Mark Twain’s Tips on Writing Well

We all know Mark Twain for Huckleberry Finn, Tom Sawyer, The Prince and the Pauper, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, etc. In literary circles he is known for his lambasting essay, The Literary Offenses of Fenimore Cooper, where he writes his Nineteen Most Important Rules of Literature. The essay claims that James Fenimore Cooper, another well-known American author, broke eighteen of them. How do you make out?

1. A tale shall accomplish something and arrive somewhere.

2. The episodes in a tale shall be necessary parts of the tale, and shall help to develop it.

3. The people in a tale shall be alive, except in the case of corpses, and that always the reader shall be able to tell the corpses from the others.

4. The people in a tale, both dead and alive, shall exhibit a sufficient excuse for being there.

5. When the people of a tale deal in conversation, the talk shall sound like human talk, and be talk such as human beings would be likely to talk in the given circumstances, and have a discoverable meaning, also a discoverable purpose, and a show of relevancy, and remain in the neighborhood of the subject at hand, and be interesting to the reader, and help out the tale, and stop when the people cannot think of anything more to say.

6. When the author describes the character of a person in the tale, the conduct and conversation of that personage shall justify said description.

7. When a person talks like an illustrated, gilt-edged, tree-calf, hand-tooled, seven-dollar Friendship’s Offering in the beginning of a paragraph, he shall not talk like a [slave] minstrel in the end of it.

8. Crass stupidities shall not be played upon the reader as “the craft of the woodsman, the delicate art of the forest,” by either the author or the people in the tale.

9. People of a tale shall confine themselves to possibilities and let miracles alone; or, if they venture a miracle, the author must so plausibly set it forth as to make it look possible and reasonable.

10. The author shall make the reader feel a deep interest in the personages of his tale and in their fate; and that he shall make the reader love the good people in the tale and hate the bad ones.

11. Characters in a tale shall be so clearly defined that the reader can tell beforehand what each will do in a given emergency.

Whoosh. Twain really didn’t like Cooper’s writing! And he isn’t done yet. Additional requirements for authors include…

12. Say what he is proposing to say, not merely come near it.

13. Use the right word, not its second cousin.

14. Eschew surplusage.

15. Not omit necessary details.

16. Avoid slovenliness of form.

17. Use good grammar.

18. Employ a simple and straightforward style.

For the life of me, I can’t find the 19th rule, the one Cooper didn’t break. If you want to read Twain’s complete essay, check it out here. You have to admit, though, Twain is onto something here. Especially #5, where characters should only talk when they have something interesting to say that also has to to with the plot. So come on, fess up: How many rules have you broken?

4 thoughts on “Mark Twain’s Tips on Writing Well

  1. Hi,

    Can anybody recommend some Mark Twain for a 46-year-old Englishman to read? I've never read any of his work before, but as he is always seems to turn up (especially as quotations), I've figured it's about time I read something of his.

    Any suggestions?

    Graham Carter

    Like

  2. Hi,

    Can anybody recommend some Mark Twain for a 46-year-old Englishman to read? I’ve never read any of his work before, but as he is always seems to turn up (especially as quotations), I’ve figured it’s about time I read something of his.

    Any suggestions?

    Graham Carter

    Like

  3. In all honesty, I've never read anything but Twain's literary commentary on other writers, which is hilarious and worth the effort if you can find a copy. The Mysterious Stranger, however, is on my To Be Read list. The typical Twain books people read include A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.

    Like

  4. In all honesty, I’ve never read anything but Twain’s literary commentary on other writers, which is hilarious and worth the effort if you can find a copy. The Mysterious Stranger, however, is on my To Be Read list. The typical Twain books people read include A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.

    Like

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