10 Writing Tips from Mark Twain
Years: 1835 - 1910
Notable Works: The Innocents Abroad, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Pudd’n’head Wilson, The Prince and the Pauper
Quote: “Always do right. That will gratify some of the people, and astonish the rest.”
Trivia: Twain once received a letter addressed to “Mark Twain, God Knows Where.”
1. "Write without pay until somebody offers to pay."
Don’t write to earn money; you’ll be disappointed by the results. Write because you have to.
2. "Great books are weighed and measured by their style and matter, and not the trimmings and shadings of their grammar."
Don’t know grammar rules? Please don’t let that stop you from writing. If you have something to say to the world, then say it. The quality of your style, theme, and story is what truly matters. This isn’t to say that grammar is not important. Even Twain has advised to practice good grammar. Just don’t get so bogged down that you can’t let your creativity flow. The time you really need to know the grammar rules is when you’re ready to submit your manuscript to publishers – we don’t want to see a document that appears so carelessly made.
3. “Don’t say the old lady screamed. Bring her on and let her scream."
Great advice. Twain is talking about the difference between showing and telling what happens. The old lady is scared? Okay, but why should I care? If you described what led to that scream – what the old lady saw, heard, felt, and how she physically reacted – then I care. I want to experience what she experienced.
4. “You need not expect to get your book right the first time. Go to work and revamp or rewrite it.”
Pretty straight forward, right? The manuscript will never be perfect the first time; that’s why it’s called a rough draft. After you’re done with your story, take a break – maybe as long as a month – and go back to it. See if you’re still satisfied. Have friends and family read your work and listen to their suggestions. If you get to the awesome stage of having your manuscript accepted by a publisher, be prepared to make more changes. All your work will pay off.
5. “If I had more time, it would have been shorter.”
This ties in with point four. One great way to make your story better is to make it shorter. That way, you lose the unnecessary fluff and make your scenes and dialogue more interesting.
6. “The episodes of a tale shall be necessary parts of the tale and shall help to develop it.”
Everything in your story has to be necessary to the plot. As you reread your draft, ask yourself, “Is this scene important to my story?” “Does the dialogue add anything?” “Do I need this character?” “Do readers need to know this detail?”
7. “When the personages of a tale deal in conversation, the talk shall sound like human talk, [and it should] be talk such as human beings would be likely to talk in the given circumstances. It should have a discoverable meaning, also a discoverable purpose, and a show of relevancy, and remain in the neighborhood of the subject in hand, and be interesting to the reader, and help out the tale, and stop when the people cannot think of anything more to say.”
All excellent tips about dialogue. The only thing I have to add is to try to make the characters sound different from each other. Nobody speaks the exact same way. If one character likes to quote proverbs, for example, don’t have others do it, too.
8. “The personages of a tale shall confine themselves to possibilities and let miracles alone; or, if they venture a miracle, the author must so plausibly set it forth as to make it look possible and reasonable.”
Some writers forget this, unfortunately. Have everything that happens be plausible. If your character is a cop that gets shot, is it believable and reasonable that the bullet is removed by her rookie partner with no medical experience? No, but it is plausible that a talented surgeon at a nearby hospital does. Also keep in mind that there is no such thing as coincidences in writing. So, if the officer gets shot at a food court at the climax of the story, the talented surgeon (whom the readers never knew about before) shouldn’t be coincidentally eating pizza a few tables over.
9. “The characters in a tale shall be so clearly defined that the reader can tell beforehand what each will do in a given emergency.”
This is another type of make everything plausible rule. If you have effectively written about an elementary school teacher who is calm, kind, and compassionate, then it would not make sense to readers that he should hit a misbehaving child instead of talking to the child calmly to figure out what’s wrong.
10. “As to the adjective: When in doubt, strike it out.”
Twain was not a believer in flowery language. Truthfully, such writing is not really practiced anymore. That doesn’t mean it’s wrong; it means people tend to not have the patience to read so much. Leave out your adjectives (and adverbs) until you really need them.
Thank you to the people at The Farmer’s Almanac, The Official Website of Mark Twain, OnlineUniversities.com, Write On Network, and Thayer Literary Services for providing information for this post.