Writers on Writing: Mark Twain

Quote retrieved from Twain Quotes.

I adore Mark Twain. Everyone needs humor in their lives and I find his writing refreshing. I’ve never read The Adventures of Tom Sawyer or The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. I have, however, read several of his other works: “Advice to Little Girls”, “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County”, The Prince and the PauperPudd’nhead Wilson, and more. My favorite is A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. Time travel, the Knights of the Round Table, and satire that pokes at the romanticized image of the Middle Ages? What’s not to love?

Today I’m going to discuss one of Twain’s quotes on writing that has been very encouraging for me during the editing process:

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, Mark Twain’s Notebook

It sounds paradoxical but also makes sense. The meatiest, most taxing part of writing is not the writing itself but the rewriting. We don’t know what we’re trying to say until after that first draft.

I know what a lot of you might say: I meticulously plan my (novel, short story, poem, whatever) before I pick up the pen; I know exactly what I want to say before the first draft.

Let me ask you this: how often is the first draft also your final draft? How many revisions do you go through before you and your beta readers decide that the work is finished (well, publishable)? How drastically does the piece change before you’re done?

We know generally what we want to say in the first draft but specifics are blurry. Sometimes even that “big picture” takes a turn in later drafts. It’s the nature of writing. We spew everything in our heads onto the page during the first draft and then we figure out the direction in which we really want to go.

The good news? This process means that it doesn’t matter if the first draft is crud. It’s supposed to be. All that matters is that you revise the work until you realize what you want to say and accomplish that message, even if you have to write it all over again. I’m learning this lesson slowly but surely as I edit stories for my end-of-year portfolio.

This photograph of an older Mark Twain was taken by A.F. Bradley for the purpose of helping poet laureate Ina Coolbrith, who lost her home in the San Francisco Earthquake.

Picture retrieved from the Mark Twain Wikipedia Entry.

The other good news? Mark Twain, the writer of the “Great American Novel”, didn’t always know what he wanted to write until after he started writing. He knew not to stop if the first batch was rotten. And you shouldn’t give up during or after finishing your first draft. You’re just getting started.

Do you have any thoughts on Twain’s advice? Do you have a writer whom you want me to write about in a future “Writers on Writing”? Drop a line in the comments or contact me at thewritersscrapbin@gmail.com.

And watch for the next “Writers on Writing” in which I’ll turn to Latin American writer Sandra Cisneros.


Designed by Stephanie Hoogstad circa 2011

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