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Perhaps the most frequently quoted writer who ever lived is Mark Twain. After all, who has not heard his ever-popular saying "The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between the lightning and the lightning bug"? Below, I have gathered some of Mark Twain's popular quotes on writing, publishing, and literature (there is even one on the subject of copyright which I found most amusing). So, if you are looking for inspiration, or perhaps just some light reading that is bound to put a smile on your face, you should find this page useful.

Bonnie Mercure  

Writing Quotations
of Mark Twain

An author values a compliment even when it comes from a source of doubtful competency
- Mark Twain in Eruption

When an honest writer discovers an imposition it is his simple duty to strip it bare and hurl it down from its place of honor, no matter who suffers by it; any other course would render him unworthy of the public confidence.
- Mark Twain in A Tramp Abroad

I conceive that the right way to write a story for boys is to write so that it will not only interest boys but strongly interest any man who has ever been a boy. That immensely enlarges the audience.
- Mark Twain in a Letter to Fred J. Hall.

We write frankly and fearlessly but then we "modify" before we print.
- Mark Twain in Life on the Mississippi

It is no use to keep private information which you can't show off.
- Mark Twain in "An Author's Soldiering," 1887

Experience of life (not of books) is the only capital usable in such a book as you have attempted; one can make no judicious use of this capital while it is new.
-Mark Twain in a letter to Bruce Weston Munro, 10/21/1881 (Karanovich collection)

Well, my book is written--let it go. But if it were only to write over again there wouldn't be so many things left out. They burn in me; and they keep multiplying; but now they can't ever be said. And besides, they would require a library--and a pen warmed up in hell.
- Mark Twain in a Letter to W. D. Howells, 9/22/1889 (referring to Connecticut Yankee)

I wrote the rest of The Innocents Abroad in sixty days and I could have added a fortnight's labor with the pen and gotten along without the letters altogether. I was very young in those days, exceedingly young, marvelously young, younger than I am now, younger than I shall ever be again, by hundreds of years. I worked every night from eleven or twelve until broad daylight in the morning, and as I did 200,000 words in the sixty days, the average was more than 3,000 words a day- nothing for Sir Walter Scott, nothing for Louis Stevenson, nothing for plenty of other people, but quite handsome for me. In 1897, when we were living in Tedworth Square, London, and I was writing the book called Following the Equator, my average was 1,800 words a day; here in Florence (1904) my average seems to be 1,400 words per sitting of four or five hours.
- From Autobiography of Mark Twain

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.
- Mark Twain in a Letter to Orion Clemens, 3/23/1878

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.
- From 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.
- Mark Twain in a Letter to Emeline Beach, 2/10/1868

Let us guess that whenever we read a sentence & like it, we unconsciously store it away in our model-chamber; & it goes, with the myriad of its fellows, to the building, brick by brick, of the eventual edifice which we call our style.
- Mark Twain in a Letter to George Bainton, 10/15/1888; (first printed in The Art of Authorship: Literary Reminiscences, Methods of Work, and Advice to Young Beginners, Personally Contributed by Leading Authors of the Day.)

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.
- Mark Twain in a Letter to D. W. Bowser, 3/20/1880

There is only one brief, solitary law for letter-writing, and yet you either do not know that law, or else you are so stupid that you never think of it. It is very easy and simple: Write only about things and people your correspondent takes a living interest in.
--Mark Twain in A Complaint About Correspondents

Nothing in the world affords a newspaper reporter so much satisfaction as gathering up the details of a bloody and mysterious murder, and writing them up with aggravated circumstantiality.
--Mark Twain in The Killing of Julius Caesar "Localized"

Classic--a book which people praise and don't read.
- Mark Twain in Pudd'nhead Wilson's New Calendar

You can find in a text whatever you bring, if you will stand between it and the mirror of your imagination.
- From "A Fable"

When I am king, they shall not have bread and shelter only, but also teachings out of books, for a full belly is little worth where the mind is starved.
- From Twain's The Prince and the Pauper

The index of a book should always be written by the author, even though the book itself should be the work of another hand.
- From Remembered Yesterdays

...great books are weighed and measured by their style and matter and not by the trimmings and shadings of their grammer.
- From Mark Twain, a Biography

A successful book is not made of what is in it, but what is left out of it.
- Mark Twain in a Letter to H. H. Rogers, 5/1897

I have been an author for 20 years and an ass for 55.
- From Mark Twain, a Biography

Experience is an author's most valuable asset; experience is the thing that puts the muscle and the breath and the warm blood into the book he writes.
- From Is Shakespeare Dead

Authorship is not a trade, it is an inspiration; authorship does not keep an office, its habitation is all out under the sky, and everywhere the winds are blowing and the sun is shining and the creatures of God are free.
- Mark Twain in A petition to the Queen of England, 1887 (plea for exemption from English tax on royalties)

I never saw an author who was aware that there is any dimensional difference between a fact and a surmise.
- quoted in My Father Mark Twain, by Clara Clemens

There are three infallible ways of pleasing an author, and the three form a rising scale of compliment: 1, To tell him you have read one of his books; 2, To tell him you have read all of his books; 3, To ask him to let you read the manuscripts of his forthcoming book. No. 1 admits you to his respect; no. 2 admits you to his admiration; No. 3 carries you clear into his heart.
- From Pudd'nhead Wilson

Criticism is a queer thing. If I print "She was stark naked"--& then proceeded to describe her person in detail, what critic would not howl?--who would venture to leave the book on a parlor table. --but the artist does this & all ages gather around & look & talk & point. I can't say, "They cut his head off, or stabbed him, &c" describe the blood & the agony in his face.
- From Mark Twain's Notebook #18, Feb. - Sept. 1879

Whenever I enjoy anything in art it means that it is mighty poor. The private knowledge of this fact has saved me from going to pieces with enthusiasm in front of many and many a chromo.
- From Twain's "At the Shrine of St. Wagner"

I am glad the old masters are all dead, and I only wish they had died sooner.
- From Twain's "Academy of Design," letter to San Francisco Alta California, July 28, 1867

Only one thing is impossible for God: to find any sense in any copyright law on the planet.
- From Mark Twain's Notebook, 1902-1903

But language is a treacherous thing, a most unsure vehicle, and it can seldom arrange descriptive words in such a way that they will not inflate the facts--by help of the reader's imagination, which is always ready to take a hand and work for nothing, and do the bulk of it at that.
- From Following the Equator

The difference between the almost right word & the right word is really a large matter--it's the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.
- From Mark Twain's Letter to George Bainton, 10/15/1888

My works are like water. The works of the great masters are like wine. But everyone drinks water.
- From Mark Twain's Notebook, 1885

High and fine literature is wine, and mine is only water; but everybody likes water.
- Mark Twain in a Letter to W. D. Howells, 2/15/1887

It makes one hope and believe that a day will come when, in the eye of the law, literary property will be as sacred as whiskey, or any other of the necessaries of life. It grieves me to think how far more profound and reverent a respect the law would have for literature if a body could only get drunk on it.
- Mark Twain's Dinner speech 12/8/1881

Creed and opinion change with time, and their symbols perish; but Literature and its temples are sacred to all creeds and inviolate.
- Mark Twain's Letter to the Millicent [Rogers] Library, 2/22/1894

Delicacy - a sad, sad false delicacy - robs literature of the two best things among its belongings: Family-circle narratives & obscene stories.
- Mark Twain in a Letter to W. D. Howells, 9/19/1877

I have never tried, in even one single little instance, to help cultivate the cultivated classes. I was not equipped for it either by native gifts or training. And I never had any ambition in that direction, but always hunted for bigger game--the masses. I have seldom deliberately tried to instruct them, but I have done my best to entertain them, for they can get instruction elsewhere.
- From Mark Twain, a Biography

Comedy keeps the heart sweet; but we all know that there is wholesome refreshment for both mind and heart in an occasional climb among the pomps of the intellectual snow-summits built by Shakespeare and those others.
- "About Play-Acting"

...I could not consent to deliver judgment upon any one's manuscript, because an individual's verdict [is] worthless...The great public [is] the only tribunal competent to sit in judgment upon a literary effort.
- "Concerning the Carnival of Crime in Connecticut"

No man has an appreciation so various that his judgment is good upon all varieties of literary work.
- quoted in My Father Mark Twain, Clara Clemens

In literature imitations do not imitate.
- More Maxims of Mark, Johnson

For more of Mark Twain's quotes on writers and writing, check out Mark Dawidziak's collection MARK MY WORDS. Available from amazon.com.


Read The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County by Mark Twain

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Bonnie Mercure, your Fiction Guide at the dowse Fiction Hub and compiler of this page, is a dark fantasy author. Visit her website


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Mark Twain quotations about writing, quotes about writers.