Jane Austen’s Writing Advice

jane austen

I don’t know if anyone else shared my interest in writing advice from the greats.

Some writers, like Henry James, wrote books about writing (his ideas on what he thought the modern novel would be in the twentieth century is quite interesting), others’ words have to be sifted from letters.

We know that on Jane Austen’s untimely death in her early forties, her sister burned most of Jane’s letters, as well as all of her own.

From our perspective now, we can guess that the most interesting ones were fed to the flames, and only the most unexceptionable kept–but those we do have demonstrate a sharp wit, and frequent, sometimes pungent opinions about the literature and letters of her day, as well as keen awareness of character.

The Austen family were great readers aloud (in one letter, Jane regrets how her mother won’t do the voices right when reading Pride and Prejudice to a visitor), and everyone in the family participated in critiques as well as discussions.

And many of them were writers. Two of her brothers published quite a bit, and at least two of her nieces wrote novels. These nieces preserved some of Jane Austen’s letters as she beta read chapters in progress, from which some writing advice can be gleaned that I think, is applicable today.

Jane on language in a critique letter to her niece Anna, on her first novel-in-progress:

…Devereux Forester’s being ruined by his Vanity is extremely good; but I wish you would not let him plunge into a ‘Vortex of Dissipation.’ I do not object to the Thing, but I cannot bear the expression—it is such thorough novel slang—and so old, that I dare say Adam met with it in the first novel he opened.

edgeworth

In other words, watch the generic terms that you see in every other novel. Not that these are bad, but they aren’t memorable. When Vladimir Nabokov, who rarely paid much attention to female writers, studied Mansfield Park, he delighted in the snap of Austen’s sentences, her ability to always choose exactly the right word.

Arthur Axelrad did a study of the manuscript pages of one of Austen’s novels, and discovered that most of her corrections were to change figurative language to specific details. Those are what lingers in mind, rather than the hundred thousandth repeat of ‘vortex of dissipation’ and its fellow generic expressions.

Jane on the dangers of beta readers:

I am gratified by her having pleasure in what I write—but I wish the knowledge of my being exposed to her discerning Criticism may not hurt my style, by inducing too great a solicitude. I begin already to weigh my words and sentences more than I did, and am looking about for a sentiment, an illustration or a metaphor in every corner of the room.

Most of us write to be read, and that includes while we’re in the process of writing. Sometimes to get that necessary cheering on, as writing can be a lonely and arduous process. Other times it’s to get help seeing the way out of plot knots, confused character motivations, and so forth.

The danger is in heeding those other voices so strongly that one can obsessively polish that manuscript over and over for the next ten years—or can lose control of the story entirely by trying feverishly to please all the beta readers, instead of sticking with whatever fired you enough to begin typing Chapter One.

dull book

On description:

You describe a sweet place, but your descriptions are often more minute than will be liked. You give too many particulars of right hand and left.

We’ve got a lot of names for this now: data dump, info dump, block-of-text, etc. Basically it means stopping the story dead in order to fill in the scene, or to adumbrate the aethereal symbol that shall eludicate the ineffable life lesson . . . Much as we adore those poetic descriptions, there is a pretty good chance the reader is going to skip right over them to find where the story picks up again.

On pacing and differences of taste:

Your Aunt C. does not like desultory novels, and is rather fearful yours will be too much so, that there will be too frequent a change from one set of people to another, and that circumstances will be sometimes introduced of apparent consequence, which will lead to nothing. It will not be so great an objection to me, if it does. I allow much more Latitude than she does—and think Nature and Spirit cover many sins of a wandering story . . .

In other words, you can’t please everybody. But find your natural voice, and you’ve got a better chance of reaching your audience.

young men in anguish

On characters:

Henry Mellish I am afraid will be too much in the common Novel style—a handsome, amiable, unexceptionable Young Man (such as do not much abound in real Life) desperately in Love, and all in vain.

 Do we really need another agate-eyed, blade-cheekboned Prince Angst of PTSDland?

If that’s the story you gotta write, go ahead and write it, but try to make him a little different from his brethren.

400px-Almack'sCruikshank

And:

. . . what he says about the madness of otherwise sensible Women on the subject of their Daughters coming out, is worth its weight in gold.

The more you can observe actual human behavior, rather than copying what you’ve read endless times in novels, the more your story will resonate with readers.

Jane writing tongue firmly in cheek to the same niece on the subject of other writers:?

Walter Scott has no business to write novels, especially good ones.—It is not fair.—He has Fame and Profit enough as a Poet, and should not be taking the bread out of other people’s mouths.—I do not like him, & do not mean to like Waverley if I can help it—but I fear I must—I am quite determined however not to be pleased with Mrs. West’s Alicia de Lacy, should I ever meet with it, which I hope I may not. I think I can be stout enough against anything written by Mrs. West—I have made up my mind to like no Novels really, but Miss Edgeworth’s, Yours, and my own.

In other words, be as passionate about your reading as you are about your writing. But hang onto your sense of humor!

 

 

 

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Jane Austen’s Writing Advice — 17 Comments

  1. I’m always struck by Miss Austen’s apparent enjoyment of Scott, who bores me to tears. Her work is, two hundred years later, still smart and snappy and contemporary. Scott’s… not so much. Ah, well.

    • Scott’s essays before his novels are more interesting than the novels. (I lucked into a set of the full run that he edited and prefaced late in life.) It’s fascinating to read about what he was trying to do. His innovations are nearly invisible now, but he made a huge change in how historical novels were written.

    • The illo was also in one of the Waverley novels, acto what I found; if that is correct, nineteenth century publishers could be as lackadaisical as ones today!

      (Probably because they were called the Waverley novels)

  2. This provides appropo examples to contrast between excellent professional genre writing and poor professional writing.

    The breakdown as to why the former is good writing and works — and the other is bad writing and doesn’t work — is equally to the point.

    Oddly, the quote from Austen also misspells Waverley. Was that Austen herself, or a typo when the Austen text was put into print?

  3. Miss Austen is beyond any praise of mine, but her insights into how to tell a story–well–who knew that better than she?
    I like a wider range than the Realist Fiction she advocated. And I also wonder about her reaction to those of us who relish her depiction of a world lost past that we will never know. I like fantasy because it is “foreign” and yet contains eternal truths. I revere Miss Austen’s writings for the same reason–that world is not mine–and yet contains eternal truths of the human condition and human conduct.

  4. ” I allow much more Latitude than she does—and think Nature and Spirit cover many sins of a wandering story…” Oh, that’s fascinating. I think she’s talking about structure and theme as well as varying tastes.

    P.

  5. Oh wow, these feel so contemporary (despite the fun Capitalization of certain Words)–I love them!

    You describe a sweet place, but your descriptions are often more minute than will be liked. –this made me laugh! Too many notes!

    a handsome, amiable, unexceptionable Young Man (such as do not much abound in real Life) –that last parenthetical broke me up too.

    She’s as great in herself as in her writing–I’ll have to share these with my dad.

  6. Yes! What a wonderful project.

    As for ‘right and left’, a dear one called it ‘four-hoofing’ : “He told how many horses there were, and how many hooves each one had.”

  7. Will you hate me if I go all ‘grammar police’?
    In the introduction, you write: “burned a great deal of Jane’s letters”, letters are countable, I think that this should read, “a great number of Jane’s letters”.

    Otherwise, I am finding this discussion very valuable.