Today is the 176th birthday of Mark Twain. My appreciation of Twain’s work deepens as I get older, and the work of his that I like best has changed as time has gone on as well. Twain not only wrote with eloquence, humor, charm, and passion about America, he did so on behalf of America. More than any other writer he seemed to embody the national consciousness, and he remains arguably the best articulator of our nation’s view of itself.
This seems like a good time to give Twain’s rules of writing, from his essay “James Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses.” I often distribute these to students in my writing classes emphasizing craft.
Mark Twain’s Rules of Writing
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 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.
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, straightforward style.