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Exploring the ideas of noted communicators

Exploring the ideas of noted communicators

lens (lenz), n.  5. something that facilitates and influences perception, comprehension, or evaluation

This page will feature noted communicators and their work. Noted communicators are persons who have made a name for themselves through their endeavors relating to the field of communications. Communicators & Communications is dedicated to advancing the art and science of communications. One way is to show the way through example. On this page C&C will present exemplary figures who have something to say or something to emulate as regards effective communication.

Now in “The Lens”: Samuel Langhorne Clemens (aka Mark Twain)

Mathew Brady photo of Mark Twain

“Few things are harder to put up with than the annoyance of a good example.”
Mark Twain from, Pudd’nhead Wilson

Installment One: The Mark Twain Quotes

Preliminaries – First let’s point out that Clemens used a pen name. Often contemporary online journalists, bloggers, and microbloggers especially, choose to use a “user name” or other “logon” rather than their real name, for a variety of reasons, including security issues relating to the new media “publishing environment” shall we say. In any case the point is this usage is in essence a pen name and so the pen name idea has been around for a long time.

Next, In deference to the established notoriety of his particular pen name, the commentary provided here will refer to this noted communicator as Mark Twain, or Twain.

For a very good brief and general outline of his life, writings, and influence, you can’t do much better than the Wikipedia entry at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mark_Twain

 The best collection of Twain’s quotes on writers and writing, is Mark Dawidziak’s collection Mark My Words.

For those who need to be reminded, aside from his enterprises outside the world of communications, such as steamboat pilot and inventor, Twain was variously a journalist, novelist, essayist, humorist, and lecturer.

Our special interest in Twain is focused on what he had to say about his chosen work as a communicator. The quotes included here are all compiled from the following site: http://www.twainquotes.com/quotesatoz.html

Before hearing from Twain in his own words, let’s hear from another literary luminary about Twain:

All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn. American writing comes from that. There is nothing before. There has been nothing as good since.
– Ernest Hemingway, Green Hills of Africa, 1935

Let’s start our exploration of Twain’s ideas by perusing this compendium of quotes on topics all germane to communications issues. You can read all of these at one time. However, it is suggested that these quotes be read little by little rather than all at once; just bookmark the page and come back  after reading and considering a group of quotes, to go  on to the next group, until you’ve gone through them all. Take your time, they’re worth it.

1. “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.”
– Letter to D. W. Bowser, 3/20/1880

2. “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.”
– Is Shakespeare Dead

3. “…great books are weighed and measured by their style and matter and not by the trimmings and shadings of their grammer.”
– Mark Twain, a Biography

4. “A classic is something that everybody wants to have read and nobody wants to read.”
– The Disappearance of Literature speech, 1900

5. “We write frankly and fearlessly but then we ‘modify’ before we print.”
– Life on the Mississippi

6. “No one can write perfect English and keep it up through a stretch of ten chapters. It has never been done.”
Christian Science

7. “The humorous story is told gravely; the teller does his best to conceal the fact that he even dimly suspects that there is anything funny about it.”
– “How to Tell a Story”

8. “There is no such thing as a new idea. It is impossible. We simply take a lot of old ideas and put them into a sort of mental kaleidoscope. We give them a turn and they make new and curious combinations. We keep on turning and making new combinations indefinitely; but they are the same old pieces of colored glass that have been in use through all the ages.”
– Mark Twain, a Biography

9. “We take a natural interest in novelties, but it is against nature to take an interest in familiar things.”
– Following the Equator

10. “I have, in my time, succeeded in writing some very poor stuff, which I have put in pigeonholes until I realised how bad it was, and then destroyed it. But I think the poorest article I ever wrote and destroyed was better worth reading than any interview with me that ever was published.”
– quoted in “Mark Twain, A Conglomerate Interview, Personally Conducted by Luke Sharp,” The Idler, Feb. 1892

11. “Name the greatest of all inventors. Accidents”
– Mark Twain’s Notebook

12. “At certain periods it becomes the dearest ambition of a man to keep a faithful record of his performances in a book; and he dashes at this work with an enthusiasm that imposes on him the notion that keeping a journal is the veriest pastime in the world, and the pleasantest. But if he only lives twenty-one days, he will find out that only those rare natures that are made up of pluck, endurance, devotion to duty for duty’s sake, and invincible determination, may hope to venture upon so tremendous an enterprise as the keeping of a journal and not sustain a shameful defeat.”
– The Innocents Abroad

13. “Now that is the way to write–peppery and to the point. Mush-and-milk journalism gives me the fan-tods.”
– Journalism in Tennessee

14. “We picked up one excellent word–a word worth traveling to New Orleans to get; a nice limber, expressive, handy word–‘lagniappe.’ They pronounce it lanny-yap. It is Spanish–so they said. We discovered it at the head of a column of odds and ends in the Picayune, the first day; heard twenty people use it the second; inquired what it meant the third; adopted it and got facility in swinging it the fourth. It has a restricted meaning, but I think the people spread it out a little when they choose. It is the equivalent of the thirteenth roll in a ‘baker’s dozen.’ It is something thrown in, gratis, for good measure. The custom originated in the Spanish quarter of the city. … If the waiter in the restaurant stumbles and spills a gill of coffee down the back of your neck, he says ‘For lagniappe, sah,’ and gets you another cup without extra charge.”
– Life on the Mississippi

15. “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.”
– Following the Equator

16. “Laughter which cannot be suppressed is catching. Sooner or later it washes away our defences, and undermines our dignity, and we join in it — ashamed of our weakness, and embittered against the cause of its exposure, but no matter, we have to join in, there is no help for it.”
– Indiantown

17. “Supposing is good, but finding out is better.”
– Mark Twain in Eruption; Mark Twain’s Autobiography

18. “An old, cold letter ….makes you wonder how you could ever have got into such a rage about nothing.”
– Mark Twain, a Biography

19. “A public library is the most enduring of memorials, the trustiest monument for the preservation of an event or a name or an affection; for it, and it only, is respected by wars and revolutions, and survives them.”
– Letter to the Millicent [Rogers] Library, 2/22/1894

20. “My books are water; those of the great geniuses is wine. Everybody drinks water.”
– Notebook, 1885

21. “Do you know, Madam, that I would rather write for a Magazine for $2 a page than for a newspaper at $10? I would. One takes more pains, the ‘truck’ looks nicer in print, & one has a pleasanter audience. It is the difference between lecturing in ‘the States’ & doing the same thing in delectable Nevada.”
– Letter to Mary Fairbanks, May 29, 1870

22. “With the pen in one’s hand, narrative is a difficult art; narrative should flow as flows the brook down through the hills and the leafy woodlands, its course changed by every boulder it comes across and by every grass-clad gravelly spur that projects into its path; its surface broken, but its course not stayed by rocks and gravel on the bottom in the shoal places; a brook that never goes straight for a minute, but goes, and goes briskly, sometimes ungrammatically, and sometimes fetching a horseshoe three quarters of a mile around, and at the end of the circuit flowing within a yard of the path it traversed an hour before; but always going, and always following at least one law, always loyal to that law, the law of the narrative, which has no law.”
– Mark Twain’s Autobiography

23. “Our newspapers are abused. We are told that they are irreverent, coarse, vulgar, ribald. I hope they will remain irreverent. I would like that irreverence to be preserved in America forever and ever–irreverence for all royalties and all those titled creatures born into privilege.”
– Interview, 12/1889

24. “There is only one expert who is qualified to examine the souls and the life of a people and make a valuable report–the native novelist. ….And when a thousand able novels have been written, there you have the soul of the people; and not anywhere else can these be had.”
– What Paul Bourget Thinks of Us

25. “Obscurity and a competence. That is the life that is best worth living.”
– Mark Twain’s Notebook

26. “It were not best that we would all think alike; it is the difference of opinion that makes horse races.”
– Pudd’nhead Wilson’s Calendar, 1894

27. “What a good thing Adam had–when he said a good thing, he knew nobody had said it before.”
– Mark Twain’s Notebook

28. “No word was ever as effective as a rightly timed pause.”
– Mark Twain’s Speeches

29. “…all our phrasings are spiritualized shadows cast multitudinously from our readings…”
– Mark Twain’s Autobiography

30. “But lemme correct you in one thing — I mean soothe you with one fact: a considerable part of every book is an unconscious plagiarism of some previous book. There is no sin about it. If there were, and it were of the deadly sort, it would eventually be necessary to restrict hell to authors — and then enlarge it.”
– letter to editor of Grants Pass Observer dated April 2, 1887. Reprinted in The Morning Oregonian, May 4, 1910, p. 10.

31. “What a lumbering poor vehicle prose is for the conveying of a great thought! …Prose wanders around with a lantern & laboriously schedules & verifies the details & particulars of a valley & its frame of crags & peaks, then Poetry comes, & lays bare the whole landscape with a single splendid flash.”
– Letter to W. D. Howells, 2/25/1906

32. “Everybody’s private motto: It’s better to be popular than right.”
– Notebook, 1902

33. “So far as I remember, I have never seen an Author’s Preface which had any purpose but one — to furnish reasons for the publication of the book. Prefaces wear many disguises, call themselves by various names, and pretend to come on various businesses, but I think that upon examination we are quite sure to find that their errand is always the same: they are there to apologize for the book; in other words, furnish reasons for its publication. This often insures brevity.”
– excerpt from Preface to Mark Twain’s works published by American Publishing Company. Written from Vienna, January 1899

34. “The printer’s art, which is the noblest and most puissant of all arts, and destined in the ages to come to promote the others and preserve them.”
– No. 44, The Mysterious Stranger

35. “Will you make an order in writing & attach it to my MS., & sign it & back it with your whole authority, requiring the compositor & proof-reader to follow my copy EXACTLY, in every minute detail of punctuation, grammer, construction, and (in the case of proper names, spelling). . . I am thus urgent because I know that the Century proof-reader is insane on the subject of his duties, & it makes me afraid of all the guild.”
– 1894 Twain quotation, used by the editors of the Univ. of Cal. Press for the dust jacket of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, (1988) to illustrate Twain’s repeated denunciations of proofreaders.

36. “That awful power, the public opinion of a nation, is created in America by a horde of ignorant, self-complacent simpletons who failed at ditching and shoemaking and fetched up in journalism on their way to the poorhouse.”
– License of the Press speech

37. “All publishers are Columbuses. The successful author is their America. The reflection that they–like Columbus–didn’t discover what they expected to discover, and didn’t discover what they started out to discover, doesn’t trouble them. All they remember is that they discovered America; they forget that they started out to discover some patch or corner of India.”
– Autobiography of Mark Twain

38. “…no circumstances, however dismal, will ever be considered a sufficient excuse for the admission of that last and saddest evidence of intellectual poverty, the Pun.”
– Mark Twain, a Biography

39. “It is my belief that nearly any invented quotation, played with confidence, stands a good chance to deceive.”
– Following the Equator

40. “The radical of one century is the conservative of the next. The radical invents the views. When he has worn them out, the conservative adopts them.”
– Notebook, 1898

41. “Don’t explain your author, read him right and he explains himself.”
– Letter to letter to Cordelia Welsh Foote of Cincinnati, 12/2/1887. Reprinted in When Huck Finn Went Highbrow, Casseres

42. “Does the human being reason? No; he thinks, muses, reflects, but does not reason…That is, in the two things which are the peculiar domain of the heart, not the mind,–politics and religion. He doesn’t want to know the other side. He wants arguments and statistics for his own side, and nothing more.”
– Mark Twain’s Notebook

43. “That desire which is in us all to better other people’s condition by having them think as we think.”
– What is Man

44. “Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to reform (or pause and reflect).”
– Notebook, 1904

45. “All conscientious scruples–all generous feelings must give way to our inexorable duty–which is to keep the public mind in a healthy state of excitement, and experience has taught us that blood alone can do this.”
– “A Duel Prevented,” Virginia City Territorial Enterprise, 8/2/1863

46. “Reputation is a hall-mark: it can remove doubt from pure silver, and it can also make the plated article pass for pure.”
– Unmailed letter, 1886

47. “But not many would think of that. They would think of it next day, but that is the difference between talent and the imitation of it. Talent thinks of it at the time.”
– Three Thousand Years among the Microbes

48. “Always do right; this will gratify some people and astonish the rest.”
– Note to the Young People’s Society, Greenpoint Presbyterian Church, 1901

49. “To the EDITOR of THE COURANT:
SIR: A respectable Boston publisher informs me that one Greer has offered to sell to him and to one or more Hartford publishing firms certain literary rubbish of mine which the said Greer fancies is unprotected. This paragraph is to inform all interested parties that all of my rubbish is amply protected. Neither Mr. Greer nor any one else is authorized to trade in it.
Hartford, June 21″
– Hartford Daily Courant, June 25, 1875, p. 2

50. “One can deliver a satire with telling force through the insidious medium of a travesty, if he is careful not to overwhelm the satire with the extraneous interest of the travesty.”
– “A Couple of Sad Experiences,” Galaxy Magazine, June 1870

51. “It probably costs you nothing to write a short story but I find that it costs me as many false starts–and therefore failures–as does a long one. And as the right start–the right plan–is the only difficulty encountered with either, consider what a rascal for time–expense the short story is to me. Ten years and five failures–that is about my luck. I had it with the one in the Christmas Weekly. And yet that one is so light and frivolous and looks so easy, and as if it couldn’t be started on a wrong plan,–but I discovered four wrong ones in ten years. I have hardly ever started a story, long or short, on the right plan–the right plan being the plan which will make it tell itself without my help–except after three failures. I think you are safe to tell the advanced class that only the born artist can expect to start a story right the first time.”
– Letter to Henry Van Dyke, Dec. 1902

52. “The unspoken word is capital. We can invest it or we can squander it.”
– Mark Twain’s Notebook

53. “Plain question and plain answer make the shortest road out of most perplexities.”
– Life on the Mississippi

54. “Wrinkles should merely indicate where smiles have been.”
– Following the Equator, Pudd’nhead Wilson’s New Calendar

55. “OCTOBER: This is one of the peculiarly dangerous months to speculate in stocks in. The other are July, January, September, April, November, May, March, June, December, August, and February.”
– Pudd’nhead Wilson’s Calendar

56. “The best and most telling speech is not the actual impromptu one, but the counterfeit of it … that speech is most worth listening to which has been carefully prepared in private and tried on a plaster cast, or an empty chair, or any other appreciative object that will keep quiet, until the speaker has got his matter and his delivery limbered up so that they will seem impromptu to an audience.”
– Speech in New York City, 31 March 1885

57. “…ours is a mongrel language which started with a child’s vocabulary of three hundred words, and now consists of two hundred and twenty-five thousand; the whole lot, with the exception of the original and legitimate three hundred, borrowed, stolen, smouched from every unwatched language under the sun, the spelling of each individual word of the lot locating the source of the theft and preserving the memory of the revered crime.”
– Mark Twain’s Autobiography

58. “A statesman gains little by the arbitrary exercise of ironclad authority upon all occasions that offer, for this wounds the just pride of his subordinates, and thus tends to undermine his strength. A little concession, now and then, where it can do no harm is the wiser policy.”
– A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court

59. “Figures often beguile me, particularly when I have the arranging of them myself; in which case the remark attributed to Disraeli would often apply with justice and force: “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics.”
– Autobiography of Mark Twain

60. “All the territorial possessions of all the political establishments in the earth–including America, of course–consist of pilferings from other people’s wash. No tribe, howsoever insignificant, and no nation, howsoever mighty occupies a foot of land that was not stolen.”
– Following the Equator

61. “I like a good story well told. That is the reason I am sometimes forced to tell them myself.”
– Watermelon speech, 1907

62. “Behold the fool saith, ‘Put not all thine eggs in the one basket’–which is but a manner of saying, ‘Scatter your money and your attention;’ but the wise man saith, ‘Put all your eggs in the one basket and–WATCH THAT BASKET.’ ”
– Pudd’nHead Wilson

63. ” The ‘the’ got them–the the captured them–the the took them into camp. You know, I thought it would. To be a ‘the’ is something, to Man and Microbe; but to be the ‘the’–oh, well, that is a bait which they can’t resist at all. I was always a daring person, I never could help it, and I played that ‘ansome title on them for a compliment.”
– Three Thousand Years Among the Microbes

64. “Please do not even divulge the fact that I own a machine. I have entirely stopped using the Type-Writer, for the reason that I never could write a letter with it to anybody without receiving a request by return mail that I would not only describe the machine but state what progress I had made in the use of it, etc., etc. I don’t like to write letters, and so I don’t want people to know that I own this curiosity-breeding little joker.”
– Letter, 3/19/1875

65. “Words are only painted fire; a look is the fire itself.”
– A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court

66. “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.”
– Letter to George Bainton, 10/15/1888

67. “In America, we hurry–which is well; but when the day’s work is done, we go on thinking of losses and gains, we plan for the morrow, we even carry our business cares to bed with us…we burn up our energies with these excitements, and either die early or drop into a lean and mean old age at a time of life which they call a man’s prime in Europe…What a robust people, what a nation of thinkers we might be, if we would only lay ourselves on the shelf occasionally and renew our edges!”
– The Innocents Abroad

68. “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.”
– A Tramp Abroad

69. “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.”
– Letter to Fred J. Hall, 10 Aug 1892

70. “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.”
– Letter to Orion Clemens, 23 March 1878

71. “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’s Notebook, 1902-1903

72. “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.”
– Letter to Emeline Beach, 10 Feb 1868

73. “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.”
– Letter to George Bainton, 15 Oct 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. Compiled and Edited by George Bainton. New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1890, pp. 85-88.)

74. “It is no use to keep private information which you can’t show off.”
– An Author’s Soldiering, 1887


Many have tried, but most would agree that the highly regarded actor Hal Holbrook stands alone in creating a remarkable  characterization of Twain. Holbrook’s award winning one man show, “Mark Twain Tonight” is an acting tour de force. For a sampling of Holbrook doing Twain watch: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F_rTMNnxwSE&feature=related

Installment Two, coming soon: “Deconstructing” The Mark Twain Quotes

A preview:

Mark Twain, was basically “blogging” in print 1860’s style as a correspondent published by the San Francisco Alta California. From 1866 through 1872 Twain “posted” a series of letters to the newspaper. These letters can be read at: http://www.twainquotes.com/altaindex.html They have all the requisite elements of any contemporary blog post…(to be continued)


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