writing for a brand… I’m always writing in the first person.

While there has been plenty (scratch that: more than plenty) of fiction that has been written in other tenses, I would argue all business and marketing writing should be done in the first person.

In many ways, I liken it to attending a dinner party (and no, I don’t often attend dinner parties). But, if I were to attend a dinner party and someone was talking to me about themselves in the third person… I would probably call them an asshat.

I imagine a customer feels this way when they read a brand talking about themselves in the third person…

Instead, brands should be using words like “we” and “you” instead of referring to themselves as “Nike” and their customers as “customers”.

This makes things more personal, like a conversation with a friend or colleague or client over coffee.

It makes your* customers feel like you’re talking directly to them rather than about them –– like they’re in on the action, like they’re emotionally involved, like they’re part of the conversation.

This is why you should be writing in the first person.

By Cole Schafer.