<back to index
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
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
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.
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?
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
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
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
So we’ll begin with “Mark Twain’s Rules
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 –
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
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
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
The author shall . . . .
10) SAY what he wants to say,
not merely come near it.
11) Use the right word, not its
12) Avoid a surplus of words.
13) Eschew obfuscation.
14) NOT leave out necessary details.
15) Avoid laziness in writing
16) Use good grammar.
17) Employ a simple and
Dan Simmons’s commentary on Mark
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
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
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
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’d be amazed at how few amateur stories leave the
“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
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
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
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?”)
here to go to the Forum and On Writing Well thread