Bad writing habitsBasics of writing

The rules of good writing from Mark Twain

From Rick:

None have said it better than Mark Twain in his famous essay FENIMORE COOPER’S LITERARY OFFENSES

I’ve added my thoughts and comments.

“There are nineteen rules governing literary art in domain of romantic fiction—some say twenty-two. In Deerslayer, Cooper violated eighteen of them. These eighteen require:”

(1) That a tale shall accomplish something and arrive somewhere.

This is Twain’s way of saying that the story must have point to it, not just a beginning and an ending, and that what’s in between will propel the story forward from the start to the finish. Speaking of endings, the story shouldn’t simply come to a halt. The best stories come back around to where they began, forming a closed loop. That’s not saying all stories require such closure, but it should have at the end that lets the reader see get a glimpse of the characters’ possible future. IF a story ends abruptly with no closure, as if the writer ran out of words or couldn’t figure out a decent ending, then as a reader I find it annoying.

(2) They require that the episodes in a tale shall be necessary parts of the tale and shall help to develop it.

Every scene in the story should have a reason for being there, something more than filler or wasted words that accomplish nothing.

(3) They require that 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.

I’m assuming Twain meant by this that the characters should be more than statues occupying space.

(4) They require that the personages in a tale, both dead and alive, shall exhibit a sufficient excuse for being there.

Going along with #3, if a character has been mentioned and does nothing in the story, why is the character there in the first place? Here’s an example.

“Who was in the building after it closed,” the detective asked.

“Just the janitor.”

I maintain that the detective had better be talking to that janitor or else he shouldn’t have been mentioned in the story.

(5) The require that 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 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.

I’ve pointed out before that the key rule of dialogue is that every line of dialogue should either advance the story or tell us something about the speaker, or both—but never neither.

(6) They require that when the author describes the character of a personage in the tale, the conduct and conversation of that personage shall justify said description.

Does this one need any explanation?

(7) They require that 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 in the end of it.

This comment is in no way racial profiling. Remember the times that Twain wrote in. If these words offend you, substitute “street kid” or “gangbanger” for “negro minstrel.”

Let the characters dictate the tone and vocabulary. If your street kid starts spouting big words amid his street-kid speech, you’d better have a good character reason for his doing so.

(8) They require that 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.

While Twain was specifically referring to Fenimore Cooper’s writings, we could easily substitute any inept or illogical phrase. Don’t write awkward metaphors: “The setting sun reminded Sara of the way her mother used to slowly close her bedroom door at night, shutting out the light from the hall.” (I made this one up; it’s not something I’ve seen in print.) One reason the metaphor is poor is that the sun sets vertically, but the door closes horizontally. We could give many other examples of nonsensical writing. Make sure your writing is free of such.

(9) They require that 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.

Twain isn’t cautioning us against using the supernatural but to be certain that everything in the story is plausible and logical within the story’s framework. If the world you’ve built allows magic and miracles and intervention by supernatural beings, all is well, but these things need to be set up appropriately. If your story has a 12’x12’ mosaic set on a stone slab, be aware that puppy is gonna be heavy. The stone slab alone, depending on thickness could be half a ton or more. If the mosaic is magical, you can fudge the weight some, but there’s still the physical size to contend with.

(10) They require that 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.

This isn’t to say that you can’t have unlikeable good characters and loveable bad ones, but be sure you set up them up properly.

(11) They require that the characters in a tale shall be so clearly defined that the reader can tell beforehand what each will do in a given emergency.

Or reasonably close. The reader need not always be able to guess exactly how the characters will react, but their reactions should be logical based on their background, personality, and prior actions.

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

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

As a writer make sure to express yourself properly and succinctly.

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

To which I will add: Don’t use a $50 word if a 25-cent one will do, but don’t be afraid to use that $50 word if it’s appropriate for the situation and it doesn’t sound as if the writer is trying to show off his knowledge. A thesaurus is designed to help you find the right word for the situation, not to find substitute words simply for the sake of variety. I mentioned in an earlier blog how I’ve seen writers use a thesaurus and fail to verify the actual meaning of the substitute word. Very few words in the English language are exact synonyms. Take colors for examples. Under “red” in the thesaurus you’ll find “crimson” and “scarlet” listed, but while these are both shades of red, they are not synonymous.

At the same time, if you’re writing about armor and your characters know the proper terminology, don’t refer to metal gloves and shin guards. Call them gauntlets and greaves. And if you don’t know the proper terms, then you shouldn’t writing about them until you do.

(14) Eschew surplusage.

My favorite Twain rule. It’s his way of telling you to keep your writing tight and to avoid unnecessary fluff, repetition, and overwriting.

(15) Not omit necessary details.

This includes not only making sure your reader has the required setting details and facts necessary to understand the story, but also that readers know who and what the characters are. If your character is named Parker or Mackenzie or Sidney or Jamie or any of the dozens of other unisex names, don’t keep the reader in the dark about their gender unless you have a deliberate reason for doing so.

Be careful when using uncommon or foreign names for your characters in a story aimed at English-speaking readers, who may not be familiar with the gender assigned to Indian, Near-Eastern, and Japanese or Chinese names. We’re used to Spanish and Italian names ending in -o being male, and -a being female, but some Japanese names ending -o are male, and some are female. The Russian name “Sasha” is a man’s name. And made-up fantasy names usually require clarification.

A gender-specific pronoun is a good way to clue the reader, but this won’t work in first-person stories. I’ve seen clothing references used, but they are not always unhelpful. Both men and women wear jeans, and the Indian kurta is worn by both men and women.

I continue to mention the issue of first-person narratives not identifying the narrator’s gender because I see it violated so often. Unless you have a compelling story reason for hiding that information, don’t do it!

I’ve seen things like this: “Being the youngest in the family, my sisters always teased me.” Is the youngest the only boy, or the youngest sister. The writer knows who the character is but has forgotten to let the reader know. This is easy to remedy either by simple rewording or by providing some other clear clue. “Being the youngest girl, my sisters always teased me” or “Being the only boy in the family, my older sisters always teased me” or “Being the youngest in an all-girl family, my sisters always teased me.”

(16) Avoid slovenliness of form.

A warning to be consistent your usage and formatting and to follow sensible writing practices.

(17) Use good grammar.

Dialogue is one obvious exception. Some people in their everyday speech say “I should have went” instead of “I should have gone.” It’s okay for one of your characters to talk that way, but not for all of them to do it, and it’s not okay if your character is college educated. Likewise, your “should have went” character needs to make other grammatical mistakes as well and not talk properly everywhere else. If your own grammar skills with things like “lie” and “lay” are not the best. Your character can misuse these in speech, but your non-dialogue parts need to be correct.

Another less-obvious exception is close first-person narration where the character is talking directly to the reader. Twain himself does this in “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.”

Caution: If you use an outside editor, be sure that your editor understands the difference between your deliberate grammar mistakes and unintentional ones. I’ve run across editors who didn’t and “corrected” them.

(18) Employ a simple and straightforward style.

Twain isn’t telling us to dumb down our writing but is reminding us that most readers read for enjoyment, not to be challenged by difficult, obtuse writing. Don’t compromise your vision, but make sure you reader can understand what your vision is.

Twain never says what the nineteenth rule is. Given that his essay is scathing sarcasm, it’s safe to say he made up this list and deliberately omitted a nineteenth rule to further the sarcasm. Given that, I’ll add a nineteenth rule of my own.

(19) Get your facts, brand names, and expressions right. It’s a “La-Z-Boy chair” not “Lazy Boy chair.” (and I’ve seen other incorrect variations) The expression is “to make do with something” not “make due.” Seeing these puzzles me because these are all easy to look up. Why don’t more writers do it? Is it laziness? No writer should believe that he or she knows everything. A good writer (and a good editor) should ALWAYS double check everything, particularly brand names, product names, and common expressions simply because what we think we know can be wrong. Brands can change as well. Walmart has changed was “Wal-Mart” when it first incorporated in 1969, and Kmart changed as well. As we point out in Punctuation For Fiction Writers, words that were once two words have become hyphenated or one word, and these changes are taking place more rapidly than ever. When I edit, I pretty much check all hyphenated words and two-word pairings that form a single idea like “upside down.” That one is currently two words when an adverb, but it’s hyphenated as an adjective: Things were turned upside down. She baked an upside-down cake. Some are in transition. “Road kill” and “roadkill” are both currently acceptable, but I expect it to change over fully to one word soon.


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