Mark Twain on Blogging

People send me their writing to read, and some of it is quite good. Some is not so good. The same true in the blogosphere. Lots of great writing lost in a sea of insipidity.

In my own work, I try to keep lessons learned from Mark Twain in mind (albeit with only partial success).

On re-writing

You need not expect to get your book right the first time. Go to work and revamp or rewrite 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, by and by.

– Letter to Orion Clemens, 3/23/1878

The time to begin writing an article 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.

Mark Twain’s Notebook, 1902-1903

So true. My best stuff is often the result of two or three failed previous efforts. Sometimes I just have to throw it all away and start over — once I’ve finally understood what I was trying to say.

On style

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 of paper on an idea that ought to be reduced to one glittering paragraph.

– Letter to Emeline Beach, 2/10/1868

I notice that you use plain, simple language, short words and brief sentences. That is the way to write English — it is the modern way and the best way. Stick to it; don’t let fluff and flowers and verbosity creep in. 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, flowery habit, once fastened upon a person, is as hard to get rid of as any other vice.

– Letter to D. W. Bowser, 3/20/1880

The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug

I never write metropolis for seven cents because I can get the same price for city. I never write policeman because I can get the same money for cop.

With a hundred words to do it with, the literary artisan could catch that airy thought and tie it down and reduce it to a . . . cabbage, but the artist does it with twenty, and the result is a flower.

A powerful agent is the right word: it lights the reader’s way and makes it plain.

As to the adjective: when in doubt, strike it out.

There is one thing which I can’t stand and won’t stand, from many people. That is sham sentimentality, the kind a schoolgirl puts into her graduating composition, the sort that makes up the Original Poetry column of a country newspaper, the rot that deals in ‘the happy days of yore,’ the ‘sweet yet melancholy past,’ with its ‘blighted hopes’ and its ‘vanished dreams’ — and all that sort of drivel.

The best writing takes place when you take out some of your best writing. Delete a paragraph or sentence to see if the post works just as well without it. If so, don’t put it back in. If not, “undo” is easy is to click.

Strike “very” at every opportunity. Reduce the need for adjectives by using more descriptive nouns.

On fact checking

A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is still putting on its shoes.

Slander is a sin, even if comes from laziness. You’re on the internet! Check your facts.

On Good Grammar

I like the exact word, and clarity of statement, and here and there a touch of good grammar for picturesqueness.

(The Autobiography of Mark Twain, 1924)

I am almost sure by witness of my ear, but cannot be positive, for I know grammar by ear only, not by note, not by the rules. A generation ago I knew the rules — knew them by heart, word for word, though not their meanings — and I still know one of them: the one which says — but never mind, it will come back to me presently.

(The Autobiography of Mark Twain, 1924)

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

(Speech at the Annual Reunion of the Army and Navy Club of Connecticut, April 1887)

I’m actually big on good grammar — except when it gets in the way of good communication. It’s okay to occasionally split an infinitive. Or write a sentence fragment. Or begin a sentence with a conjunction. And contractions are how real people talk. Just be sure your writing flows so well that only the grammarians notice.

On Writers Who Favor Foreign Phrases

They know a word here and there, of a foreign language, and these they are continually peppering into their literature, with a pretense of knowing that language–what excuse can they offer? The foreign words and phrases that they use have their exact equivalent in a nobler language–English; yet they think they “adorn their page” when they say Strasse for street, and Bahnhof for railway station, and so on — flaunting these fluttering rags of poverty in the reader’s face and imagining he will be ass enough to take them for the sign of untold riches held in reserve.

(A Tramp Abroad, 1880)

In theological writing, it’s okay to toss in the occasional Greek or Hebrew — but only if you really need it to make your point. And only if you transliterate the foreign characters for those who don’t an alpha from an aleph. But don’t use Greek just to show off. There’s no point in turning to Strong’s to prove that “sing” means “sing.”

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4 Responses

  1. Jay:

    I once read a note about Truman Capote and his writing. Can’t recall the exact words or numbers, but it was something like this:

    Capote and a fellow writer were comparing their days. The other writer said, “I got 5,000 words written yesterday. How about you?”
    Capote — “I only wrote one word yesterday.”
    Writer — “Only one word?! All day?!”
    Capote — “Yes. But it was the right one.”

  2. Ah.. Found the quotation online, in a couple of places. Still not good confirm on it, but here’s how it’s generally told:

    Robert Ruark often kidded his friend Truman Capote about his writing ritual. Capote wrote in longhand, at a slow pace, while lying down. Ruark sat at a desk surrounded by his secretary and several researchers, and prided himself on producing several thousand words a day. One day Ruark boasted to Capote, “I wrote five thousand words today. How many did you write with that little quill pen of yours?”

    Capote said, “Just one, but it was the right word.”

  3. If you want to be immersed in the complete opposite of everything Twain is saying here, give graduate theology school a try.

  4. And please ~ resist the sale on quotation marks.

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