Monday, April 4, 2011

Mark Twain On Writing

Since my last post was about one of Samuel Clemens' master works, I thought it might be appropriate to get his take on writing. Obviously, interviewing Mr. Clemens would be the way to go. However, since he's been dead for a number of years, I think I'll just take his top twelve list of writing tips and, with my limited understanding, try to expound on them.

1. 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.

I think Mr. Clemens' point here is that we need to choose our words wisely. Eliminate unnecessary words and be precise in your writing.

2. Write without pay until somebody offers to pay.

If you are writing to make money, you're doing it for the wrong reason. Ultimately, you'll probably get tired of it and move on. When you write, it must be because you love to write.

3. 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.

In a word, "revision." As a writer, you will spend more time revising and re-writing your work. Get used to it. It's time consuming and it's not a lot of fun, but it will make your work stronger.

4. 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.

Tighten up your writing until it screams.

5. It was by accident that I found out that a book is pretty sure to get tired along about the middle and refuse to go on with its work until its powers and its interest should have been refreshed by a rest and its depleted stock of raw materials reinforced by lapse of time.

Take a break. Sometimes your break will be short, sometimes it will be long. Writer's block and exhaustion happens. The best cure is time away from the writing.

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

I love this one. To me, it adds weight to saying "Content is King." To be sure, grammar is important, but ultimately, the story and the telling of the story are the important aspects of writing.

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

No need for explanation, this is pretty straight forward.

8. 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.

Word play is certainly fun, but don't let it get in the way of the writing.

9. Don’t say the old lady screamed. Bring her on and let her scream.

Show, don't tell.

10. I don’t give a damn for a man that can only spell a word one way.

I have a feeling that Dr. Seuss lived by this rule. It's okay to be creative sometimes. There are times when you may need a word that doesn't exist. If that's the case, make one up!

11. The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.

I couldn't say it better. I mean, you could say "gutted" but I've always loved the word "eviscerated". Words with muscle (strong nouns and verbs) work harder and rarely need the help of adjectives or adverbs.

12. The more you explain it, the more I don’t understand it.

If the concept is that hard for the reader to "get" then maybe you need to rethink the concept. Be clear, be concise and be economical with your word usage.

And that's it. Twelve tips from our friend Sam that, if followed, will help all of us be better writers.

That's all for now.

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