Writers on Writing: Wit and Wisdom of Mark Twain

Writing Novels That Sell with Adrienne deWolfe

Writers on Writing: Wit and Wisdom of Mark Twain

As a child, I was familiar with Tom Sawyer, but I didn't fall in love with Mark Twain until my high school Language Arts class. We were studying The Adventures of Huck Finn, which begins with the following warning to the reader:

“Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot. BY ORDER OF THE AUTHOR per G.G., CHIEF OF ORDNANCE”

Needless to say, my high school teacher couldn't resist doing exactly what Mark Twain had asked him NOT to do.  He made the class debate for more than 45 minutes, looking for the “deeper meaning” behind Twain’s admonishment to readers.

At the time, I couldn't help but think, "Geez, doesn't this guy get it? Twain wants readers to take the novel at face value."  

And yet, for more than a 100 years, critics have been analyzing Huck Finn for its literary merits and its "social criticisms."  (Which just goes to prove that academicians think too much.)  

Mark Twain now ranks as one of my favorite American humorists (along with James Thurber and Dave Barry.)  Here are some of my favorite Mark Twain quotes about writing, books, critics, and success:

"My books are like water; those of the great geniuses are wine. (Fortunately) everybody drinks water."

“Writing is easy. All you have to do is cross out the wrong words.”

"It's no wonder that truth is stranger than fiction. Fiction has to make sense."

"Only one thing is impossible for God: To find any sense in any copyright law on the planet."

“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.”

"Only kings, presidents, editors, and people with tapeworms have the right to use the editorial 'we.'" 

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

“Be careful about reading health books. You may die of a misprint.”

"Part of the secret of success in life is to eat what you like and let the food fight it out inside."

 "A person with a new idea is a crank until the idea succeeds."

"The man who does not read good books has no advantage over the man who cannot read them."

“The secret to getting ahead is getting started.” 

"To succeed in life, you need two things: ignorance and confidence."

 “Keep away from people who try to belittle your ambitions. Small people always do that, but the really great make you feel that you, too, can become great.”