The Apocryphal Twain: “Writing is easy. All you have to do is cross out the wrong words.”

There is perhaps no greater testament to Twain’s lasting reputation than the habitual misattribution of miscellaneous wit and wisdom to his name. The circulation of such apocryphal aphorisms was common enough in the 20th century. It has only increased with the popularization of digital media. The most common question addressed to the Center for Mark Twain Studies is some variety of “Did he really say that?” Whenever possible, we track down the original source, as well as attempt to trace how their words came to be imagined in Twain’s mouth.

Many schools across the country and, indeed, around the world, are winding down a challenging semester, which means students are frantically revising essays and teachers are just as frantically grading them. Among them, Elisabeth Freund, from University of Frankfurt, who has been searching (to no avail) for the original source of this popular piece of writing advice:

The bad news for Elisabeth is that this attribution is apocryphal. But the quote does loosely align itself philosophically with some things Twain actually said…and did. If you review Twain’s letters and manuscripts, you will see that he was an aggressive editor of his own work, and that his favorite mark was the “cross out.” Even in short, informal letters, Samuel Clemens would often remove or replace a significant amount of text by this means. The “cross out” is such a pervasive part of Twain’s method, the Mark Twain Project goes to great pains to try to preserve the words underneath Twain’s strikes, so that researchers using their digital editions can consider his revisions.

Twain was also famously critical of the overuse of adjectives, adverbs, and other superfluous verbiage writers use to “flower” their prose. One of the entries is “Pudd’nhead Wilson’s Calendar” is “As to the Adjective: when in doubt, strike it out.” Twain said “the modern way and the best way” to “write English” was to “use plain, simple language, short words and brief sentences.”

For the most part, Twain practiced what he preached. Ben Blatt’s quantitative study of classic novels, Nabokov’s Favorite Word Is Mauve (2017), found Twain’s use of adjectives, adverbs, qualifiers, and other complicating verbiage to be at the extreme low end among the authors in his data set.

However, while Twain was fastidious in his practice of “crossing out,” the earliest appearance of the above quotation I have been able to locate is from 1985, 75 years after his death. And none of the many people who have since attributed it to Twain have identified a text upon which to base that attribution.

The popularization of this quote follows a familiar path. It was a convenient crutch for second-tier newspaper columnists in the 1990s and then made the leap to Twitter early this century, where it circulated without any question of legitimacy.

But the thing that distinguishes this from other pieces of Twain apocrypha I’ve traced over the years is that I have yet to find the quote attributed to anybody but Twain.

I have a theory as to why this is the case. That theory derives from the subfield in which this aphorism originated.

The first appearance I have identified is a 1985 column by Bruce O. Boston for a his publishing newsletter, The Editorial Eye. Boston recycled the aphorism several times, including in his books, Stet!: Tricks of the Trade for Writers & Editors (1986) and Language on a Leash (1988).

Boston was not the only person in the nascent field of Rhetoric & Composition Studies deploying the apocryphal aphorism during this time. Daniel R. Jones, then a professor at University of Central Florida, who would go on to be an influential scholar of Technical Communication, quotes Twain without attribution in an otherwise rigorously documented address to the Council for Programs in Technical & Scientific Communication in October 1987.

Jan Venolia leans heavily on Twain aphorisms, most of them genuine, in her popular style guide, Write Right!, first published in 1979. She concludes her introduction to the revised 4th edition, released in 1988, by misattributing the “writing is easy” quote to Twain:

Having entered the disciplinary literature, the aphorism and its false attribution spread like wildfire, further appearing in Carol Booth Olson’s Practical Ideas for Teaching Writing as a Process (1986), John Jerome’s The Writing Trade (1992), Diana Bonet’s Easy English (1993), Philip Theibert’s Business Writing for Busy People (1996), Carol Ann Wilson’s Plain Language Pleadings (1996), and Writing A Winning College Application Essay (1996) by Wilma Davidson and Susan McCloskey.

Did Bruce O. Boston invent the aphorism out of whole cloth and attribute it to Twain to give it greater gravitas? If so, he would not be the first or last to accomplish such a fete of fabrication. I expect, however, that this quote started circulating in his professional circles some time before he put it to paper. To fully appreciate the irony of the “writing is easy” quip, one has to consider the conventions of writing instruction which Boston’s generation of scholars were rejecting. The so-called “skill and drills” approach had been pervasive in U.S. primary and secondary education during most of the 20th century. Among the “drills” were a series of exercises in which students learned grammar and diction by improving passages in their textbooks by crossing out and substituting words and phrases.

These cross-out exercises became so ubiquitous that they even appeared in newspapers and puzzle books for adults during the 1950s and 1960s, the equivalent of a contemporary “brain teaser.” In popular culture the cross-out exercise was portrayed as a practical form of writing instruction which was also pleasurable. In other words, these exercises made writing seem easy.

But the empirical studies of writing instruction that became more common in the 1970s and 1980s showed that “skills and drills” was ineffectual pedagogy. Students might memorize some rules and be able to apply them to their homework, but when it came time for them to compose their own narratives and arguments, they struggled to deploy proper grammar and to correct improper usages. It turns out that writing is hard and the best way to get better at it is to actually write.

Twain is the author of one of the most well-known scenes of comically inadequate instruction in American literature, from the sixth and seventh chapters of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876). Though he would became a strong proponent for public education, his famous burlesquing of the rural Missouri schoolmaster makes him seem like a logical mouthpiece for ironic critiques of bad pedagogy. So well-meaning composition professors ventriloquized him!

“The difference between the almost right word and the right word is a large matter – it’s the difference between the lightning-bug and the lightning.”

– Mark Twain, to George Bainton (October 15, 1888)

Happy Grading!