Editor’s Note: I came across this article about Mark Twain from http://grammar.about.com/od/advicefromthepros/a/TwainTips.htm. Based on what I see in my editing and teach in my WordShops, these principles still have merit more than a century after Twain lived.
by Richard Nordquist
Widely regarded as the greatest American writer of his time, Mark Twain (Samuel L. Clemens) was often asked for advice on the art and craft of writing. Sometimes the famous humorist would respond seriously and sometimes not.
Here, in remarks drawn from his letters, essays, novels, and speeches, are 10 of Twain’s most memorable observations on the writer’s craft.
- Get your facts first, and then you can distort them as much as you please.
- Use the right word, not its second cousin. (Ed. note: I call them Word Trippers.)
- As to the adjective: when in doubt, strike it out.
- 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. (Ed. note: Pay attention to the spelling of lightning; it’s not lightening — a Word Tripper)
- 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. (Ed. note: I consider very to be the most overused word in our language. Be more descriptive! Give the reader more precise information!)
- Use good grammar. (Ed. note: And learn it correctly. With so much misuse these days, it’s hard to know what’s right for sure.)
- Damnation (if you will allow the expression), get up & take a turn around the block & let the sentiment blow off 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. (Ed. note: I call that whacking wordiness–an essential practice for good writing.)
- 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.
- Write without pay until somebody offers pay. If nobody offers within three years, the candidate may look upon this circumstance with the most implicit confidence as the sign that sawing wood is what he was intended for. (Ed. note: It’s Twain’s way of saying to write better, write often.)
Which of Twain’s points resonate most with you? (I added a few of my own editorial comments!) Pick your top three and share them here.