12 Timeless Writing Tips from Mark Twain

by Staff Writers

When you're first learning to write as a student, it can seem overwhelming that there are so many things you need to know and so few things with which you have any real experience. Who better to guide you through your growing pains when it comes to learning how to write than one of the literary greats, Mark Twain? Here, you'll find 12 tips he offered other writers in his lifetime that still hold true today.

  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." Here, Twain offers some advice that can help writers young and old learn to express themselves more clearly. By eliminating unnecessary words, you'll make your writing more precise and ultimately more effective, even if today we don't find damn as objectionable as they did in Twain's time.
  2. "Write without pay until somebody offers to pay." If you're going to be a writer, your reason for wanting to be a writer should always be because you love it. If you're in it for the money you might wind up sorely disappointed.
  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." As a writer, you won't have too many times in your life when the first draft of your story will be the one you ultimately end up going with. As Twain suggests here, the first draft is merely a chance to get your ideas on paper, after which you can really begin crafting a clear, well-organized and intelligent story.
  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." Why say something in a page that you can say in a sentence? Economy of words is still considered a value in writing today, and was a value that Twain often espoused. If you can't yet limit yourself to a few words, work at it. The best writers can say a whole lot with very little.
  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." As in many creative fields, writers are subject to bouts of writer's block and burnout. The cure? Twain offers it here: a break. Sometimes taking a break from a project, for a few hours or a few months, will let you return to it with more ideas and a fresh perspective. Twain often left books for years at a time only to return to them later, or sometimes, never again.
  6. "Great books are weighed and measured by their style and matter, and not the trimmings and shadings of their grammar." While an understanding of grammar is surely an important asset to have as a writer, good grammar doesn't make a good story. Focus more on your ideas, style and story, and hammer out the details of grammar later.
  7. "As to the Adjective: when in doubt, strike it out." Twain felt there was no virtue in overly flowery, descriptive prose. While everyone has a unique style, using more adjectives than necessary likely won't improve the quality of the story. Quality over quantity should always be the rule when it comes to writing.
  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." While not everyone believes this is the best style, and many writers have had successful careers with fluff and flowers, in general, being clear, concise and to the point in your writing is the best route. If your writing becomes too superfluous or showy, you may bore readers and distract from the point of your story.
  9. "Don't say the old lady screamed. Bring her on and let her scream." Here, Twain is asking writers to do something fairly straightforward but sometimes difficult to accomplish. You don't need to tell your story as though you were not there, it will distance your readers. Instead, describe a scene as if it were happening right in front of you. It will make your writing far more interesting.
  10. "I don't give a damn for a man that can only spell a word one way." While Twain might have seemed the type to shy away from such indulgences as creative spellings, here he encourages writers to play with language. After all, many words in the English language came from writers like Shakespeare who simply made them up. Grammar and spelling are fine, but don't be afraid to have a little fun with the language as well.
  11. "The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug." While this might be a bit of an extreme example, choosing the right words for what you mean in a piece of writing is essential. One word might be a synonym for another, but it doesn't mean the two have exactly the same meaning or connotation. Spend some time working on your language to make sure each word is just right for where you've placed it.
  12. "The more you explain it, the more I don't understand it." Here, again, Twain presses for writers to be more clear, concise and brief when writing. You could write pages and pages on something and have it be more obtuse than one, simple, clearly written paragraph. If you're struggling, start with the long version and figure out just what you can omit or change without changing the point.