Previous Next
Join a growing community of thousands of travel journalists and develop your skills in travel writing, photography, and film with a course at MatadorU.

Hemingway’s Iceberg Model

In Death in the Afternoon, Ernest Hemingway states good writing is like an iceberg, only 1/8ths visible, the remaining 7/8ths underwater. In other words, a well crafted story lets the reader’s imagination take over.

One of the goals of travel writing is to put readers in the places we describe and have them come away feeling as if they were really there. In a time when many travel writing markets are online and attention spans are short, Hemingway’s Iceberg model still works better than ever.

Here are eight ways to avoid exposing the entire iceberg, global warming be damned:

1 – The universe likes action. It also likes speed. Use a variety of verbs, keeping “is” in any tense to a minimum.

Editing exercise: Try going through your manuscript and cutting or rephrasing every to-be verb. Example: Whole iceberg: He is an old man. 7/8ths: He bent over the cane, and shuffled forward, a step at a time.

2 – Easy on the articles and personal pronouns.

Editing exercise:
Go through your manuscript and cut out every the, an, a, that you can.

3 – Use the first person narrative like salt. It should enhance the story’s flavor without overwhelming it.

Editing exercise: Pick out anywhere in your story where the first-person narrative runs wild, then question: “Does all of this really belong here, or is it part of a different story?”

4 – Pick your adjectives carefully. One brilliant descriptor equals three mediocre ones.

5 – The perfect noun will help with adjective selection. Same goes for verbs and adverbs.

Editing exercise: Research the subject of your story until you fully understand the precise nouns, verbs, and adjectives. Is it a sailboat or a sloop? And when it capsized, were you tacking or jibing? Are the waves mushy or hollow? Go back through your manuscript and replace general words with the perfect ones.

6 – Use photos, music, and other sensory tools to help communicate the essence of what you’re writing about.

7 – Remember you are telling a story. Read it out loud. If it feels awkward, bring out the editorial scissors. Probably 75% of the original draft can be cut without losing the narrative flow.

8- Use description to convey emotions. This is also known as the object correlative. Check here for more details.

*The MatadorU Travel Writing program will help you build the skills you need to become a travel writer.

Travel Writing Tips


About The Author

N. Chrystine Olson

N. Chrystine Olson calls the American South home once again where the BBQ rocks and the boys have soft accents and excellent manners.

More By This Author

view all →
  • Tim Patterson

    Excellent advice for all writers trying to write for online publications. Heck, great advice for all writers period.


  • Lola Akinmade

    Wonderful, timeless tips! Thanks for sharing

  • N. Chrystine Olson

    Just so ya’ll know…I had to use these yesterday to edit a piece for Rugby Magazine!

  • Daniel Harbecke

    Brilliant stuff, Chrystine! I was most impressed by the – good lord! There’s something growing on your shoulder! Looks like a lemur, but it’s definitely too small to be a moose…

  • Pingback: How To Take Better Notes For Your Travel Blog

  • N. Chrystine Olson

    As a trained wildland ecologist and daughter of a world renowed forest researcher believe me, I know it’s all about detailed observations translated well into the written word.

  • Tim Patterson

    Just found this good post at Copyblogger –

    Hemingway’s 5 Tips For Writing Well

    • Eric Boehling

      Great link, Tim!

      Another quintessential Hemingway quote: “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.”

  • Abbie

    Great ideas – I’m going to do some of that with my own writing for sure!

    • david miller

      hey abbie,

      we originally published this last year, but i was looking back through the archives and found this and felt like it was worth reprinting.

      in my opinion, A Moveable Feast by Hemingway is not just a classic, but a kind of template for material transparency in modern nonfiction writing.

  • Megan Hill

    Brilliant advice! Consider it bookmarked!

  • Nancy

    Great tips. A Moveable Feast will be my next book pick-up.

  • tony

    great post and very interesting! i agree with rule number one. hemingway uses almost nothing but different tenses of “is.” ever read “old man and the sea,” or “the sun also rises?” nothing but sentences like “the night was hot.” it gets tedious after reading it for a while. great post!

  • Simone

    Thank you for this great article!

  • ibnibnbattuta

    good stuff, thanks!

  • Pingback: sorry! « sometimes a great notion

How can you write about your amazing adventures without sounding like a showoff?
Travel is all about dialogue and interaction between characters.
If you want to learn how to present characters, find a mentor or master.
More new lesson excerpts from the MatadorU travel writing program.
But by not being super-conscious of exactly how each word affects the reader's experience...
An anecdote works best when it returns the reader to the story with a new sense of...
Now that the world has been Google Mapped, how does does the modern travel writer fit...
More Americans have had their perceptions of place influenced by hip hop than travel...
"I realized the value of that travel journal I was keeping – jottings that, although I...