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Mark Twain’s Rules for Good Writing

Mark Twain’s 18 rules for writing – part of his response to the fiction of James Fenimore Cooper

Mark Twain (1835-1910) is the writer who once observed, ‘The difference between the almost right word and the right word is the difference between the lightning-bug and the lightning.’ (We include that pithy gem in our selection of Mark Twain’s best one-liners, and we’ve offered our favourite Mark Twain facts here.) In his essay, ‘Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses‘ (1895), Twain took the author of The Deerslayer and The Last of the Mohicans to task for his flawed writing style. Scathingly, but hilariously, he writes:

Another stage-property that he pulled out of his box pretty frequently was the broken twig. He prized his broken twig above all the rest of his effects, and worked it the hardest. It is a restful chapter in any book of his when somebody doesn’t step on a dry twig and alarm all the reds and whites for two hundred yards around. Every time a Cooper person is in peril, and absolute silence is worth four dollars a minute, he is sure to step on a dry twig. There may be a hundred other handier things to step on, but that wouldn’t satisfy Cooper. Cooper requires him to turn out and find a dry twig; and if he can’t do it, go and borrow one. In fact, the Leatherstocking Series ought to have been called the Broken Twig Series.

Earlier in his essay, Twain had asserted: ‘There are nineteen rules governing literary art in domain of romantic fiction – some say twenty-two. In “Deerslayer,” Cooper violated eighteen of them.’ Twain then goes on to outline these eighteen rules which Fenimore Cooper had, Twain felt, failed to observe. They are included below.

1. A tale shall accomplish something and arrive somewhere.

Mark Twain in bed2. The episodes of a tale shall be necessary parts of the tale, and shall help develop it.

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

5. When the personages 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 in 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 personage in his tale, the conduct and conversation of that personage shall justify said description.

7. When a personage talks like an illustrated, gilt-edged, tree-calf, hand-tooled, seven-dollar Mark Twain ShirtlessFriendship’s Offering in the beginning of a paragraph, he shall not talk like a Negro minstrel at the end of it.

8. Crass stupidities shall not be played upon the reader by either the author or the people in the tale.

9. The personages of a tale shall confine themselves to possibilities and let miracles alone; or, if they venture a miracle, the author must so plausably 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 their fate; and that he shall make the reader love the good people in the tale and hate the bad ones.

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

An author should

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, straightforward style.

More fiction-writing advice can be had in this post outlining Michael Moorcock’s advice on how to write a novel in three days, and we offer some tips on how to write an English essay here.

Image (top): Mark Twain lying in bed, 1906 (author: Underwood & Underwood), Wikimedia Commons, public domain. Image (bottom): Mark Twain Shirtless, c. 1883, author unknown; Wikimedia Commons; public domain.

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About interestingliterature

A blog dedicated to rooting out the interesting stuff about classic books and authors.

Posted on October 2, 2015, in Literature and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 26 Comments.

  1. I always enjoying reading anything this man wrote. The older I get the more I enjoy and am impressed by his work.

  2. Reblogged this on hocuspocus13 and commented:
    jinxx🍁xoxo

  3. Very informative, thank you.

  4. Maybe the broken twig is the literary equivalent of the film cough. Anyone who coughs in a film is usually dead in about ten minutes. It’s always a cough. Mind you I’m not sure what else it could be – a faint? a trip? a headache? Oh well, there’s a few to be going on with.

  5. Reblogged this on AngieTrafford and commented:
    LOL, I am quite proud of the fact that I don’t believe that any of my characters have actually stepped on a dry twig!

  6. Informative and hilarious. He was truly a one-of-a-kind gentleman.I am re-blogging because I love it.

  7. Reblogged this on The English Professor at Large and commented:
    Thanks to the Interesting Literature blog, we have this informative and hilarious article on Mark Twain’s writing tips.

  8. In my opinion, anything with Mark Twain is excellent! He was the only author I know of that can write a compelling story and you didn’t have to open a dictionary once to understand.

  9. That twig comment is hilarious :D

  10. Clemens had a thing about Cooper. I seem to recall reading about something particularly sarcastic he had to say about the impossibility of some element of action in his books, and it made sense.
    I join the many who are in full disagreement with many of these tips, though,

  11. Here, Here, Mark! Witty and wise all at once – that’s what we expect from the master Twain.

  12. I hope you won’t mind me reblogging at Bookheathen. It seems to me there’s more good advice here than in a dozen books on the subject.

  13. Reblogged this on Bookheathen's Right to Read and commented:
    There’s more good advice here than in a dozen books on the subject!

  14. Reblogged this on The Speculative Fiction of William Gosline and commented:
    I recently listened to “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” in my work truck and was amazed by Twain’s precision of voice. I couldn’t believe he had written the book in the 1870s, There is a reason this writer is still considered one of the great American writers to this day.

  15. These are amazing! Really enjoyed reading, and there are so many books that break rule 5 these days, sometimes on more than one count…

  16. Garry Armstrong

    Wish Mr. Twain could do something about quality of today’s TV drama scripts. Heck, let’s have him do something about most entertainment venues.

  17. Interesting, with some good advice.

  18. Enlightening and bloody funny.

  19. Love to see the man so robust in the photos, compared to what you hear about his last despairing years.

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