In a letter to D. W. Bowser, in 1880, Mark Twain described what he saw as quality writing:
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.
Here are some of this great master’s musings on the art of writing.
- We write frankly and fearlessly but then we “modify” before we print. – Life on the Mississippi
- It is no use to keep private information which you can’t show off. – “An Author’s Soldiering,” 1887
- 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. – Letter to Fred J. Hall, 10 Aug 1892
- Experience of life (not of books) is the only capital usable in such a book as you have attempted; one can make no judicious use of this capital while it is new. – letter to Bruce Weston Munro, 21 Oct 1881 (Karanovich collection)
- 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, 10 Feb 1868
- 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
- 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, 23 March 1878
- I wrote the rest of The Innocents Abroad in sixty days and I could have added a fortnight’s labor with the pen and gotten along without the letters altogether. I was very young in those days, exceedingly young, marvelously young, younger than I am now, younger than I shall ever be again, by hundreds of years. I worked every night from eleven or twelve until broad daylight in the morning, and as I did 200,000 words in the sixty days, the average was more than 3,000 words a day- nothing for Sir Walter Scott, nothing for Louis Stevenson, nothing for plenty of other people, but quite handsome for me. In 1897, when we were living in Tedworth Square, London, and I was writing the book called Following the Equator, my average was 1,800 words a day; here in Florence (1904) my average seems to be 1,400 words per sitting of four or five hours. – Autobiography of Mark Twain
- 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. – Letter to W. D. Howells, 22 Sept 1889 (referring to A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court)
- Let us guess that whenever we read a sentence & like it, we unconsciously store it away in our model-chamber; & it goes, with the myriad of its fellows, to the building, brick by brick, of the eventual edifice which we call our style. – Letter to George Bainton, 15 Oct 1888
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