Writing Advice from Mark Twain – Sandra Hart

Posted by on Jan 28, 2015 | 12 comments

Writing Advice from Mark Twain – Sandra Hart

This week’s Wandering Wednesdays writing advice comes from Sandra Merville Hart, author of Civil War romance,  A Stranger on My Land. I know you will enjoy what she has to say. 

Wandering Wednesdays


Writing Advice from Mark Twain: Write Without Pay Until Somebody Offers to Pay

When a recent graduate sent a few newspaper articles to Mark Twain requesting his candid opinion, the young man went a step further: he asked the famous author to find him a job writing for a newspaper. After considering other professions, the graduate found each one already filled to capacity, leaving little room for success. With Twain’s contacts in the newspaper field, the young writer asked for the best employment terms possible though, of course, he didn’t expect the highest wages at the beginning of his career.


Though Twain responded graciously, his three-pronged advice may not have been what the overly confident fellow wanted toMark Twain. 1835-1910. Timbre rep Comores. hear. Yet his words still offer wisdom to struggling writers over a century later.


Firstly, Twain pointed out that all occupations — including literature — were hindered by a lack of people willing to work and not a lack of work. The hard-working, reliable, and capable individual will always be in demand. However, idle workers, those who shirk duty, the unambitious, and those who seek their own comfort can be found anywhere.


All professions want to find individuals willing to work hard. The field of literature is no different.


Secondly, Twain refused to offer an opinion on the young man’s writing, for he considered public opinion of the greatest value. In fact, he wrote, “The public is the only critic whose judgment is worth anything at all.” He offered reasons to back his thoughts.


At the time of Twain’s article around 1870, T.S. Arthur was a recognized editor and author. Twain argued that if Arthur had submitted his first manuscript to the young graduate, he would have begged the now-famous author not to write anything else. The same young man might have rejected “Paradise Lost” for being too depressing, but the story sold well. Many wise people in Shakespeare’s time didn’t like him, yet his work is still widely read.


Twain refused to judge the young man’s writing. If he praised it, the public might be bored with it. Condemning it could “rob the world of an undeveloped and unsuspicious Dickens or Shakespeare.”


Thirdly, Twain balked at finding the recent graduate a job. When the young man’s articles had proven themselves valuable, he wouldn’t have to search very hard to sell them. Surprisingly, Twain advised him to “write without pay until somebody offers to pay” for three years. If no one buys his work within those years of diligent work, he should search for another profession.


Diamonds in the rough may be difficult to recognize. How many writers cringe at the thought that editors read their early work and quickly rejected something that time and grueling practice would have honed into an acceptable piece?


Twain makes a strong point that good writing is a result of much hard work. If we want to be published, we hone our skills. After we are published, we continue to strive for excellence.


It feels like a never-ending struggle, but well worth the end result as the writings of Mark Twain, one of American’s best-loved authors, clearly demonstrate.



“T.S. Arthur.” The Literature Network. 2014 May 28 http://www.online-literature.com/ts-arthur/.

Twain, Mark. Edited by McCullough, Joseph B. and McIntire-Strasburg, Janice. Mark Twain at the Buffalo Express, Northern Illinois University Press, 2000.


About the Author:

Sandra Merville HartSandra Merville Hart loves to find unusual facts in her historical research to use in her stories. She and her husband enjoy traveling to many of the sites in her books to explore the history. She serves as Assistant Editor for DevoKids.com where she contributes articles about history and holidays. She has written for several publications and websites including The Secret Place, Harpstring, Splickety Magazine, Pockets Magazine, Common Ground, Afictionado, and ChristianDevotions.us.

Her inspirational Civil War novella, A Stranger on My Land, released on August 21, 2014. It is available on Amazon and Kindle:  http://www.amazon.com/Stranger-My-Land-Sandra-Hart/dp/1941103278/  and Barnes & Noble and Nook: http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/a-stranger-on-my-land-sandra-merville-hart/1120155194?ean=9781941103272 and through Lighthouse Publishing of the Carolinas: http://store.lpcbooks.com/product/a-stranger-on-my-land/



Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/sandra.m.hart.7

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  1. Great story, Sandy. I especially like Mark Twain’s advice on not commenting on the writing because it’s the public’s opinion that matters. It reminds me of those lists that tell how many times a famous author or book was rejected before becoming a major hit. Persistence (while improving our skills) almost always pays off.

    • Thanks for stopping by the blog, Johnnie! I hope you’ll come back again!

    • I agree, Johnnie. I thought that showed a lot of wisdom on his part. I guess it’s difficult at first to spot those “diamonds in the rough.” Thanks for commenting!

  2. Good stuff. I’d add that there is NO wasted writing – all writing makes your writing stronger. Eventually you’ll even learn to self edit 🙂 As a professional blogger, I wrote from 2002 to 2008 before anyone paid me – and then I wrote on someone else’s blog. Now I would take that small amount, but I do write for less for things and people I can about. But that’s nonfiction, I pray one day to publish my fiction too.

    • Thanks for taking time to comment! I hope you do get published sometime!

    • Gina, I agree. Honing our skills requires that we write. Wishing you success in publishing your fiction!

  3. This is a neat story. Mark Twain gave some wonderful advice to this guy also. Do you have any idea of who the guy was and if he ever got published somewhere?

    • I don’t believe that the book I read provided the graduate’s name. Twain wrote so many books and also worked for newspapers; it may be in one of those. My guess is that the man who wrote the letter represented many others like him that Twain finally decided this was the best way to answer all of them.

      That’s a great question. I’d love to know if he continued writing, too. Thanks for commenting!

    • Thanks for your comments!

  4. Thanks Sandra. Although not specifically expressed, it’s implied that if someone does buy a writer’s work, then that writer should continue in his or her endeavor. I found this to be comforting and encouraging.

    • Thanks for stopping by! Keep trying!

    • Yes, I took Twain’s words to mean that selling our work should inspire us to continue. Writing can be a lonely journey, especially with all the rejections along the way. I’m happy you found this article encouraging. Good luck with your writing!

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