• One True Sentence

    Posted Posted by David Duhr in ABCs of Writing     Comments 24 comments

    TL;DR version: WriteByNight’s newest writing consultant and coach, Robert McDowell, tells us that his favorite piece of writing wisdom comes from Ernest Hemingway, who wrote, “Write one true sentence.” But what does that mean? And how do we do it? That’s what I want to find out, from you. Let us know your thoughts in the comments section below.


    In our continuing effort to provide you the best match possible for our one-on-one writers’ services, we’ve taken on a new writing consultant and coach, Robert McDowell. Robert served as an editor at Story Line Press for twenty-two years, and for ten years he co-edited the literary journal The Reaper. He’s also the author, co-author, translator and editor of four E-books and fifteen print books.

    In Robert’s Q&A, which you can (and should!) read here, he cites a famous line by Ernest Hemingway as his favorite piece of writing advice: “Write one true sentence.”

    But what does that mean?


    “Do Not Worry”

    In his classic memoir A Moveable Feast, Hemingway writes [bolding mine]:

    Sometimes when I was starting a new story and I 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. It was easy then because there was always one true sentence that I knew or had seen or had heard someone say. If I started to write elaborately, or like someone introducing or presenting something, I found that I could cut that scrollwork or ornament out and throw it away and start with the first true simple declarative sentence I had written.


    I Have Questions, You Have Answers

    These are the questions I have for you this week:

    1. What does Hemingway mean by “true sentence”?

    2. What makes such a sentence true?

    3. How do we know if we’ve written one?

    4. What is the truest sentence you’ve ever written?

    5. What is the truest sentence you’ve ever read?

    Let us know your thoughts in the comments below. And if you’re interested in working with Robert McDowell, request a free consult today.


    WriteByNight co-founder David Duhr is copy editor and fiction editor at the Texas Observer and writes about books for the Dallas Morning News, Electric Literature, Publishing Perspectives, and others.

    WriteByNight is a writers’ service dedicated to helping you achieve your creative potential and literary goals. We work with writers of all experience levels working in all genres, nationwide and worldwide. If you have a 2016 writing project that you’d like a little help with, take a look at our book coaching, private instruction and writer’s block counseling services. Join our mailing list and get a FREE writer’s diagnostic, “Common problems and SOLUTIONS for the struggling writer.”

    If you like it, share it...Share on Facebook
    Tweet about this on Twitter
    Share on Google+
    Email this to someone
    Print this page

    24 Comments to “One True Sentence”

    • 1. Viewed from front, back and side, a true sentence tends squarely on its own. No engraved word-columns required to support its clarity of expression or meaning.

      2. The truth of a sentence will appear to the reader like a sunrise; unmistakable its intent and denouement.

      3. If we have indeed written a “true sentence”, we feel no urge to rewrite. It shines like a jewel in the cat box of our scribblings. We have a sense of making progress in our writing, however misguided that feeling may be.

      4. “Generally a man not given to introspection, Horace had more than once found it visited upon him at the most inopportune times”.

      5. “Be yourself, all others are taken.” Oscar Wilde.

      • Thanks, Kenneth. Good stuff here.

        Do you notice a true sentence when you write it, or do you recognize it only when seen in context? It appears “like a sunrise” to a reader when he/she reads it, but does it shine like that “jewel in the cat box” immediately to the writer, or only in retrospect, say, in the revision stage?

        • As writers, I think anything we deem as glistening in the figurative cat box gets a good look then and there. Kind of like hitting that stand-up double down the right field line; “hey, I did it!”

    • To me, the “true sentence” is the seed. You know what you want to write but not how to start. The true sentence “seed” lies safe in the ground of your imagination and, if you leave it alone, it slowly begins to sprout.

      “It wasn’t a house of love and light but the young boy called it home” and so on.

      • Hi Mary. I appreciate this hands-off approach, but is there a danger in letting the seed lie in the ground for too long? Or is there perhaps no such thing as “too long”?

    • Trump is the greatest dis-unifying president the nation has experienced.

      • I believe I’ve just read the truest sentence. Good on you for being honest and standing up for your beliefs

        • Thank you for your remark of support. I truly wish I never had to delve into such distasteful subject matter but found the opportunity irresistibly attractive since it combines the fact that Trump knows nothing of being true and upfront and Mr. Duhr offered what seemed to be the perfect venue to point that out. Thanks again!

      • OK, but where did this sentence *come from*? What was the experience of writing it? What comes next?

    • 1. A declaration–whether fictional or not–of the writer’s sincerest belief regarding the subject at hand. Best expressed in few words.

      2. Sympathetic resonance, at a deep level, first with the writer, then with the reader. And most members of the critique group place a check mark beside it.

      3. You feel the effects of #2. Or that could come later. The truth of a sentence may be better revealed in the reading than in the writing.

      4. “The truest measure of our reality may very well lie in our imaginings.”

      5. “A pilgrimage starts the moment you pull the front door shut behind you.”

      • Hi Raymundo. Yours is a true comment.

        “Best expressed in few words.” What makes you say this?

        “And most members of the critique group place a check mark beside it.” Ha!

        “The truth of a sentence may be better revealed in the reading than in the writing.” Yeah, I wondered if Hemingway would claim to know in the moment that a sentence is true. “So finally I would write one true sentence, and then go on from there,” he says. So he would write a true sentence, say to himself “That, Ern, is a true sentence,” and then continue writing? Or he would write a true sentence, continue writing, and then the next day read what he wrote and say, “That, Ern, was a true sentence.”

    • I apologize; I failed the test because I didn’t read the entire message and jumped into immediately writing what I believe is a relevant (and soon to be born out as true) sentence with regard to the current turbulent political and governmental crisis we face now as a result of der leader that lives in the White House. I hope you can forgive me, my mind is twisted up by the stress created by the actions of that “big boy”. No telling how many folks are, like me, suffering in various aspects of their daily lives by the twisted actions of our pResident. Best to you all.

      • I think Hemingway also said, “A writer should never, not even in Trump’s America, apologize for writing what he or she (just kidding, I mean he) believes to be a true sentence.”

    • 1. A true sentence is something that can’t be refuted. It won’t change and holds a deeper truth than what you read on the surface.

      2. The sentence is true when it is something which pertains to everyone….like his “Do not worry.”

      3. Many times we don’t. It’s just there and we don’t realize is it a true sentence until later.

      4. Only I could choose my path and it was up to me to choose where I wanted to be.

      5. Whether you believe you can. or you believe you can’t, you are correct. Henry Ford.

      • Hi Barbara. Thanks for the feedback; I dig these responses. Especially No. 3. I really feel like recognizing a true sentence (depending on our definition, of course), more often than not, comes in reading what we’ve written, after the fact. Of course, Hemingway had the confidence to declare a sentence true as soon as he wrote it. Or perhaps even as he was writing it. But that won’t be universal.

    • I can do that.

      This is my truest sentence. It appears twice in a short story called, “My Yellow Cup with the Tiger On.”

      Welcome, Robert. I hope WBN keeps you busy.

      P.S. “My Yellow Cup with the Tiger On,” is filled with true sentences. It’s available online at http://www.bartlebysnopes.com/stories/my-yellow-cup.html

      • Thanks for sharing, Scott. This one won the mag’s story of the month award? It’s in my bookmarks!

        • Yes, David, it was a winner. It was also nominated for a Pushcart. Bartleby Snopes editor, Nate Tower, told me “Yellow Cup” is the story most identified with their publication. Justine read it when it was first published.

          Later, I found it among a “Best of the Web” series. In other words, I’m awfully pleased with its success. Hope you enjoy it.



    • 1. A sentence that is complete in message.
      2. It tells a complete story.
      3. I resonates in one’s core. Or there’s a sense of finality.
      4.I’ve been working on a story. This may not be my truest but is the closest now. I began the 1st paragraph with, “A muffled silence cloaked the city after the evening’s snowfall.”
      5. It is too difficult to answer this question truthfully. I may have read a true for me sentence in the moment I read it but don’t remember it now.

      When I finish the short story I’m rewriting, trying to make it as good as possible, I am considering talking with Robert McDowell.

      • Hi Eleanor. It’s good to hear from you, and thanks for sharing your thoughts. And for sharing your true sentence: I like that one a lot. And I appreciate the distinction in No. 5, “a true-for-me sentence.” That’s a great way to look at this.

        • Glad you liked my sentence. I have worked very hard on the story beginning with that sentence. I have tried to connect with Robert McDowell to review my story, but with now success. I don’t understand. When I clicked on the Free consult I rec. an email from Justine Duhr [your wife, I presume, or some relative.] I have also been looking for the Story Club. What happened to thet and comments on the first story. I enjoy your format so want to keep up to date.

          • The free consult is a conversation with Justine in which you’d discuss working with Robert, and whether or not it’s a good match. And here’s the “Bullet in the Brain” discussion: http://www.writebynight.net/wbn-story-club/bullet-in-the-brain/

            I think next week’s blog post will be the June story, so stay tuned!

    • “I could remember my father used to say the reason for living is to get ready to stay dead for a long time.”

      I can’t say it’s not true.

      • That’s cool, Andrew. Thanks for sharing it. That’s one of yours, or did you read it somewhere?

    Post comment

    Latest Tweets