What Hunter S. Thompson Can Teach You About Powerful Writing

What Hunter S. Thompson Can Teach You About Powerful Writing

Hunter S. Thompson was the creator of Gonzo Journalism – or as he called himself, “the doctor of journalism” – and the writer of the infamous books Fear and Loathing in Las VegasHell’s Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga, and The Rum Diary.

Thompson was known for his drug frenzy-filled stories, his use of powerful verbs and wild descriptions, and the ability to tell a story like a journalist.

He was a brilliant, ingenious, erratic writer – fearless, twisted, passionate, and slightly wicked.

Even without sharing the same love for firearms or the deep animosity towards Nixon or the constant drug and alcohol use, any writer can learn a thing or two from this bizarre and vivacious writer.

Steal From Your Heroes

Hunter S. Thompson started by helping out with editing in the high school yearbook. He then went off to the Air Force and landed his first writing job as a sports editor in The Command Courier by lying about his experience. And while attending Columbia University School of General Studies and taking creative writing, he worked for Time as a copy boy for $51 a week.

It was said that during this time he would sneak off into a room with a typewriter and rewrite his favorite author’s books such as F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gastby and Ernest Hemmingway’s A Farewell to Arms.

He did this because he wanted to understand and learn the magic and flow of a great writer.

Go find your favorite book or author, sit down and use this peculiar practice to improve your writing. Read out loud as you’re typing, and learn the fluidity of remarkable storytelling.

When you use this method, you can:

  • Refine your writing
  • Exercise your knowledge of grammar and punctuation
  • Expand your vocabulary
  • Develop an appreciation for language and word choice
  • Help you adopt a style that fits you best
  • Assist you in finding your writing voice

It’s impossible to write exactly like Fitzgerald or Hemingway, but taking a little bit of their style here and there won’t hurt. It can spice up your writing and assist you in painting a picture with words.

Draw Your Readers in With Powerful Verbs

Hunter S. Thompson was a wizard at showing the reader what he was seeing, not telling them. Readers swore they had visions themselves just by reading his descriptions of hallucinatory drug binges.

People literally hopped in their cars and went to Vegas hoping to catch a whiff of what he’d described.

Verbs are the most important words writers will ever use. They engage and attract the reader like no other part of speech does. They are literally where the action is. They are the words that tell us what’s happening.

As writers, we’re always striving to engage our readers and to compel with our words. Remarkable writing makes the reader feel like they’re a part of the story, as if the scene is happening under their feet.

Use powerful verbs to paint a vision of what’s happening, and your readers won’t just understand it – they’ll feel it.

Engage your readers with powerful verbs and descriptions. Go beyond “to be” variants – we’re trained to skip over them. Use unusual verbs, verbs that evoke emotion and reaction. Find a verb that matters.

When you do, you’re not only painting a picture – you’re letting readers step into the scene and walk in the world you’ve crafted.

Persist

Writing requires a lot of discipline — it’s a long tedious, slow, and agitating process. It is physically, mentally, and emotionally demanding to do what we do. It takes more than 10,000 hours and a few gray hairs to master this craft.

Hunter S. Thompson faced adversity and failure on the road to becoming a writer.

He was fired from Time for insubordination.

He was fired from The Middletown Daily Record in New York for damaging the office candy machine and arguing with one of the paper’s advertisers.

He wrote about riding with the Hell’s Angels; several took offense at his descriptions and issued Thompson a savage beating.

In 1960, he went down to Puerto Rico to take a job with the sporting magazine El Sportivo, which folded soon after his arrival.

You may not be beaten by a gang of motorcycle outlaws, or travel to Puerto Rico for a job only to find out the place collapsed, but if you’re a writer, you probably face innumerable roadblocks and hardships.

It’s your mission to turn every failure into a memorable, lifelong lesson – or better, into art. Hunter S. Thompson used his Puerto Rico experiences to write The Rum Diary.

What can you create with your own failures?

Know Yourself

If you write, don’t make excuses. Don’t moan about how hard it is. Know that this is something you have to do, and do it to the best of your ability. Create. Strive to be better. Take posts like this one and apply it immediately, now, today, to molding your abilities as a writer.

If you’re a writer, that’s what you’ll be. There’s no use fighting it. Just ask Hunter:

As things stand now, I am going to be a writer. I’m not sure that I’m going to be a good one or even a self-supporting one, but until the dark thumb of fate presses me to the dust and says ‘you are nothing’, I will be a writer.” ? Hunter S. Thompson

Post by Paul Jun

Paul Jun became a writer out of nowhere. Unable to find his passion in life, he decided to teach himself how to become a writer and blogger. He continues to go to school full-time while writing on his website, where he shares insightful tips for blogging, writing, and personal development. He believes with the right attitude you can turn dreams into a reality. You can also follow him on Twitter.

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  1. Well done Paul. I’d never heard of Hunter Thompson, but will look for his work. I’m always trying to learn how people take their personal experiences and make them into a novel. The “power” is in the storytelling, the action (verbs) and in the sheer determination. Love that he got fired over a candy machine. (One too many Snickers?)

    • Thanks Mary.

      Yeah people either love his books or absolutely hate them. His books are full of personal experiences — something you may enjoy. Give it a shot, let me know how you like it. I recommend Rum Diary. Fear & Loathing if you’re up for something crazy and make you LOL.

      • That’s the style of Gonzo Journalism. A story through personal experience, the story doesn’t always cover the bases on the subject, sometimes it has nothing to do with it; but the story manifests through the authors experience.

        Some people just don’t like reading claims without objectivity, they want the facts concluded at the end of the journey not the experience or story that leads to it.

        (all that being said) I thoroughly enjoyed this article, not just because it’s about one of my long time heros. Would love to see an article on Bill Hicks too (because he’s right up there next to HST for me).

  2. Loved this Paul.

    I’ve enjoyed Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and assigned it to a sociology class I taught awhile back.

    Hunter did what most art students do, rework the masters. I’ve done my own take on Degas, Van Gogh and some of the others. It’s a great way to learn craft.

    Genius for Hunter to do that for writing. In fact, it’s a good idea to improve one’s skills in any field.

    I like that Hunter stood up for himself and stayed true to his nature instead of being a “yes” boy where he worked. If you want feisty writing, you need feisty people.

    When I write with my feisty nature, it always comes out strong and powerful.

    Thank you for this super piece! G.

    • Giulietta,

      I love that he stood up for himself as well. He never changed his style, always put his head down, wrote, and persisted.

      Thank you for commenting!

  3. I LOVE the technique of copying the work of others, literally! It wasn’t developed by Hunter S Thompson but by Benjamin Franklin. And it still works today. By copying (either handwriting or typing) you ABSORB the work of others. You learn their style and syntax in a way that reading alone could never reveal. I like your suggestion of reading aloud as you do it, too. It’s a really smart technique. I don’t think the practice is the least bit peculiar. Actually, it’s inspired!

    • Daphne,

      Thank you for that history (I didn’t know Benjamin did that was well. He is another person I revere and find inspiring).

      I’m glad I inspired you. Makes me smile cheek-to-cheek 😀

  4. I had a chance to see Hunter speak in Eugene OR. on my birthday while in college there. I really wish I would have seen him at his peak. The days of running wild were catching up to him and it was hard to understand what he was saying. So much so that someone stood up from the audience and complained. They wanted their money back. Ken Kesey lived near Eugene (as a side note I was able to attend a party at Kesey’s place and got to sit in the famous bus) and was there with Thompson. Kesey grabbed the mic and took money right out of his own pocket and gave it to the person saying something about how the guy probably wouldn’t get Thompson even if he could hear him. The parts I could make out were inspiring. There are people on the Internet carrying the same flame but in different ways. Writing is a tough craft where it is better to fail and deepen your knowledge rather than stay within the fringes of what you think is safe. I don’t think there are too many people willing to take leaps like Hunter. Too many people get locked into debt too soon. Still it is inspiring to reach beyond. I have heard the advice of writing others writing before and I think it is time to put that into practice. Thanks for an awesome post!

    • Wyatt,

      that was the coolest thing I ever heard.

      I watched his documentaries, all his movies, read nearly all his books . . . so yes, I’m a big fan as well. Glad to see someone who shares the same.

      That really was such an interesting story you just told. I read it out loud to my friend and he started dying laughing (he’s a big fan as well).

      I studied Hunter’s writing and copied his books before I convinced myself I was a writer. I strongly believe that he inspired me to take the leaps to become a writer. I even read his old ESPN stories. . . . you should check those out.

      I love that you shared that. Thank you.

  5. I did the copy over exercise with a few chapters of FIGHT CLUB. It’s true that it alters the perception of a writer. Chuck Palahniuk has a very proper mechanic. A way he writes sentences to make them work together. Makes you understand what’s under the hood.

    • I honestly believe that the book is better than the movie. (is that always the case?)

      I love the movie, don’t get me wrong, but Palahniuk does can INCREDIBLE job at telling a story. I actually might reread that book today.

      Thanks for that.

  6. I followed, and continue to follow, all of the above precepts. Thank you, Paul for reiterating them!

  7. I’ve never heard the idea of copying good writers before as an exercise. Great one! Now, which writer to choose…? Thanks for the insightful post.

  8. Great post, Paul.

    I’ve consciously used Thompson myself for inspiration, and in fact I’ve tried to assimulate the styles of many writers of the New Journalism era into my own for my current novel. Theirs is a style of writing that has gone out of vogue I think — has been for a while — but that is perfect for this day and age of information overload and reality TV. New Journalism, at its core, is a way to strip away the extraneous information and present that kernal of truth. Perhaps paradoxically, to do that requires using the tools and approaches of fiction.

    Thompson in particular: his facts were (reportedly) never straight, but he never swayed from the truth.

    ~Graham

    • I agree. Gonzo Journalism is nearly extinct, and definitely would not be acceptable to the public. I definitely agree with you that his style of writing can be fun for today. Good point.

      Haha, when I first read his work and watched the movies I was very cautious on how to take him seriously. Then when I listened closely, I realized how much I loved his style of writing.

      True story: I’m a print journalism major at the moment. Before blogging or writing online I didn’t know much to be honest. I thought it was somewhat acceptable to write news stories like Hunter, but soon found out during my Journalism 101 class that if I did that I’d probably be crucified. I decided to stay in COMM because they do teach many aspects that can apply to blogging & writing, but my dreams of being a journalist went down the tube. I actually am really bad at writing news stories. I have to explain to my professors why and once I explain the blogging aspect, they’re quick to understand.

      Great insight, thank you Graham

      • Hey Paul,

        I know the feeling about writing news stories like Thompson. My natural style tends towards that, and it wasn’t until I found out about New Journalism that I really started to embrace it in my own newspaper work (where appropriate…!) It’s a style, and like any style, it can be effective in some instances, but not in others.

        FYI, I was inspired while replying to your post, and added another short post on my (growing) topic of New Journalism.

        http://www.afewstrongwords.com/2011/12/otf-why-new-journalism-works/

        ~Graham

  9. I love that closing quote!

  10. Lyndie Blevins says:

    One of my favorite Thompson scenes, and I’m pretty sure it was in ..Las Vegas, He was driving under the influence of many things to Las Vegas at night and thought he saw a polar bear on the suite of the road. He went back to check it out if it was a bear. Unbelievable, it was actually a white sheet, which was still pretty strange.

    Since then, I am always looking for polar bears when I drive on the highway at night and wonder would i go back to check it out. Or do you have to be under the influence to be that creative?

    I love the “I am a writer’ quote, too.

  11. Admittedly, I couldn’t finish watching “Fear and Loathing.” I’ve tried a couple times. Still, I love the way Thompson’s words pour like a thin syrup on an uneven surface; rapidly pooling in the low points, only to escape and frenetically run in the least expected direction – all the while clinging to the surface of the truth.

    “Absolute truth is a very rare and dangerous commodity in the context of professional journalism.”

    Indeed.

    • I think hunter would have enjoyed your comment Brian 😉

      Well put.

      Oh that quote. I love that quote as well. So true, too. I love what Hunter did with Journalism. I think it was fresh, unique, bizarre, and told a story.

  12. What a great post Paul. Very informative. Still trying to decide what to create with all my failures. Guess I have a LOT to think about :-)

    • Thank you Michelle!

      Think about them and act on them as well. Those failures turn into great, life-changing lessons — just have to see it that way.

  13. I’ve studied HST as well, quite extensively. I think it’s important to point out that if you hold the simplistic viewpoint of “HST = awesome” you’re sort of missing the point.

    In some aspects, he really was a pioneer, and the passionate energy of his writing is (sometimes) remarkable. Other times, he’s unnecessarily offensive and his writing borders on inane. I think HST himself would argue that we’re inherently complex creatures and can’t be reduced to a single adjective. In a good portion of HST’s work, if you subtract Kerouac, there’s not all that much left.

    If anything, too often, HST holds up the mediocre as the profound.

  14. Nor had i heard of the “copying the masters” technique. I’m happy to hear of it… thinking I’ll try it with Hunter!

  15. Thompson has influenced the past few generations with his invention of Gonzo Journalism. The Good Doctor broke the mold on writing and changed the world and the voice of counter-culture. His work and antics will live on to influence even more generations to come. I paid tribute to Hunter S Thompson and his work with my portrait and article on my artist’s blog at http://dregstudiosart.blogspot.com/2011/02/in-memoriam-hunter-s-thompson.html

    • Well put, Brandt.

      Very nice post as well. Did you draw those pictures?

      Hunter was a big influence on my behalf. He inspired me to become a writer, and I believe a took a lot of his style and knowledge with me.

      Thanks for sharing that post

  16. Bob Dobolina says:

    “Writing requires a lot of discipline.”

    And/or a lot of drugs and alcohol. If you would die if you didn’t write, you are are writer. Otherwise find yourself a more pleasing line of work. Writing isn’t about discipline. It’s about ripping the shreds, chewing them to a pulp and spitting the bits onto the highway. It’s about stripping yourself down to nothing and sticking your naked dick in the dumpster of life. If you don’t have that in you, you will die of dumpster gonorrhea and you’ll believe you died of the flu. Don’t be a putz. If you’re a writer, having your ashes shot out of a cannon is an average, Thursday night party. If you’re a writer, your rotting bones will keep scratching out shit on the roof of your coffin.

  17. I read about HST’s penchant for writing in other author’s “voices” *after* I had started doing it myself (sometime around my sophomore year in college). It’s a hell of a way to practice. And it by no means restricts you to other people’s voices; it ends up strengthening and refining your own. I’ve had my successes, and I’ve had my failures; I’ve never had any damn money from writing creatively, though (I do copy writing — ugh — as my “legit” writing cover). But, indeed, whichever way the chips fall, I was put on this Earth to f–k with words; that’s my thing and I’m sticking with it. Currently in search of a “Do Not Disturb” program to lock down my computer when writing because I find I pour far too much energy into things like blog posts, Tweets, emails…and comments… 😉

    Best,
    Kip

  18. Rebuttal
    Yes, Hunter was a disappointment. He painted himself into a corner. He created a monster and he didn’t have the fortitude to step back, or let go.
    He was surrounded by enablers, who put on a shameful display at his funeral service.
    I’m thinking particularly of Johnny Depp here.
    But guess what? In regard to his killing himself with his son and his daughter-in-law in the house, and with his wife on the phone; there is nobody more self centered and selfish than a drug addict.
    Mailer was seduced by celebrity and Hemingway as well. All successful writers are vulnerable. They become parodies of themselves. Hunter wrote the same book for the last twenty years of his life. He became a clown and those Hollywood vampires fed off him.
    When I lived in Vegas me and my drug addict/alcoholic cronies idolized Thompson. He had the money to get away with that shit for a lot longer than I did. Somewhere I grew up and got out and his destroyed talent doesn’t mitigate what he became.
    And all those lame, phony siphons that egged him on are left to spout off effusively about what a great man and writer he was while they lived vicariously through his self destruction. And call it art instead of degradation.

  19. Nice article. I love HST and need to read more of his work.

    • Judith marrs says:

      I am a writer addicted to HST. His writing has spoiled me because I cannot find any writer that compares to him. Any ideas?

Trackbacks

  1. […] What Hunter S. Thompson Can Teach You About Powerful Writing featured on Men with Pens. […]

  2. […] S. Thompson, one of my favorite writers, and turned his history of becoming a writer into a post. A guest post to be exact, on Men with Pens. I took a look at his history as a writer, his past, his struggles, […]

  3. […] In my recent guest post on Men with Pens, I talk about how my favorite author, Hunter S. Thompson, inspired me to steal from my heroes. Let me explain: Hunter would take a book like The Great Gatsby, sit at his typewriter, and write […]

  4. […] a guest post on the blog Men with Pens, Paul Jun finds inspiration within Hunter S. Thompson and reminds us of the benefit of copying the greats. It is what Thompson did and many before him. […]

  5. […] Steal From Your Heroes Hunter S. Thompson started by helping out with editing in the high school yearbook. He then went off to the Air Force and landed his first writing job as a sports editor in The Command Courier by lying about his experience. And while attending Columbia University School of General Studies and taking creative writing, he worked for Time as a copy boy for $51 a week. It was said that during this time he would sneak off into a room with a typewriter and rewrite his favorite author’s books such as F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gastby and Ernest Hemmingway’s A Farewell to Arms. He did this because he wanted to understand and learn the magic and flow of a great writer. Go find your favorite book or author, sit down and use this peculiar practice to improve your writing. Read out loud as you’re typing, and learn the fluidity of remarkable storytelling. When you use this method, you can: Refine your writing Exercise your knowledge of grammar and punctuation Expand your vocabulary Develop an appreciation for language and word choice Help you adopt a style that fits you best Assist you in finding your writing voice It’s impossible to write exactly like Fitzgerald or Hemingway, but taking a little bit of their style here and there won’t hurt. It can spice up your writing and assist you in painting a picture with words. http://menwithpens.ca/hunter-thompson/ […]

  6. […] Jun’s article, “What Hunter S. Thompson Can Teach You About Powerful Writing“, also mentions Thompson doing this. It has some other interesting facts, ideas and […]

  7. […] sharing this news on Facebook, my friend Kurt Starnes commented that Hunter S. Thompson rewrote The Great Gatsby and a Farewell to Arms, in order to intimately understan…. This method of learning literally blew my […]

  8. […] How many mornings do you awake and tell yourself, “My writing is good, but what I really want to know is what Hunter S. Thompson can teach me about powerful writing.” Well, it may not be a daily question (though I’m not sure why not, given his trailblazing brilliant, unique, unapologetic style), but I’ve got the answer for you. […]

  9. […] about the subtext that exists between the words. The idea of repetition came from a story about Hunter S. Thompson re-writing ‘The Great Gatsby’ word-for-word to get a better feel for how F. Scott Fitzgerald constructed his work. Asking someone […]

  10. […] work – you’ll just be practicing by copying their work. One of my favourite authors Hunter S. Thompson copied “The Great Gatsby” to get the feeling for how it must be to write like Fitzgerald. He also copied Hemingway. There are […]

  11. […] is another HST trick. He would type out pages of The Great Gatsby to experience what writing a great story feels like, and to absorb some of the magic to use in his […]

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