The Mark Twain Primer for Writers

Mark Twain was a skeptic, an unbeliever, an eccentric, an iconoclast, and a mass distributor of used words.  He wrote them, he read them, he collected them, he re-arranged them, he invented a few of them, and no one has ever been able to use them to tell a story with any more strength or passion than the kid who grew up watching eighteen wheelers surge down the Mississippi from those Hannibal, Missouri, riverbanks.

Mark Twain

Ernest Hemingway even believed that all modern American literature comes from one book, and it was written by Mark Twain. It’s called Huckleberry Finn.

Hemingway wrote: “It’s the best book we’ve had. All American writing comes from that. There was nothing before. There has been nothing good sense.” He believed that the rest of America’s writers could just pack up their pads and pencils and go on back home. If there was one book to be read in life, Twain had already written it.

Twain churned out 200,000 words to write Innocents Abroad in sixty days – averaging more than 3,000 words a day. He said that he worked from eleven or twelve o’clock at night until broad daylight.

His writing was not a duty.

It was a calling.

And even later in life, Mark Twain remained just as disciplined, always averaging at least 1,400 words a day, spending four to five hours daily on a manuscript.

And why did he write so diligently, adhering to such a strict schedule? Twain said, “It’s no use to keep private information if you can’t show it off.”

I knew a long time ago that Twain was the kind of writer I wanted to follow and hang on to every word he said, in books and out of them. If he ever wanted a disciple, and I doubt that he did, Twain had found one in me. I grew to look at the craft of writing much as he did, especially when he said: “Get your facts first; then you can distort them as you please.”

And I have long understood this thought that tumbled recklessly out of his mind: “It’s no wonder that truth is stranger than fiction. Fiction has to make sense.” The truth around us seldom ever does.

From his letters and notebooks, authors can find Mark Twain’s own guidelines for writing.

1. The time to begin writing an article is when you have finished it. By that time, you begin to clearly and logically perceive what it is that you really want to say.

2. We write frankly and fearlessly, but then we modify before we print.

3. I conceive that the right way to write a story for boys is to write so that it will not only interest boys, but strongly interest any man who has ever been a boy. That immensely enlarges the audience.

4. You need not expect to get your book right the first time. Go to work and revamp or re-write it. God only exhibits his thunder and lightning at intervals, and so they always command attention. These are God’s adjectives. You thunder and lightning too much; the reader ceases to get under the bed.

5. To get the right word in the right place is a rare achievement. To condense the diffused light of a page of thought into the luminous flash of a single sentence is worthy to rank as a prize composition just by itself. Anybody can have ideas. The difficulty is to express them without squandering a quire (a set of twenty-four sheets) of paper on an idea that ought to be reduced to one glittering paragraph.

6. Let us guess that whenever we read a sentence and like it, we unconsciously store it away in our model-chamber; and it goes with the myriad of other fellows to the building, brick by brick, of the eventual edifice, which we call our style.

7. I notice that you use plain, simple language, short words, and brief sentences. That is the way to write English. It’s the modern way and the best way. Stick to it; don’t let fluff and flowers and verbosity creep in.

8. When you catch an adjective, kill it. No, I don’t mean utterly, but kill most of them – then the rest will be valuable. They weaken when they are close together. They give strength when they are wide apart. An adjective habit, or a wordy, diffuse, flower habit, once fastened up on a person, is as hard to get rid of as any other vice.

9. Substitute damn every time you want to write “very.” Your editor will delete it, and the writing will be just as it should be.

10. Great books are weighed and measured by their style and matter, and not by the trimmings and shading of their grammar.

11. Don’t say the old lady screamed. Bring her on and let her scream.

12. The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.

13. The characters in a tale should be so clearly defined that the reader can tell beforehand what each will do in an emergency.

14. Use the right word, not its second cousin.

All writers should adhere to Twain’s closing comment about producing a book. He wrote after finishing A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court: “Well, my book is written – let it go. But if it were only to write over again, there wouldn’t be so many things left out. They burn in me; and they keep multiplying; but now they can’t ever be said. And, besides, they would require a library – and a pen warmed up in hell.”


, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Related Posts