Monday, August 1, 2016

Mark Twain’s Rules for Writing

Annamaria on Monday

This is a blog about two guys who lived in my neighborhood: James Fenimore Cooper lived a few blocks east of me at 6 St. Mark’s Place, and Mark Twain lived in two places both two blocks to my west—14 West 10th Street and 21 Fifth Avenue.

Fortunately the two authors’ residencies were not simultaneous.  Otherwise fisticuffs might have broken out.


 Both of these former denizens of my neib were, of course, famous American writers.  The earlier one—Cooper—wrote one the most widely read American novels of the 19th Century: The Last of Mohicans.  In my studies of American literature, I heard an anecdote about how he came to write fiction.  Supposedly he was reading to a novel aloud to his wife at their fireside in Cooperstown, New York, complaining bitterly about how badly the book was written.  His wife reportedly suggested that, if he was so displeased, he should write a better one.  There seems to be no information about what book Cooper had in his hand at the time.


Nor is there any record of Mark Twain ever hearing this story.   If he had, he would have met it with a full frontal attack.  I know this because I have read repeatedly Twain’s criticism of Cooper’s prose style: for the first time as a student, and many times since.  I find Twain’s essays instructive every time.  These days I don’t have to go to my dog-eared copy of Twain’s Letters from the Earth to find them.   You can find them both on line in their entirety.  Let’s start with “Cooper’s Prose Style.”

Here’s the beginning.  (The essay is couched as a lecture to a college class):

YOUNG GENTLEMAN: In studying Cooper you will find it profitable to study him in detail- word by word, sentence bv sentence. For every sentence of his is interesting. Interesting because of its make-up, its peculiar make-up, its original make-up. Let us examine a sentence or two, and see. Here is a passage from Chapter xi of The Last of the Mohicans, one of the most famous and most admired of Cooper’s books:
Notwithstanding the swiftness of their flight, one of the Indians had found an opportunity to strike a straggling fawn with an arrow, and had borne the more preferable fragments of the victim, patiently on his shoulders, to the stopping-place…”
Twain then goes on to pillory Cooper for the failings of his style. Viz:

This little paragraph is full of matter for reflection and inquiry. The remark about the swiftness of the flight was unnecessary, as it was merely put in to forestall the possible objection of some over particular reader that the Indian couldn’t have found the needed “opportunity” while fleeing swiftly. The reader would not have made that objection. He would care nothing about having that small matter explained and justified. But that is Cooper’s way; frequently he will explain and justify little things that do not need it and then make up for this by as frequently failing to explain important ones that do need it.

This admonishment in itself is worth the reading of the essay.  Many times, over the years, I have found this same mistake in the book I was reading and muttered, “Where is Mark Twain when we really need him.”  When I have caught myself doing it, I have imagined the master reading over my shoulder and snickering at my work.

Later on, he continues to take those same sentences to task, especially for unnecessary words.  For instance:

we don’t care why he saved the “more” preferable ones when the merely preferable ones would have amounted to just the same thing and couldn’t have been told from the more preferable ones by anybody, dead or alive;

And shortly afterwards, Twain brings up a the question of voice:

I beg to remind you that an author’s way of setting forth a matter is called his Style, and that an author’s sty1e is a main part of his equipment for business. The style of some authors has variety in it, but Cooper’s style is remarkable for the absence of this feature.
Cooper, according to Twain, is too unrelentingly grand and stately and noble in the cadence of his story telling.  Twain reminds us that it matters what sort of music the words make in the reader’s head.  The cadence needs to match the mood.  And it cannot be unvarying.   (I am proud to recount the best advice I ever gave my writing students—“Every once in a while, write a three word sentence.”)

Twain’s essay goes on to refer to rules he laid out in another essay “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses.”

Here are those rules in their entirety, but without Twain’s specific jabs at Cooper.

“The… rules governing literary art in the domain of romantic fiction require:

1. That a tale shall accomplish something and arrive somewhere.
2. They require that the episodes in a tale shall be necessary parts of the tale, and shall help to develop it.
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.
4. They require that the personages in a tale, both dead and alive, shall exhibit a sufficient excuse for being there.
5. They 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.

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.
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.

I love this stuff.  I share it here with glee.  Not that I find it easy to follow these rules.  But they are my GPS.  I read them every once in while, just to remind myself of what I am trying to do.

And by the way.  Twain’s indictment of Cooper is A-one with me.  Once I read these essays I understood why I found The Last of the Mohicans unreadable.

Almost invariably, I like a book better than its movie version.  This is one of the few cases where the movie is much better.  If you want a tale of the French and Indian War, don’t read Cooper.  Watch this:

I include this picture because ever since I saw this canoe in the film, I have
lusted after it.  Imagine paddling such a thing in the upper reaches of the Hudson River. 


  1. Wonderful, Annamaria. Thank you. I'm ashamed to say that I didn't know that Mark Twain had written in such detail about writing. I shall certainly read all of it now.

    1. My pleasure, Michael. I expect that most people are unaware of these little gems on writing well. They are not well known, apart of Twain scholars in the USA. I owe my knowledge of them to my college department head--Sister Mary Catharine O'Connor. She was brilliant and unrelentingly demanding of her pupils. (She had two PhDs from Columbia University, one in Medieval Literature and one in Education!) A great admirer of Twain, she often seemed the embodiment of his biting satiric viewpoint, his ability to sting and to charm one at the same time. My first ever published book is dedicated to her memory.

  2. I can only echo Michael's comment above, Annamaria. I'd no idea Mark Twain had written these wonderful rules.

    I particularly like #14: Eschew surplusage

    1. Zoe, that's my favorite too. So much more panache than "Be Brief!" Twain managed to be entertaining no matter what.

    2. You do have to wonder how that fits with rule #13, though:

      Use the right word, not its second cousin.

    3. Yes, Zoe. We could say that those last four words are surplusage. But they do add charm, and when it comes to Mark Twain, charm in not nothing.

  3. I tried reading Cooper once. Made it through 40-50 pages before admitting defeat, and I don't often admit defeat. After all, it's defeat that gets the rest of you where you need to go...

    1. Sorry for the confusion, that should have been 'De Feet'.

    2. You made it through twenty more pages than I ever did, EvKa. Then I voted with my feet. Not surprisingly, the writers of the Daniel Day Lewis film credited Cooper AND the writers of the of the 1936 screen play. I always figured that the 1996 boys tried to read the novel, gave up, and watched Randolph Scott portrayal instead. The better part of valor!

  4. Twain never fails to amaze me. I've been reading "Innocents Abroad" in bits and snatches and his take on places 150 years ago still rings true in many ways today.

    As for JFC (not his brother KFC), I'm convinced the teacher in grade school who made us read that, followed by "The Deerslayer" is one of the reasons I stopped reading for pleasure for a long while...until I received a half-dozen copies of Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer as birthday gifts...we at the source of the Ohio River kids got them as gifts in a sort of rite of passage.

    1. So right, Bro. I read TIA last year and found WAY too many stereotypes of the French and the Italians and the Greeks. I still love Twain. But now a notch below worship. His opinions were of his time, but I can only forgive him so much.


  5. King Leopold's Soliloquy, a brilliant, scathing criticism of the Belgian king for the brutality and repression against the people of the Congo by Belgium.

    And, in an interesting twist on why writing short pieces is harder than writing long ones:

    I tried to write you a short letter, but I didn't have time.

    I love this, as a person who often writes long essays, then spends hours tweaking and cutting.

  6. I mean to say above those points that two things which I remember about Twain are the following.

    1. Kathy, thank you for telling me about the King Leopold Soliloquy. If I had come across it years ago, I had forgotten about it. I have downloaded a copy. The recounting of Leopold's deeds in King Leopold's Ghost--a book that came out in the 90's, recounts the horrifying story of Leopold's reign in the Congo. I had reason to refer to one of his methods (cutting off the hands of "lazy" slaves) in a post here a few months ago.

      I remember the line about the long letter from Lord Chesterfield's letters to his son--something I read in college, which was offered as an example of excellent writing style. And it was.
      I fault myself for not always sticking to Twain's rule. And especially for being a very bad proofreader. I try. But not always hard enough.

  7. One thing about Mark Twain that I also remember. He did not like Jane Austen's writings. He was merciless.

    1. He was. And mercilessly prejudiced. Not racist. But if you read The Innocents Abroad today, do in the out of door. You will be tempted to fling the book and endanger of damaging your belongings otherwise.

  8. Here is the exact quote on short and long letters.

    “I didn't have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.”

    ― Mark Twain

    1. Kathy, it seems a lot of people said that, starting with Blaise Pascal. Twain said something like. The Earl of Chesterfield doesn't show up anywhere in the analysis:

      People make attributions on the internet, and they take on the aura of truth. I pity the people at Snopes trying to sort it all out. The Quote Investigators' Reports are always very erudite and make me want to read too many books I will never have time for.

  9. My TBR lists (one on each computer) keep reproducing like rabbits. And then I don't know what to read I have so many books listed.

    I just know with our insane elections I want escapism, nothing more ponderous.

    And we'll enjoy the Olympics. Can't wait for women's gymnastics.