4 writing tips from Mark Twain

The famous author may not have written for the Web, but we can certainly apply his salient thoughts on crafting prose.

Poll anyone on what they consider to be the “great American novel,” and you’re likely to turn up with one answer an inordinate amount of times: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain. The novel has been indelibly pressed into America’s collective memory for the biting wit and power of Twain—not to mention the great story he tells.

So, today, I’d like to turn to Mark Twain to pick up a few content writing tips that could benefit us all. Known for his ability to throw out a memorable quip or two daily, Twain has built quite the archive of quotes. Here are just four that content marketers can learn from.

“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.”

Sometimes I don’t arrive at the meat of a blog post until midway through—or even the end—at which point I have to stop, edit, and start writing again. Not every single project needs an overhaul immediately after the first draft, but you would be wise to reserve extra time for intense revision when dealing with important assignments. You might find, as Twain did, that the best parts don’t reveal themselves until you’ve “finished.”

“I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.”

Writing 200 words is a lot harder than writing 400 words—especially when you have a lot of information or ideas to communicate. Don’t be sloppy; practice word economy.

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

Let down your pride, and pick up the dictionary whenever you have doubt. I keep my dictionary app handy on my Dashboard at all times. With one keystroke, I can look up any word that I wouldn’t feel comfortable defining myself, even if—especially if—I’ve been using it in my writing for years.

Perhaps you’ve been guilty of a malapropism of this degree. (Hopefully not!) Words matter, as Twain reminds us, so use them well.

“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.”

Clearly, Mark Twain is having fun with his own advice in this quote. Twain could have created a “glittering paragraph” like this:

Good writing is clean and crisp.

However, I think he imparts this advice in a verbose style because he wants the reader to go back through the lines and have the experience of reading a rambling writer.

What do you think of Twain’s words as they apply to content marketing?

Ben Richardson is a freelance writer, poet and blogger in Nashville, Tenn. He blogs on these subjects and more at Man the Desk. When he isn’t writing for himself or Content Equals Money, he’s probably exploring Nashville or the trails of middle Tennessee. A version of this article first appeared on Content Equals Money.

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