Mark Twain's Secret to Success: "Use Better Words"

One of the best-known quotes to come out of the Mark Twain Factory of Famous Aphorisms is: “Don’t use a five-dollar word when a fifty-cent word will do.”

That’s good advice for young writers, because money is scarce when writers are starting out, so it makes sense to use cheaper words. But as a writer matures and the royalty checks start rolling in, limiting oneself to cheap words is no longer an economically advisable or professionally pragmatic way to proceed.

The truth is, if you ever want your writing to improve, you have to start investing in more expensive words. Or, to put it another way, if you want your compositional labors to yield the most awesomely maximal dividends, you are therefore obligated to purchase at a premium price point the various adjectives, verbs, gerunds, and descriptors you use to obfuscate reality so adroitly and efficaciously on a daily basis.

I can hear the English teachers out there yelling: “No, that’s not what he meant! What Twain was saying was that good writing is not about flowery language, it’s about clear, concise communication. Short words that say exactly the right thing are much better than long words that say the same thing, but with a plethora of unnecessary extra syllables.”

As if.

Now, I’m sure Mark Twain had his reasons for saying what he said. But I’m also fairly certain it had nothing to do with advising other writers how to do their jobs better. Twain was a savvy businessman, and one of the most successful writers of his time. He could also do remedial math. So it stands to reason that if Twain could convince all the other writers of his time to buy up all the inexpensive words, he’d have all the premium luxury words to himself. Such a tactic would also limit the number of writers trying to compete for those all-important fantasmagorical super-words that go into “literature,” because no one else could afford them.

The truth is, Mark Twain did not become one of the richest and most famous writers of his era because of what he wrote. No, he became a literary legend because of his shrewd manipulation of the vocabulary market, and by leveraging his status and success to hoard higher-priced words, thereby limiting their supply and driving up their value.

How did this scheme work? Well, let’s say Mark Twain wrote a sentence with five five-dollar words, three two-dollar words, and four fifty-centers. That sentence would cost Twain thirty-three dollars. Now, suppose another writer wrote the same thing, but could only afford a couple of one-dollar words and ten fifty-centers. That writer would only pay seven dollars for his sentence.

Conventional wisdom would have you believe that the writer who used the cheaper words got the better deal. But—and here’s where Twain’s true genius kicks in—these aren’t sunk costs, they are investment dollars. Five-dollar words may cost more, but the rate of return on a five-dollar word is ten to a hundred times greater than that of a mere fifty-cent word. The average rate of return on a fifty-cent word is about ten percent, so the writer who uses a fifty-cent word is only going to make a nickel off it. But the rate of return on a five-dollar word is anywhere from a hundred to a thousand percent. That means every time Twain used a five-dollar word, he made at least five dollars off it, and sometimes up to five-hundred dollars.

If you do the math the way Mark Twain did, the writer who only invested seven dollars into his sentence made a mere seventy cents, while Twain—who invested thirty-three dollars—got anywhere from $33 to $3,300 back. Throw in the multiplication effect of a review in the New Yorker and a national literary prize, and one five-dollar word by Mark Twain could amount to as much as $10,000. Adjusted for inflation, that’s close to a million dollars a word!

Mark Twain used this simple economic principle to become one of the greatest writers of all time. The more he made, the more he invested in better words, eventually buying up all the ten- and twenty-dollar words as well. Rumor has it he even had a gold-plated, thousand-dollar word mounted in his smoking room. By the end of his life, in fact, Twain controlled ninety-nine percent of all the nation’s literary vocabulary, leaving all the other writers of his time to fight over the remaining one-percent of words available. No one could compete.

When, on occasion, his fellow writers complained, Twain’s rejoinder was, “Cheer up, it’s not like I own the alphabet. Yet.”

So go ahead, be a chump and use fifty-cent words if you want. But if you really want to crack the big time, it’s time to escalate your fiduciary commitment to polysyllabic syntactification. Trust me, you don’t want to live in a world where only a handful of best-selling writers control all the best words. Telling a good story isn’t easy if all you have to work with is the vocabulary no one else wants.


Where is the Best Place to Write?

Eager to learn secrets of the craft, budding writers often wonder: Where is the best place to write? Is it a villa in Tuscany? A yacht on the Côte d’Azur? In a seaside bungalow on St. Lucia? At an artist’s retreat in Aspen?

These are all good places to try to write. Unfortunately, they are also places designed to prevent writers from writing. In St. Lucia, for instance, it’s almost impossible to get any work done after you’ve spilled a banana daiquiri on your keyboard. And on the French Riviera, young vixens in tiny swimwear think nothing of snapping your laptop shut and tossing it into the Mediterranean.

They think it’s funny.

Luckily, after wasting a great deal of time trying to write in exotic locales with lax extradition treaties, I finally learned the error of my ways. Since then, I have discovered that the ideal place to write is nowhere near a beach—it’s inside a maximum-security prison, locked in a 6x9 jail cell.

In prison, a writer can work free of distraction for twenty-three hours a day, with room and board provided by taxpayers. It’s an ideal arrangement, and, except for an occasional scrap in the yard with Rocko and his goons, results in no more blood loss than a modest kitchen mishap or the untimely slip of a power tool. Which is to say that, in truth, prison beat-downs look a lot worse on television than they are in reality. The key is to curl up in a ball and think happy thoughts until the guards blow the whistle or they think you’re dead, whichever comes first.

Now, the reason I say it’s important to get locked up in a maximum-security prison is that the inmates in minimum-security prisons and state-sponsored psychiatric facilities tend to be annoyingly chatty. All they want to do is talk—about their tattoos, their conspiracy theories, the drugs in the food, the ghosts by the water fountain, the bugs in their hair, etc. ad nauseum. Honestly, they never shut up. Such facilities also schedule way too many activities and so-called “free time,” all of which are counter-productive if you’re trying to think your own thoughts, rather than the thoughts being transmitted to you through a microchip in your brain implanted by the CIA while you were asleep. They also make you do your own laundry and eat in a cafeteria with other inmates, both of which are big time-wasters.

So, maximum-security it is.

Ideally, what you want is to land in a maximum-security prison for a crime with a five-year sentence that gets knock down to two for good behavior. What you don’t want is to land in a SuperMax facility for twenty-five to life, or in a minimum-security prison where you end up playing tennis with a bunch of crooked hedge-fund managers. There’s a happy medium.

So let’s say you want to write a four-hundred-page novel. You figure it’s going to take two years—eighteen months of writing, and six months for revisions and editing. In order to land in a maximum-security facility, what you need to do is commit a Class D or E felony with just enough violence to make them think you’re dangerous, but not so much that someone winds up dead. Setting up an illegal book-making operation is a great way to accomplish this objective, because while you’re trying to get caught, you’re also making money. Breaking people’s bones is part of the business, too, but killing people who welch on bets is not, so even if someone does accidentally get killed along the way, you can always plead third-degree manslaughter, which also counts as street cred out in the yard. In many states, getting arrested for dealing drugs is a good strategy as well—though in states like California, you practically have to drive a semi-trailer full of heroin into the governor’s mansion in order to get law enforcement to notice you. And even that’s no guarantee.

My advice is to research the criminal statutes in your state and break the law accordingly.

Once you’re there, the great thing about prison is that there’s nothing to do except write, so productivity is rarely a problem. Even if one hand is wrapped in bandages, you can still type with your other hand, and, as all prison writers eventually learn, you don’t need all your teeth to edit or figure out plot problems.

Trust me, the pages pile up in no time. And if you get the timing right, you should be finishing up the final draft about the same time as your first parole hearing. If all goes well, you could be out in time for the book tour and cashing hefty royalty checks within a few months of your release.

Then you’ll be able to afford that villa in Tuscany. But trust me, you won’t get any writing done there. Great food, amazing scenery, and extraordinary women are no substitute for the peace and quiet of your own personal prison cell.

Is the Writer's Life for You?

I run into people every day—at the track, in the casino, around the pool—who think it would be great to live the writer’s life. They look at me and think: really, how hard can it be?

It would be fun, they think, to sit around and smoke cigarettes all day and say cynically witty things that are re-Tweeted on Facebook and attributed to the wrong person. They want to know what it’s like to walk into a Barnes & Noble and see your book piled by the dozens in the discount section for 70 percent off. They envy the idea of being a respected “intellectual” whose ideas are ignored by millions. Lying around the pool, eyes closed, agonizing over that next chapter—it all sounds so romantic to them. And wiggling their fingers over a keyboard for a few hours a day seems to them like a painless way to both make millions and maintain their finger dexterity well into old age.

And so, they think, the writer’s life is for them.

Unfortunately, what these people don’t know about the writer’s life could easily fill a book they are not writing. I know this because I am a writer, and I’m willing to trade lives with just about anybody.

Donald Trump, for instance. I’d trade lives with The Donald in a heartbeat. Bill Gates is living a life I’d like to have, too, although I hear Melinda can be a handful sometimes. I’d trade lives with Anthony Bourdain, too, because eating and drinking and saying sarcastic things about other people on national television sounds like a hoot. I wouldn’t mind being a supermodel, either, or Taylor Swift. There’s a woman in my building who is always smiling, and sometimes I think it would be worth trading lives with her just to see why she’s so happy all the time. My fear, of course, is that it’s the result of over-medication, but those are the chances you take when you trade lives with people.

Irony abounds, of course. People look at me and think, hey, wouldn’t it be great to be that guy? And here I am, that guy, thinking hey, wouldn’t it be great to be somebody—anybody—else?

Why is that?

Well, most people think the writing profession is all about getting up at noon, chugging a fifth of Jack Daniels, sitting down, and waiting for the inspiration to flow. But nothing could be further from the truth. Many writers sleep all day and chug their fifth of JD at night. Some get up very early and have their JD over cereal. Others use their JD to wash down a handful of amphetamines, and still others do not drink JD at all—they rely on various hallucinogens and narcotics to get their creative juices flowing. Every writer is different; you have to find out what works for you, and that can take years.

People who do not struggle with the terror of the blank page tend to think all they’d have to do to be a writer is wake up early, make a pot of strong coffee and start typing. Unfortunately, that’s the sort of misconception that leads to such literary tragedies as Fifty Shades of Grey and the whole Twilight series. Lame S&M fantasies and high schools full of teenage vampires are the sort of thing that happens when people try to write using nothing but coffee and a laptop. Such calamities also lead other people to believe that they too could lead a writer’s life, if only they could muster the courage to visit their nearest Starbuck’s and hog a table all day.

Nobody needs a license to write, but they should. As is true with so many other occupations, writing should be left to the professionals. Allowing amateurs to lead a writer’s life is a mistake. Amateurs who think the writer’s life is for them should trade lives with a writer first to see if it really is. But be forewarned, the writer they trade with may not want to give their life back, in which case they’d be stuck with no choice but to write for a living.

Goodbye Starbuck’s, hello Liquor Barn.