Mark Twain: Humorist and Satirist


Barbara Altman

Barbara_edited (1)


So what constitutes good writing? How does one keep the reader involved from page one to the last sentence, the last paragraph, and the last thought put forth in a book? Incorporating a sense of humor in a script can hold readers captive. Having had the advantage of excellent book coaching, I can put my thoughts down on this matter in the form of six ways to use spell binding words.

Mark Twain holds the honor of being one of the outstanding satirists and humor writers of all time. He poked his pen at virtually every social institution known to mankind including religion, politics, and the transportation system. Twain mastered all the fine arts of great writing. If we are to emulate him, we would do as he did.

1.  When trying to describe a scene, use all five senses in the process. Is there a somber mood to your novel, essay, or short story? Perhaps the floor should be dark brown; the clock on the wall is stark; and the room may house a few sparse books and a lonely night stand. Are the main characters kind and approachable? There may be a soft blue rug on the floor; the curtains would emanate cheer and a bright yellow color; and the sun shines brightly through an open window. Is there drama coming out of every pore? Perhaps the size of the room reflects mystery; the room has a dark passageway behind the bookcase; or everyone in the scene has shifty mystery filled eyes. Twain mastered this art with great aplomb.

2.  Eliminate or reduce the use of the word “that.” When I was writing  Recovering from Depression, Anxiety, and Psychosis my  coach had me go through all one hundred and fifty three pages and take out the word “that” at least one hundred and fifty times. There were actually many more. I just stopped counting at one hundred and fifty. Was it ever grueling to come up with that many substitutes.  I kept the thesaurus handy. I really needed a sense of humor to maintain my sanity. I thought I would have to once again seek psychiatric help over PTWS, aka, Post Traumatic Word Stress.

3.  Don’t rely on is- was verbs. They are too bland. Perusal of several of Twain’s essays showed few bland verbs.  He knew how to use power  words  to get his point across.

4.  Avoid repetition like the proverbial plague. Try not to use the same word twice in the same paragraph. One can only absorb so much exposure to the same expression without losing interest.  Your readers will be bored, restless, and ready to consume someone else’s book, not yours.

5.  Keep in mind the new grammar calls for one, two, and three and not one, two and three. A comma always comes before the last of a stretch of nouns. That, along with “that” and all those annoying verbs was another cause of nervous tension. This was the only item my book coach and I disagreed on. I finally looked it up and won my point.

6.  Always have reliable sources for all research. Also provide two sources.  If your subject matter is medically oriented, it’s preferable to have university sponsored references. Wikepedia does not qualify. This was the breaking point for me.  I found sources for every category of mental illness, except one. Schizophreniform disorder could be found in only one resource. It took hours to find that one. All the others had two sources. What an exercise in frustration! All that time was spent in the effort to put together about two sentences per disorder. Again a sense of humor had to rule the day.

Of course, Mark Twain did not have the resources we have today for research. We don’t have to go to the library to get information. It’s a click of the mouse away. Twain’s essays and other works reflect his knowledge of politics, world events, and religion. He frequently presented a  jaded view of all three,

Twain, a former boat captain, loved to travel.  He penned an hilarious account of one of his train trips, taken early in his career. All passengers were required to purchase an insurance policy before boarding just in case an accident claimed their lives. Twain was incensed at having to do this. Why, he asked, did he have to buy life insurance when getting on a train, when most of us die in bed? Dear readers, can you imagine how much insurance would cost if this were the case? Twain had a strong point in his favor. The chances of dying on a train remain akin to getting struck by lightning. Using this form of reasoning, we should all have to be insured every time we fall asleep. Perhaps, he reasoned, if you took an overnight trip and had to squeeze a five foot ten inch frame into a sleeping car that accommodated a five foot four frame, your life may be in serious danger. On and on his pen flowed, describing the ridiculous nature of such a purchase. Twain could see humor in most any situation. Were he alive today, he may be challenging Garrison Keillor with his wit.

Speaking of Keillor, only he could come up with UUUU- United Universal   Unitarian University.

In any case, the writings of Mark Twain reflect his commitment to challenge societal beliefs by showcasing his sense of humor, by using satire to put a point across, and by bringing spine tingling laughter to his readers. I wonder if he had to do any research for this essay.

Mark Twain has my vote. He had a penchant for humor in writing.


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