Mark Twain Wants to Give You Writing Advice
Updated: Mar 2, 2020
Mark Twain. You might know him as the author of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn – at least one of which you may have read in high school.
Personally, I went to high school before all the censorship started. So I’m genuinely not sure what teens are told to read anymore.
Regardless, Mark Twain (whose real name was Samuel Langhorne Clemens) was a literary genius. As History.com describes him:
A gifted raconteur, distinctive humorist, and irascible moralist, he transcended the apparent limitations of his origins to become a popular public figure and one of America’s best and most beloved writers.
Or consider some of the following quotes that have his name attached to them. Some of them even accurately, no doubt.
You truly never know with the internet, but here goes anyway:
“No amount of evidence will ever persuade an idiot.”
“I was educated once – it took me years to get over it."
"When I was 17, my father was so stupid, I didn’t want to be seen with him in public. When I was 24, I was amazed at how much the old man had learned in just seven years."
It’s that kind of humor and wisdom that makes Mark Twain worth quoting on a whole lot of topics.
Most definitely writing included.
LitRejections.com lists off 10 tips from Mark Twain that go like this:
1. Use the right word, not its second cousin.
2. Substitute d*mn every time you’re inclined to write "very"; your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.
3. As to the adjective: When in doubt, strike it out.
4. You need not expect to get your book right the first time. Go to work and revamp or rewrite it.
5. Take a turn around the block and let the sentiment blow off you. There is one thing I can’t stand and won’t stand from many people: That is sham sentimentality.
6. Use good grammar.
7. Get your facts first, and then you can distort them as much as you please.
8. Use plain, simple language, short words and brief sentences. Don’t let fluff and flowers and verbosity creep in.
9. The time to begin writing is when you have finished it to your satisfaction. By that time, you begin to clearly and logically perceive what it is that you really want to say.
10. Write without pay until somebody offers pay.
The second statement, admittedly, is a bit outdated. Editors are far less likely to delete impolite language from your manuscript these days than in Mark Twain’s 20th century.
And as for that good grammar comment, Twain himself didn’t always use it. He knew good grammar. But he employed it strategically in the same exact way he employed bad grammar.
What I really want to highlight though is No. 10: Write without pay until somebody offers pay.
Almost every writer wants to make money off of what they do. It’s an understandable and even admirable desire.
But Twain is 100% right in saying that money shouldn’t be the main reason you write… for the simple reason that there’s no guarantee you’re going to make money.
There’s only the guarantee that you’ll benefit somehow, someway, by putting pen to paper or fingers to keyboard. That might be emotionally, in that you get to release what you’ve had bottled up for so long.
Or physically, since the act of writing can actually improve the state of your body.
Of course, it can be one or both of those – plus financially prosperous. But you just don’t know until you try it out.
So go ahead and see what pot of gold is waiting on the other side of your writing rainbow. I truly think it will be worthwhile regardless.