Mark Twain's 10 Tips for Writers

Mark Twain was a man who knew his way around the English language. We're talking about the guy responsible for such bon mots as "Golf is a good walk spoiled," "The reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated," and "Cauliflower is nothing but cabbage with a college education." We have no idea what that last one means, but damn, it sounds good.

If you pore over the pearls of wisdom that the Great American Author left behind, you'll find that, unsurprisingly, a lot of them have to do with how to write well. We gathered up some of his greatest pieces of writing advice, and found that he still has a lot to teach us.

Don't Let Schooling Interfere with Education

Mark Twain wrote nearly his whole life. He wrote columns, travelogues, multiple Great American Novels, and perhaps most of all, he wrote a nearly constant stream of letters to friends, family members, fans, and rivals. From that body of work, we've put together this assortment of advice on the art, craft, and business of writing.

1. "Write without pay until somebody offers to pay." Here's an important caveat to this tip in a world where you'll get a million opportunities to write for "exposure" alone: work on your writing on your own, for free — that's how you learn to write well enough that people will start paying. But if somebody hires you for a job, you gotta get that money.

2. "Don't say the old lady screamed. Bring her on and let her scream." Show, don't tell. Let the action convey what's happening, instead of just informing your reader what your characters are thinking and feeling.

3. "Great books are weighed and measured by their style and matter, and not the trimmings and shadings of their grammar." Not too surprising for someone who writes how Huckleberry Finn talks. Don't let the rules of grammar get in the way of your art — it doesn't make any sense, anyway. But if you're brazenly breaking rules, make sure you're doing it for a reason.

4. "The time to begin writing an article is when you have finished it to your satisfaction." Oh man, if only it were that easy. We speak from experience when we say that you don't always know what you want to write until you finish writing it. And then, it's time to start over from the beginning.

5. [On a particularly long letter he had written] "If I had more time, it would have been shorter." And there it is — short pieces sometimes (often!) take more work than longer ones. It's easy to let your grandiosity get away from you. It's a lot harder to cut it down to the bare essentials.

6. "The more you explain it, the less I understand it." Like the last piece of advice, this one is all about brevity. You might feel like you're clearing things up with a pile of explanatory sentences, but you might just be tying your reader's brain into a tighter knot. Try something short, simple, and clear, instead.

7. "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." It's a harsh truth: the word "very" does almost nothing for your writing. If you need to, try a better, stronger word instead, like "opulent" instead of "very expensive."

8. "The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug." The almost-right word will get your audience thinking of the scene you are trying to describe, but the right word will get them to experience it first-hand.

9. "Use plain, simple language, short words, and brief sentences... don't let fluff and flowers and verbosity creep in." Are you picking up on a pattern? Twain's number one piece of advice could be boiled down to "Keep it simple, stupid."

10. "As to the adjective: When in doubt, strike it out." That's not to say that you should never use adjectives. Just be aware of how often you do. Here's a bonus quote to make it clearer: "They weaken when they are close together. They give strength when they are far apart."

Twain's Literary Grudge Match

Obviously, the art of writing well was very close near-and-dear to Mark Twain's heart. It therefore stands to reason that there was a wealth of writing that fell far short of his simplicity-first standard. Chief among his literary rivals was James Fennimore Cooper, the author of "Last of the Mohicans" (although Cooper died when Twain was 16 — long before his career had taken off). In fact, one of his most famous works on writing is called, simply, "Fennimore Cooper's Literary Offenses," and consists in large part of a catalog of cardinal sins that the adventure-writer gladly breaks. Be warned before clicking: it contains racial language that belongs dead and buried in the 19th century .

The piece is in direct response to "The Deerslayer" and "The Pathfinder," two classic pieces in Coopers' Davy Crockett-esque repertoire. Here's just a sample of the 18 rules that Twain found Cooper guilty of breaking — we're listing these mainly because they are hilarious.

  1. "They [the rules] require that the personages in a tale shall be alive, except in the case of corpses, and that always the reader shall be able to tell the corpses from the others." Yeah, it's a good idea to make sure your corpses are distinct from your living characters.
  2. "They require that when the personages of a tale deal in conversation, the talk shall sound like human talk." Try to sound as much like a human as you can.
  3. "They require that the personages of a tale shall confine themselves to possibilities and let miracles alone." At least, if your characters do perform a miracle, let them have the decency to be astonished.

If you need more Mark Twain in your life — and who doesn't? — you could pick up the classic "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" on Audible, flip through some of his greatest hits in this anthology, or just go straight to the good stuff in this book of quotations. If you hop on the Twain train by purchasing from those links, Curiosity will get a little scratch out of the deal.

Even Mark Twain's Name was Word Play

Written by Reuben Westmaas November 26, 2017