Mark Twain's Discourse: A Timeless Writing Course

10/25/2010 11:47 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

With the current excitement about the first volume of Mark Twain's autobiography to be published in November, I re-visited some pages of his quotes about writing I'd collected through the years. I was astounded by the number and scope of Twain's advice -- and admonishments. I've culled 3000+ words to a mere 700. I hope you'll comment and add your favorites.

On adjectives...

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, 3/23/1878

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. Letter to D. W. Bowser, 3/20/1880

On adverbs...

The adverb is the enemy of the verb.

On overwriting...

A successful book is not made of what is in it, but of what is left out of it. Letter to Henry H. Rogers, 26 - 28 April 1897

Why use a quarter word when you can use a nickel one instead?

On dialogue...

Dialogue is the yeast that lightens the bread; and should be paid for at double rate -- whereas by the word-system it counts the same as the dough... Dialogue costs twice as much time and thought and emendation as does solid matter, and when satisfactorily done will hold a reader when solid matter won't. Letter to Richard Watson Gilder, 29 April 1898

On spelling ...

I never had any large respect for good spelling. That is my feeling yet. Before the spelling-book came with its arbitrary forms, men unconsciously revealed shades of their characters and also added enlightening shades of expression to what they wrote by their spelling, and so it is possible that the spelling-book has been a doubtful benevolence to us.
Mark Twain's Autobiography

On proofreaders ...

And then there is that other thing: when you think you are reading proof, whereas you are merely reading your own mind; your statement of the thing is full of holes and vacancies but you don't know it, because you are filling them from your mind as you go along. Sometimes -- but not often enough -- the printer's proof-reader saves you -- and offends you -- with this cold sign in the margin: and you search the passage and find that the insulter is right -- it doesn't say what you thought it did: the gas-fixtures are there, but you didn't light the jets.

On style ...

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

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

Let us guess that whenever we read a sentence and like it, we unconsciously store it away in our model-chamber; and 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

A powerful agent is the right word. Whenever we come upon one of those intensely right words in a book or a newspaper the resulting effect is physical as well as spiritual, and electrically prompt: it tingles exquisitely around through the walls of the mouth and tastes as tart and crisp and good as the autumn-butter that creams the sumac-berry. "William Dean Howells" essay

The first of three volumes of Mark Twain's 500,000-word autobiography will be published in November by the University of California Press. Robert Hirst at the Bancroft Library at the University of California, Berkeley, where Twain's papers are housed was quoted in a New York Times article, "I've read this manuscript a million times, and it still makes me laugh. This is a guy who made literature out of talk, and the autobiography is the culmination, the pinnacle of that impulse."