Forty-Seven Different Endings? Some Lessons from Hemingway about Revision

For the past several weeks my students and I have been immersed in the novels of Ernest Hemingway. I have had the pleasure of teaching a course on him and William Faulkner this semester. In most literature courses, we study only the final, published drafts of novels and other works of literature. That gives us the chance to enjoy the final masterpieces, but it doesn’t reveal much about the torment the author went through to make the book as good as it is. How many revisions did it go through? How many false starts were there? How much bad writing did the author produce before he found discovered the right way to tell the story?

A new edition of Hemingway’s masterpiece, A Farewell to Arms, was published earlier this year that sheds light on his careful, sometimes agonizing writing process. Depending on how you count them, Hemingway produced up to 47 different endings. The exact number is tricky to determine because some drafts use bits and pieces of other drafts and therefore are not completely distinct from one another. The editors have grouped the 47 drafts under nine categories, such as “The Nada Ending,” “The Religious Ending,” “The Live-Baby Ending,” and so on.

Examining these very different endings reveals much about the creative process of writing a novel. Here are a few points his methods illustrate:

• Even very good writers are capable of very bad writing.

Hemingway may be a brilliant, Nobel Prize-winning, best-selling author, but some of these drafts are just bad. One of the “Nada” endings, for example, says, “That is all there is to the story. Catherine died and you will die and I will die and that is all I can promise you.” The first of three “Funeral Ending” drafts says, “When people die you have to bury them but you do not have to write about it. You meet undertakers but you do not have to write about them.” As if realizing how inadequate that ending is, Hemingway wrote two more versions of it, adding to the list of things “you do not have to write about.” The additional words only make it worse.

Fortunately, he abandoned those endings and kept trying. Which brings me to my next point:

• Good writers keep at it until they get it right.

The final published ending of A Farewell to Arms feels just right. The book would have suffered if Hemingway had chosen any of those 47 earlier drafts. However, he must have been tempted at some point to put a stop to all that work and simply settle for one of the other endings. How must he have felt after writing the 23rd version, or the 37th? Many writers would have said, “Enough! I’ll just go with this ending even though I’m not happy with it.” Not Hemingway. He kept writing until he nailed the ending the book needed.

• Great writers keep playing with ideas, knowing there might be a better way.

Hemingway didn’t write all these drafts in one sitting. He kept tinkering, trying new approaches, adding new sentences to earlier attempts, deleting details from old drafts. He kept the novel alive in his mind. He knew there were many viable options for how to tell his story, and he wasn’t afraid to try versions that failed miserably. Sometimes the only way to find the right solution is to give yourself the freedom to try many other ways that turn out wrong.

I’m glad Hemingway kept writing, and I’m grateful that the editors have produced an edition of the book that preserves his failed attempts. These drafts show his commitment to his craft and inspire me to work a little harder on my own projects.

24 thoughts on “Forty-Seven Different Endings? Some Lessons from Hemingway about Revision

  1. Joe, thank you for this blog. I’ve only always heard about these fabled endings to this Hemingway novel, but I’ve never actually heard anything about what was in them. I really appreciate this. I think it’s really important to teach literature in this way–we can see that the finished work is the result of real work. But I also really appreciate the lessons you draw from all of the writer’s efforts. This is really important for writers to think about. I’m going to share this with my writing class. I still remember the first time my teacher in grad school showed us the first draft to _The Sun Also Rises_ and how bad that one was before Hemingway revised it based on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s suggestions. It does me good to hear of these legendary writers benefiting from their writing groups, just like I do. And they don’t get it right the first time. Thanks.

    • Thanks, Tom. I wish more editions of the literary works we study included early, failed drafts. It would give a better idea of how these works evolved, and it would give a more realistic sense of the writing process. I hope your writing students find this helpful.

  2. I appreciate your post on Hemingway’s endings, Dr. Bentz. As I was doing some research on this topic for our presentation, I too came across some of the points that you mentioned, such as Hemingway’s perseverance and unwillingness to resign to ‘an ending.’ Our young minds need to be reminded from time to time that tenacity and endurance pay off and that even though natural talent or intrinsic skills might influence our performance, it is the determination to attain the best what makes the difference, what makes ‘the ending’.

  3. I agree, writing, in any form can be such a challenge, and it is easy to succomb to the pressures of finishing after a “23rd” or let alone a “37th” draft. With that being said, it is encouraging to see one of the greatest American novelist also struggle with the writing process, because often times, writers such as Hemingway are put on a pedastool, and it is encouraging for a young writer like me to see that I’m going through the same struggles he went through.

    • I agree! Who would have thought that uttering “bad writer” and Hemingway in the same sentence would ever happen?? But yes great writers write bad stuff and this is only natural but encouraging like you said-but more so I believe it is transformational. On the same token, Anne Lamott dedicates an entire chapter in her book, Bird by BIrd about revision and producing that horrendous draft first, second or 47th draft. And I truly believe that each time Hemingway wrote an ending there was something in him that changed- he learned something about himself through each draft, and this is the power of transformation through writing. Revision, revision, revision.

  4. Love this! As a Hemingway fan (who never quite made it over to crash your class this semester), I appreciate Hemingway’s perseverance. What a good reminder this is for every writer.

  5. It is so encouraging to realize that great authors are simply human artists, too, who need time and attention and hard work to perfect their art, just as we do. It reminds me of a quote a mentor once said about the great writers and thinkers of history–
    “They had more than passion, they did hard work. Passion is not enough.”
    This post urges me to keep plugging on through writing, in the good and the bad. Thank you, Dr. Bentz, for making Hemingway a little more human, so that we could remember and be encouraged when we feel we aren’t quite yet to where we want to be in our writing.

  6. Thank you for this posting Dr. Bentz. I often find the idea of writing literature to be quite overwhelming. When I look at my favorite pieces of literature, I hardly ever visualize the realistic writing process the author endured. Rather I envision a brilliant literary figure sitting in a well-lit place, fearlessly scribbling a perfect first draft of the masterpiece they are known for. This, however, is rarely, if ever, the case. It is comforting and insightful to see the grueling process Hemingway went through to produce his literature. I am encouraged by his struggles and his determination to succeed, despite his many roadblocks.

  7. This information is fascinating. It really puts a great author like Hemingway into perspective. It is easy to think, as a reader, that writing just comes naturally to the authors. It is good to take a step back and realize that they mess up too. It gives me encouragement in my writing to never settle with an ending just because I am ready to be done with the story or essay. I need to work on it until it is perfect and I will be completely satisfied with my work.

  8. I agree with the other comments that have been left; it is encouraging to hear that writers whose finished work was consistently good never stopped producing unfinished work that was consistently, well, bad. Elizabeth McCracken, a writer whose work I have enjoyed, talks about being “a terrifically inefficient writer.” She produces character sketches and keeps a journal and a card index, all in an effort to know her own work. Her approach, as well as the approach Hemingway had, seems to indicate that good results come partly because of perseverance during the writing process.

  9. I found this post about Hemingway to be very encouraging. 47 different endings sounds like a lot and to know that some were bad endings, which were made by a great writer makes me feel better about myself because now I know that everyone struggles, not just me when it comes to writing. Whenever I write a paper, I’m never fully satisfied with the work that I’ve produced. I always think that there’s something that I could have changed around to make it better. It seems like Hemingway always thought that that his writing could be better too based on all of the endings that he created. This makes me wonder though if there is such a feeling for a writer to be completely satisfied in the work that they’ve produced?

  10. When we discussed Hemingway’s struggle to end the novel in class, I couldn’t help but laugh at the different endings, or better yet, the titles by which scholars have labeled them. My morbid favorite, “The Dead Baby Ending.” Yet, the more endings that we examined, the more I could really begin to understand how writing works. I think that, even with all the endings, Hemingway continued to search for “the ending” not because of what seemed profitable, but because of the idea of rightness and knowing his own characters.

    In my own fiction writing, I have a tendency to rush the ending. I’m not sure if it’s a “get it over with” mentality or a complete loss at trying to calculate closure. I’ve never dealt with the topic well in my own reading. Somehow, regardless of the ending, at the end of a great novel I always feel gipped. Like clockwork, I cry even when the novel ends well for the protagonists. Maybe the difficulty in finding an appropriate ending isn’t always due to the pressure of tying up lose ends, but instead because we, as writers, don’t want to or are unable to say goodbye yet.

    In my frustration of writing the beginning of a current story, I’m beginning to wonder how much control the writer truly has. The more I consider where my story is going, the more I begin to feel like it’s writing itself. Maybe it just isn’t ready yet. Maybe I don’t know my characters well enough. Or maybe, I’ve simply fallen victim to the pressure of great one-liners and theories on how to capture a readers’ attention. For now, I’d like to hope that there is some sort of balance–a sense of writing ability and innate creative fatalism.

  11. Hi Dr. Bentz,

    This posts sheds some light on the real agony great writers go through during revision, great agony people never really see for themselves with finished, polished products. It is comforting to know that even great writers need to revise a lot. I believe I was speaking with Dr. Ivanov last year for a paper on writing and she said that there was not any good writing, only good re-writing. Though I believe she said she was quoting someone, the sentiment remains the same. Good writers are good because they take time to revise. Great writers are good because they take time to revise until it’s just right. I’m not sure if I would have had Hemingway’s patience. I can’t remember the last time I even did ten drafts of something. It’s nice to see that there can be a light at the end of the revision tunnel, though.

    • It seems as though along with revision, I should also look into editing. I meant to say that great writers are great because they revise until it is just right. I’m also pretty sure there was a compound sentence in the post that needed a comma. Sigh.

  12. He didn’t fail 47 times, Hemmingway just discovered 47 ways to not finish his book. This degree of perseverance is what separates brilliant men from the common men.

  13. As a writer and a learner, as someone trying to graduate from college, this post is very encouraging.

    We are taught and we try so hard to present an image of someone having things together. It seems we are so afraid of making mistakes, and we try so hard to succeed in what we do, that we settle for lesser things in life. I have to admit that I was that person and at times I still am.

    The thought of failing and of making a mistake has been one of my greatest fear, and there were many times where I shied away from doing the things I wanted to do. I was afraid of failing and in making a fool of myself.

    I never knew Hemingway had such a hard time in finding a ending on his book A Farewell to Arms. Here was this expert writer, someone who perfected his craft, and even he made mistakes on his writings!

    Good writers never give up,they continue to do what they love, even if they fail. They don’t let that get in the way of pursuing the things they love. Good writers continue to play with new ideas, and they continue to try until they get it right. This is not only true for writing but in life.

    And I have failed so many times and I am not perfect, but that is ok. No one is perfect, not even Hemingway. I think that is a good thing. Its what makes us human. It is through our failures that we grow. Again another clique saying but its true. :)

  14. Dr. Bentz,

    I really appreciated reading your thoughts on revisions and the role of editing–even on the professional level. As a student in creative writing this semester, it has been a frustrating yet rewarding process to struggle with the revision process and come to terms with the fact that a story will evolve and change over time, often in spite of the author! Do you think that there is a point where revisions cease to be helpful to the story? Can a story ever actually be done, or is there always something that can be improved and perfected?

    Thank you for your thoughts!

  15. I really enjoyed this post! It’s always a good reminder to know that every great author had their struggles. The endings of stories are always the hardest, but I’ve never thought of sticking with it 47 different times! With that amount of frustration, I’d probably just throw out the whole novel! Thanks for the encouragement to stick with it until the end. Maybe one day when we all have bestsellers, someone will write about how crazy it is that we all wrote 47 different endings until finding the right one. :)

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