November 21st, 2009


Wisdom of the past is not always relevant

On a forum thread about rosy writing in modern literature, someone posted the following:

"Mark Twain said it best: Eschew adjectives."

I understand this is an often quoted thing in the writing world, but I disagree with this viewpoint.

Mark Twain is a great writer who, unlike many of the great writers before him, wrote stories intended to be read by the common man rather than the upper elite of society.

However, keep in mind he was writing in an age when most of the population was illiterate and the majority of those who were literate didn't know the meanings of most adjectives. This is often forgotten, but his advice was meant for his time period.

Unfortunately, how we use a language evolves over time.

All writing, no matter what other purpose it may have, is intended to communicate ideas. That is what language is for. As the way people speak evolves, so too must the way people write their stories in order to effectively communicate their ideas.

The honest truth is, of the literate English speakers today, many have difficulty following along Mark Twain's text because of the dialect it is written in. That goes double for older writers like Shakespeare. Words that were once common in those days are not so common anymore, and many words that are common today did not exist when those writers were alive.

If words are tools, when they gave advice on writing they were using a very different set of tools compared to the tools we use today.

You have to look at how people speak today to understand how to write today. You also have to know who your target audience is. I would not write a book for Americans the way I would write a book for British English because of the significant differences in how English is commonly spoken in both countries.