Mark Twain – Revising Or Combing It All to Hell

There’s great truth to striking while the iron is hot, but in the end you have to set yourself to the drudgery of revisions. I’ll use Mark Twain as an example here. Below, Twain is writing to William Dean Howells as he started writing Tom Sawyer.

I have manuscript enough on hand now to be two-thirds done. I intended to run up to Hartford and take it along, but I find myself so thoroughly interested in my work, now (a thing I have not experienced for months) that I can’t bear to lose a single moment of the inspiration. So I will stay here and peg away as long as it lasts.

It took Twain several years to write Tom Sawyer. During that time, Twain actually stopped working on the book altogether and set it aside. Yet, you’d never know that by reading this comment. You’d think he was almost done. You’d think the fires of creation would keep him warm right through to the end, but in reality they burned him out.

Night before last I discovered that that day’s chapter was a failure, in conception, moral truth to nature, and execution–enough blemish to impair the excellence of almost any chapter–and so I must burn up the day’s work and do it all over again. It was plain that I had worked myself out, pumped myself dry. So I knocked off, and went to playing billiards for a change.

It’s something that happens to all of us as we write, and certainly Twain was no stranger to it. You can see that when he says that he hasn’t been interested in his subjects for months. Still, Twain also knows that this will not last and that eventually it will come to the revisions.

My present idea is to write as much more as I have already written, and then cull from the mass the very best chapters and discard the rest. I am not half as well satisfied with the first part of the book as I am with what I am writing now. When I get it done I want to see the man who will begin to read it and not finish it.

There’s a Time to Revise

On the whole, you have to be something of a freak to enjoy the process of revision. After all, you are taking some bit of art that has come from your soul and tearing it apart in the most merciless manner. More often than not you’re as likely to do harm as you are good.

Here Twain is giving advice to his brother, Orion, who was working on his own autobiography.

Stop re-writing. I saw places in your last batch where re-writing had done formidable injury. Do not try to find those places, else you will mar them further by trying to better them. It is perilous to revise a book while it is under way. All of us have injured our books in that foolish way.

Consider that for a moment before you run off headstrong in the belief that you know exactly what you “need to do” to a chapter or story before it is finished. Will you injure the story in some way that will harm the rest of the work? Will you destroy your creative fire by interrupting it midstream?

All of us have injured our books in that foolish way.

If it happened to Twain, it will happen to you.

Taking the Advice of Others

Of course, not all of us have a William Dean Howells in our pocket but it is important to have those you trust reading your work. Ideally, those you trust will be writers. Other writers will find things that you have overlooked a dozen times. They will find plot holes. They will find gross errors in structure and dialogue. They will find misspelings (yes, I did that on purpose).

There was never a man in the world so grateful to another as I was to you day before yesterday, when I sat down to set myself to the dreary and hateful task of making final revision of Tom Sawyer, and discovered, upon opening the package of MS that your pencil marks were scattered all along. This was splendid, and swept away all labor. Instead of reading the MS, I simply hunted out the pencil marks and made the emendations which they suggested.

And yet, there’s often a time when one shouldn’t take the advice of other writers just because it is convenient. Sometimes you have to read the public.

There was one expression which perhaps you overlooked. When Huck is complaining to Tom of the rigorous system in vogue at the widow’s, he says the servants harass him with all manner of compulsory decencies, and he winds up by saying: “and they comb me all to hell.”

Long ago, when I read that to Mrs. Clemens, she made no comment; another time I created occasion to read that chapter to her aunt and her mother (both sensitive and loyal subjects of the kingdom of heaven, so to speak) and they let it pass. I was glad, for it was the most natural remark in the world for that boy to make. When I saw that you, too, had let it go without protest, I was glad, and afraid; too–afraid you hadn’t observed it. Did you? And did you question the propriety of it? Since the book is now professedly and confessedly a boy’s and girl’s hook, that darn word bothers me some, nights, but it never did until I had ceased to regard the volume as being for adults.

And damn it all if Howells didn’t tell Twain that he’d missed that word and that he’d “have that swearing out in an instant.” And damn it all twice if Twain didn’t do it and change the dialogue to “They comb me all to thunder.”

If ever the word Hell belonged in a book it was that line said by that character in that very place. Here the author, in spite of his misgivings about a children’s book, has done his work severe injury. He should have listened to the silence of Mrs. Clements, his mother-in-law, and her sister. After all, if three women of the time who were also loyal subjects to the kingdom of heaven did not take offense then no one else would either.

Revision can be delicate work, which is an ironic thing to say because it’s a bludgeoning, bloody business, but it is up to the author to follow their instinct especially in times of fear.

When you are afraid of what you write, you are probably on the path to the truth.


Do you have problems knowing when to revise or how to go about it? What have you found that works for you? Have you ever injured your work be revising it and how did you know?

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