What the greats knew and we’ve forgotten: Style Advice from Mark Twain

Samuel L. Clemens wasn’t an ad man. But he was a branding genius. He wrote as “Mark Twain” – which was less a pen name and more a separate, constructed identity.


He was a ruthless critic. My favourite piece of his is Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses. In it, he deconstructs the work of the author of The Last of the Mohicans. It’s funny and sagacious. And it’s a trove of Twain’s wisdom on the craft of writing. Each complaint against Cooper serves dual function as an appeal to clarity, imagination, precision, and respect for the reader.

Here are three of our favourites.

1. Avoid using the same trick repeatedly. 

“Every time a Cooper person is in peril, and absolute silence is worth four dollars a minute, he is sure to step on a dry twig. There may be a hundred other handier things to step on, but that wouldn’t satisfy Cooper. Cooper requires him to turn out and find a dry twig; and if he can’t do it, go and borrow one.”

Our Thought: See below.

2. “Unbelievable” feats are usually just that.

“The scow episode is really a sublime burst of invention; but it does not thrill, because the inaccuracy of details throw a sort of air of fictitiousness and general improbability over it.” 

Our Thought:  As we’ve said before, exaggeration is intellectual bravery. An exaggerated lie is intellectually insulting.

3. There’s a right word for every situation – so find it.

“When a person has a poor ear for music he will flat and sharp right along without knowing it. He keeps near the tune, but is not the tune. When a person has a poor ear for words, the result is a literary flatting and sharping; you perceive what he is intending to say, but you also perceive that he does not say it.”

Our Thought:  If you find yourself unsure about how a word or phrase fits in a sentence, make it your mission to find out why. We use corpus linguistics when we write for brands to be sure the words we pick have precisely the meanings we need them to.

This is the fourth in our series looking at great writers. Here’s the other three:

  1. David Ogilvy on purpose, positive goodness, and the value of research.
  2. Paul Arden on attitude, big ideas, and intellectual bravery.
  3. Bob Levenson’s unique epistolary style.

Which writer inspired you the most? Please let us know.