Mar 12

Mark Twain’s Rules of Writing

This was taken from Mark Twain‘s 1895 essayFenimore Cooper‘s Literary Offenses”, which is mainly a criticism of Cooper’s story “The Deerslayer“.

Twain wrote: “I may be mistaken, but it does seem to me that “Deerslayer” is not a work of art in any sense; it does seem to me that it is destitute of every detail that goes to the making of a work of art; in truth, it seems to me that “Deerslayer” is just simply a literary delirium tremens.”

But remember Twain also said of Jane Austin, ”… I want to dig her up and beat her over the skull with her own shin-bone”.


  1. A tale      shall accomplish      something and arrive      somewhere.
  2. 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 Friendship’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. Events shall be believable;      the personages 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      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.

In addition to these large rules, there are some little ones. These require that the author shall:

  1. Say what he is      proposing to say, not merely come near it.
  2. Use the right word, not its second      cousin.
  3. Eschew      surplusage.
  4. Not omit      necessary details.
  5. Avoid slovenliness      of form.
  6. Use good grammar.
  7. Employ a simple,      straightforward style.

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