Mark Twain’s Writing Advice

Mark-Twain-public-domain-e13533163574001-620x310The word “character” comes to mind when I think of Mark Twain (AKA Samuel Clemens). In his own peculiar way, this most respected of American authors was (in Southern parlance) a “hoot.” His comments about writing, and advice to writers, make interesting reading that I’d like to share.

Get your facts first, and then you can distort them as much as you please.    This is excellent advice. There’s nothing worse than reading something about which the writer obviously knows nothing, and few things are more fulfilling than a cleverly twisted passage based on fact.

Use plain, simple language, short words and brief sentences.     This is my third post sharing writing tips from some of America’s best writers, and this is the third time this advice has appeared. I’m noticing the trend and hope you do, too. Keep it simple.

As to the adjective: when in doubt, strike it out.     Although a near cousin to the above point, Twain is another writer unimpressed with adjectives. Remember, Tom Sawyer and Huck FinnOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA (two of American literature’s most beloved characters) had limited vocabularies.

You need not expect to get your book right the first time.    Twain was a fan of the rewrite and edit. Of course, Missouri (his home state) is just west of Kentucky, where distilleries provided fine whiskey to fuel revisions.

God only exhibits thunder and lightning at intervals, so they always command attention. You thunder and lightning too much; the reader ceases to get under the bed, by and by.     Although this comment can apply to adjective abuse, Twain’s well-known opinion about “sham sentimentality” also means he advised writing authentically to depict emotion through deep characterization.

Substitute damn every time you’re inclined to write very; your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.     I have to admit this is my favorite piece of writing advice from Twain. Although times have changed, and editors appear to embrace profanity more than edit it, this admonition is a bugle blast to remind us that every word needs to earn its right to be on the page.

Do you remember reading Twain as a young person? (I do, but barely, and on my way to Louisa May Alcott.)

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