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January 2006

Writing Well

Installment One

Can someone really be taught how to write well?

As an elementary public-school teacher of 18 years, as well as in my former role of gifted-talented educator, national language arts consultant, sometime college lecturer, and occasional writer-in-residence for advanced programs for adults who want to become writers, I can answer that question with an emphatic yes if the question means – Can people of all ages be taught to improve their writing skills by quantum leaps?

I know it can be done. I’ve done the teaching and watched students do the learning and produce the quality work. Working with average 11-yr.-old sixth graders, I saw these kids achieve a proficiency at least equal to – and in most cases superior to – seniors in high school who lacked such instruction. As a teacher of selected gifted youngsters on the sixth-grade level, I watched them learn how to produce prose fiction superior to the vast majority of college-level writing majors. As an instructor in writing workshops for adults, I’ve helped would-be professional writers make that final quantum jump – and it is rarely a small one – up to the minimum threshold of quality that allows work to be published.

But the second question implicit in the first – Can most people really be taught to write well enough to become published writers? – is one that I can’t answer.

Being a writer requires many subsets of skills – including the ability to observe closely and objectively, having a keen ear for language, understanding the structures and protocols of fiction, being a powerfully analytical reader, having the ability to bring fictional structure out of the near-infinite chaos that is reality, being intelligent and well-read, having the courage to be honest about things most of us would prefer to avoid discussing, and, for most writers, receiving a broad formal education even before you begin educating yourself to your own style as a writer. It may be a fact that very few men and women have the full range of gifts necessary to become a writer -- or at least a writer who can produce work of such quality that it deserves to be read by thousands or millions of other people.

This sounds elitist, even arrogant, but consider the simple fact that, according to various studies, in the United States, which has a population of almost 300 million people, (a surprisingly large percentage of whom who think they can write fiction), only about 400 to 500 adults in this entire country manage to make their living solely through the writing of fiction. About twice that number publish occasional fiction while holding down a “day job” at universities or as teachers in writing programs. (There are hundreds of screenwriters serving the voracious maw of TV and Hollywood, of course, but even there the number of those who can make a full time living at it amounts to only a few score out of 280,000,000 Americans who might want to give it a try.)

Once, during a wonderful evening spent with Ray Bradbury, Robert Bloch (author of Psycho), and the famous satirical comedy writer and radio comedian Stan Freberg, I asked Freberg if it was true that there were only 54 people in America who could write comedy. He thought about it for a long time. Then he said, “About half that number, I think.”

Some of that shocking disparity of wannabes to can-do’s (there are many more professional major league baseball players than professional writers, for heavens sake!) is explained by the reduced requirements of the modern publishing marketplace and by the distressing fact that only about 6% of Americans read almost all of the books. (Only about 2% read fiction to any serious extent.) But the real reason for the difficulty in writing professionally is that it is hard.

Damned hard.

God-damned hard.

We tend to forget that because most of us can read and we write letters, memos, e-mails, and personal memoirs and other things for our friends and family. Is it such a leap then to professional writing?

It is.

Not to belabor the point, but writing for publication is hard. Damned hard. The first thing a would-be professional writer has to learn is how huge – how depressingly near-infinitely colossally horrifyingly hugely huge – the gap is between good amateur writing and real professional writing. Again, not to belabor a metaphor, but it’s roughly the distance between very good Little League baseball and playing for the Yankees. It looks like the same game being played, but in a real way it’s not.

And it doesn’t help that most of education for the last century or so has emphasized that to write, all one has to do is reach down and untap the “creative potential” within yourself. From first grade through too many post-graduate writing programs, much of the emphasis remains on untapping that theoretical creative potential. Let that writer-within-you out, is the theory, and the rest is gravy. Just find your slide and grease it.

One of Hemingway’s most important pieces of advice on becoming a writer was – “What every writer needs is an absolutely earthquake-proof shit-detector. Every real writer has one.”

This is a case where you need one.

Your teachers and professors have lied to you, my friends. While latent talent and reservoirs of creativity may be absolutely essential ingredients in becoming a real writer, these things can do almost nothing by themselves. They are, by themselves, not worth the proverbial bucket of warm spit.

We all know there are youthful prodigies in mathematics. Indeed, by the age of 30, most true mathematicians are over the hill. If they haven’t made their bones by then, they almost certainly never will.

There are near-infant prodigies in music. (At the age of two, so the story goes, little Mozart would toddle downstairs in the middle of the night and play an unresolved chord on the harpsichord, knowing that his father would have to get out of bed and come downstairs to resolve it.)

There are artistic prodigies such as Picasso. It’s reported that Andrew Wyeth was so proficient in drawing with charcoal when he was about seven that his instructor, his father N.C., banned him from drawing with it for at least a year so he wouldn’t fall behind in learning his skills with other media.

There are no novelist prodigies. None. Nada. Zero. Zip. Zilch.

It’s true that some young people have a better ear for language and innate sense of storytelling than perhaps 99% of the rest of the population, but becoming a writer demands years and decades of experience as a human being – who wants to read anything by even the most gifted callow 18-yr.-old? – and then more years and decades of apprenticeship to the Word.

Recall Chaucer’s opening line to The Parliament of Fowls – “The lif so short, the craft so long to lerne.”

Discipline. Reading to absorb the skills of writing. Study. Effort. Sweat. Learning. Maturing. More discipline. More study. More reading. More apprenticing. More maturing. More discipline. And then you can start.

As part of that discipline, all writers must read widely and deeply to learn how writers write. It’s that simple. Good instruction can take years off your apprenticeship by helping you ferret out the subtleties of style in other, better writers’ work, help you see the sometimes invisible but always present forms of structure, teach you to perceive the difficulties and triumphs of careful word choice, train you to thread the labyrinths of plotting – and so on and so forth ad infinitum (and ad nauseum).

One way to begin that apprenticeship is to listen to great writers talk about how they do their work.

Now this suggests “rules for writing” and I can hear the multitudes shouting that there ARE NO RULES for writing. That doesn’t turn out to be the case. Just as learning to draw is a requirement before becoming a real artist or learning one’s scales is required before becoming a musician, there are many rules of writing to be absorbed and mastered. It’s only after learning such basics that the artist, the musician, or the writer can afford to “break the rules” – although in truth, experiments in style and breakthroughs in technique in prose fiction, however modern or postmodern, never really break the rules of the basics, any more than moving on to abstraction in oil painting vitiates the need to master basic drawing, perspective, and color theory.

There are no wormhole or hyperdrive shortcuts in learning how to write well.

So with that in mind, in these early instalments of “Writing Well” I’m going to introduce you to a few such rules from writers. Rather than make up rules myself, I’ll borrow some from writers who are far my superiors. FAR my superiors. Light years and parsecs and . . . but you get the idea.

Ernest Hemingway once said, “American literature began with Huckleberry Finn.” This can be debated – and has been for decades – but what Hemingway meant can’t be ignored. What he was saying was that America truly found its voice in literature – one which dealt with our nation’s deepest obsessions and secrets – when Mark Twain perfected a new naturalism in dialogue and description, something almost unprecedented in world literature before that time -- a new level of realism that has defined most of American writing since The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

So we’ll begin with “Mark Twain’s Rules of Writing.”

I need to warn you, however, that Twain more or less made these rules up on the spot, just as a handy means to bash another writer; I garnered and paraphrased most of these “rules” from his vitriolic essay on “The Literary Offenses of James Fenimore Cooper.” Twain actively hated Cooper’s popular books. He thought that Cooper’s prose was flowery, ornate, overworked, pompous, and silly. He thought that Cooper’s characters would speak like a “Negro minstrel” one minute and like an “Anglican vicar” the next. He thought that Cooper’s plots were stupid and contrived and that the action was filled with dumb miracles. (When Natty Bumpo, the Deerstalker, needs to find the trail of a wily Indian who’d tried to hide his path by walking in a stream, Natty simply dams up the stream and finds the footprints in the bottom of the streambed. “Try it!” roars Twain. “Just try doing that!!”)

One can just imagine Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn out in the woods with Tom trying to emulate his literary hero by pulling such a trick, then kicking stones and cursing a blue streak when he finds out it won’t work. Mud is mud.

Another time, a Cooper group lost in a thick fog near a fort and being pursued by Indians seeking their scalps hears the fort firing cannons to lead them in. A cannonball comes rolling out of the fog and their Leatherstocking hero, using his woodcraft skills, follows the path of the cannonball through the forest back to the fort and safety. “Try doing that!!!” we can hear Twain bellowing.

Frequently, when I started the year in language arts by introducing Mark Twain’s Rules of Writing to my sixth-graders, and then read them Twain’s full essay on “James Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses,” – trying not to wet my pants laughing at the part where the idiot “Cooper Indians” fail in their attempt to jump onto the deck of a flatboat that’s spending six minutes passing under the tree limb they’re hiding on, the flatboat, according to Cooper’s own sloppy descriptions, being so wide its sides are only inches from each bank of the meandering creek -- the first result would be that some of the kids, perverse little buggers that they are, would run to the library and read some of Cooper’s books.

At any rate, here is the heart and core of our first installment of Writing Well –

Mark Twain’s Rules of Writing

(Freely adapted from his essay on the Literary Offenses of James Fenimore Cooper)

1) A story shall accomplish something and arrive somewhere.

2) The parts of a story shall be necessary parts of the story and shall help develop it.

3) The people in the story (characters) shall be alive, except in the case of the corpses, and the reader should be able to tell the corpses from the others.

4) The people in the story, both dead and alive, shall show a sufficient excuse for being there.

5) The talk in a story (dialogue) shall sound like human talk, should be talk such as a human being would be likely to talk in the given circumstances, should be interesting to the reader, should help out the tale, and should stop when the people cannot think of anything more to say.

6) When the author describes a character in his story, the conduct and conversation of that person shall justify the description.

7) The author and characters shall confine themselves to possibilities and let miracles alone – or, if they must venture a miracle, the author must make it look possible and reasonable.

8) The author should make the reader feel a deep interest in the characters of the story. The characters should be real enough that the reader will love the good ones, hate the bad ones, and care what happens to all of them.

9) The characters 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:

The author shall . . . .

10) SAY what he wants to say, not merely come near it.

11) Use the right word, not its second cousin.

12) Avoid a surplus of words.

13) Eschew obfuscation.

14) NOT leave out necessary details.

15) Avoid laziness in writing style.

16) Use good grammar.

17) Employ a simple and straightforward style.


Dan Simmons’s commentary on Mark Twain’s Rules:

These seem self-evident, don’t they?

Obvious. Almost too obvious. If you’re a would-be writer, you already know and do all these things, I’m sure.

Do you? Do I? Do most professional writers, much less amateurs?

It’s my guess that if an amateur writer’s prose merely satisfied these “obvious” Mark Twain Rules, he or she would be 85% of the way to publication.

This sounds harsh, but when professional writers spend workshop time with amateur would-be writers – even (or especially) with adults who wish to become writers and often think they are that close to publication – it’s too often similar to an adult coming across a field where six-year-olds are playing “baseball” without knowing the rules: kids run the bases in random order, don’t know how many strikes and balls there are before the batter should go sit down or trot to first, aren’t sure of where the batter stands or how to hold a bat, have no idea of innings, don’t know which hand to throw with or which hand to put the glove on, can’t throw, can’t hit, don’t know where they should be playing their positions, don’t have a clue as to when an inning would be over . . . .

In other words, it’s chaos. It can be delightful to watch and it’s certainly creative . . . but it’s not baseball.

(A personal note: as a huge fan of Bill Watterson’s Calvin & Hobbes I find it completely true to little Calvin’s essentially anarchist character that when he and his stuffed-tiger-imaginary-living-tiger-friend Hobbes play their version of “baseball,” it involves wrestling, tackling, climbing trees, shouting certain phrases, and – probably – hiding in the woods. We’ll never know what Calvin would have become when he grew up, but we know for a certainty what he would not have turned into – a baseball player or a member of any other team sport.)

If one has to use a team sport analogy to describe the long-haul of writing, it has to be baseball since the games in that sport aren’t just played on Friday nights or Sundays, interspersed with days and weeks in which to rest up and heal, but slog on day and night, through heat and chill, from the earliest post-snow days of spring into the short days of late autumn. Luck is really not a factor in baseball. Time, fatigue, injuries, and constant daily play reduce the impact of lucky streaks to almost nothing. Like a gambling casino that will always win in the long run, time and frequency of effort in baseball beats the luck and accident out of the game until it is the pure skill and endurance of the players that come through – or not. Football teams can have a “perfect season” but even the best teams in baseball will lose about 65 games a year. As Earl Weaver of the Baltimore Orioles once said (speaking for professional writers everywhere), “This ain’t a football game. We do this every day.”

Writing is definitely not a team sport – it’s been described as “that shameful thing you do alone, behind closed doors” – but, like any sport (or like art, music, mathematics, or any trade), it has a complex set of rules one has to master. As a would-be professional you can afford to ignore them only after you’ve mastered them.

Twain’s first rule – that a story shall accomplish something and arrive somewhere – seems almost insulting in its obviousness, but the vast majority of amateur attempts at fiction go nowhere at all. In a different context, Mark Twain once said that reading a story or novel is rather like taking a train somewhere – that is, you’ve paid for your ticket and there’s a certain sense of dissatisfaction if you just sit in the unmoving train in a station for a bit while various things go on outside the windows and then you’re forced to get off the train right where you started.

You’d be amazed at how few amateur stories leave the station.

“The parts of a story shall be necessary parts . . .” again almost insults our intelligence as would-be writers. Until, that is, one learns to read one’s own fiction with a gimlet eye, learning the ruthlessness necessary to sacrifice your most darling sentences and chapters if they don’t move the tale along in more ways than one. My own rule here is that no scene in a novel should be in the finished book unless it moves the tale or the telling of the tale (such as delineating character) along in at least three ways; no page in a novella or novelette unless it serves the same triune function; no sentence in a short story.

Creating realistic, important, necessary, and interesting dialogue is one of the hardest parts of learning to write well, but Twain’s admonition to the characters (and their author) to just shut up when they run out of things to say is more profound than you might guess. Knowing when to start and stop – not just in dialogue, but in the story or scene or chapter or entire novel – is one of the hardest things to learn in becoming a writer and the false-starts and non-endings are sure signs of amateurish writing.

Even Twain’s “litte rules” could be studied for months and not be fully explored.

“Use the right word, not its second cousin” seems simple enough . . . but if it’s so simple, why do so few published writers today, much less the legions of amateurs, succeed in doing it? Twain once said – “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug.”

Visual artists have oil paints, acrylics, tempera, watercolors, pastel crayons, regular crayons, conte crayons, felt tip, graphite pencils, pen and ink, airbrush, scratchboard, digital rendering, woodcutting, lithograph . . . . scores of other tools to choose from for their medium.

Writers have words. Only words.

From Aeschylus through Shakespeare to Dickens to Thomas Pynchon and beyond, that’s all writers have in their tool box. That’s all they ever will have.


The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug.

Next time, we’ll ask Ernest Hemingway to step in and give us some advice on what to do with those words.

(Note: Between installments of WRITING WELL, visitors to this web site interested in discussing writing issues can talk to each other and to me on the new ON WRITING WELL strand in the Dan Simmons Forum. While I will answer questions there from time to time, my hope is that these Writing Well installments might serve – at least partially – as a template for discussion so that we can move more slowly toward the usual huge questions of “How do I write a masterpiece and where can I get it published?”)

 >>click here to go to the Forum and On Writing Well thread


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