Twain’s Advice To Writers #amwriting

I agree with most of Mark Twain‘s advice to writers, but not all of it. Please bear in mind that this advice was given specifically in the context of Twain’s pillorying of the writing of James Fenimore Cooper, whose writing Twain detested. Of course, Twain also detested the writing of the divine Jane Austen, so there’s no accounting for tastes.

Mark Twain’s Advice To Writers

  • A tale shall accomplish something and arrive somewhere.
  • The episodes of a tale shall be necessary parts of the tale, and shall help develop it.
  • The personages in a tale shall be alive, except in the case of corpses, and always the reader shall be able to tell the corpses from the others.
  • The personages in a tale, both dead and alive, shall exhibit a sufficient excuse for being there.
  • When the personages of a tale deal in conversation, the talk shall sound like human talk such as human beings would be likely to talk in the given circumstances, and have 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.
  • When the author describes the character of a personage in his tale, the conduct and conversation of that personage shall justify said description.
  • 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.
  • Crass stupidities shall not be played upon the reader by either the author or the people in the tale.
  • The personages of the 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.
  • The author shall make the reader feel a deep interest in the personages of his tale and their fate; and shall make the reader love the good people of the tale and hate the bad ones.
  • The characters in a tale shall be so clearly defined that the reader can tell beforehand what each will do in a given emergency.
  • The author shall say what he is proposing to say, not merely come near it.
  • He shall use the right word, not its second cousin.
  • He shall eschew surplusage.
  • He shall not omit necessary details.
  • He shall avoid slovenliness of form.
  • He shall use good grammar.
  • He shall employ a simple, straightforward style.

What do I not agree with?

  • Obviously, I have to stipulate that the non-humans don’t have to talk like humans.
  • And the characters don’t have to stop talking when they don’t have anything to say, if they’re the kind of characters who would run off at the mouth, right?
  • And the reader should sometimes be surprised at what a character will do in an emergency, although it should be the kind of surprise that makes the reader go, Cool!
  • I love it when writers only come close to what they propose to say, but do it such a way that my brain can make that leap. It makes my head tickle, and I like it.
  • Sometimes I like a complex, convoluted style.
  • So there.

And now, this:

nothing to do with Twain's Advice To Writers
photo by leshoward

A WRITING PROMPT FOR YOU: Write a story outraging as many of Twain’s advices as you can. Does the story work?



I was born in Louisville, Kentucky, but now live in the woods in southern Indiana. Though I only write fiction, I love to read non-fiction. The more I learn about this world, the more fantastic I see it is.

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One thought on “Twain’s Advice To Writers #amwriting

  1. kat french

    July 7, 2014 at 8:59am

    If you can easily tell the corpses from the live people, that sort of eliminates almost the entire urban fantasy genre. #justsayin

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  2. Dan Antion

    July 7, 2014 at 9:52am

    I don’t write fiction, but I like Twain. The advice I work the hardest at is “The author shall say what he is proposing to say, not merely come near it.” I am sometimes surprised by the comments I get on my blog. I read them and it tells me “they didn’t get it (my point)” and that means I failed.

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    • Author

      Marian Allen

      July 7, 2014 at 10:16am

      I agree that it’s extremely important to be as clear as possible in non-fiction, especially in instructional material. If I had a nickle for every time I’ve read instructions and said, “Do what? Say WHAT? Where? How? Am I being punished?” I would have enough money to retire. I loved your Independence post. And you made your point very well. 🙂

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  3. Jane

    July 7, 2014 at 10:06am

    Tha Jayne Austen Pride and Extremem Prejudice Scoiety???!!!
    Ii love the Jayne hats.

    What are those people up to?!

    P.S. Twain had justice in calling out Fenimore Cooper on all counts.

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    • Author

      Marian Allen

      July 7, 2014 at 10:20am

      Isn’t it great! They were part of a “geek parade”. If you follow the link on the picture caption you can see leshoward’s other pictures of the event. I just love humans!

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  4. Sandra Carey Cody

    July 12, 2014 at 4:06pm

    I’m sure Mark Twain would be disappointed in any writer who agreed with EVERYTHING he said. So you two would probably get along just fine – and have some fine arguments.

    Permalink  ⋅ Reply

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