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18 'Rules' of writing from an Old Master

Crumbly Writer

Once more attempting to validate epigraphs, I ran across the following written by Mark Twain. In an 1895 essay, 'Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses', he took the author of the Deerslayer and the Last of the Mohicans to task for his flawed writing style. He then asserted that: 'There are nineteen rules governing literary art in domain of romantic fiction, some say twenty-two. In "Deerslayer," Cooper violated 18. What follows are the 18 specific 'literary rules' which Fenimore Cooper violated.

It's a pretty common-sense list, and one worth reviewing by anyone trying to construct comprehensive stories.

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. 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.

An author should

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.

It's been a LONG time since I last read Twain's advice on writing, and it's refreshing being reminded of it now.

Replies:   Switch Blayde
Switch Blayde

@Crumbly Writer

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.


You gotta love Mark Twain.

He'd be crucified today on Twitter for #7.

Replies:   Kris Me
Kris Me
Updated:

@Switch Blayde

Really sad, I do remember the Black and White Minstrel Show.

Note: I do like rule 8 and hope I've never inflicted my readers with this act.

8. Crass stupidities shall not be played upon the reader by either the author or the people in the tale.

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