Lessons Learned From Twain

Ron Paul Curriculum, English 1, Lesson 85

Write 500 words on this topic: “What can you do now to make your biography less disjointed than Twain’s?

Mark Twain did a surprisingly poor job on his autobiography, The Autobiography of Mark Twain. He was very inconsistent, and in some cases described impossible events that damage the credibility of the book. He could have fixed these issues simply by using an outline, re-reading it once he thought he was finished (A recurring theme throughout these books: Re-read your work), and gotten friends and family to read and give feedback.

The first, and most valuable thing that Twain could have done to increase the consistency of his book is to use an outline. No written work is too long to benefit from an outline. Quite the opposite. With a full-sized book, it’s obviously very easy for someone’s mind to wander between chapters, and to forget exactly what they were going to say. Twain, for instance, first told readers that his father bought 75,000 acres of land for $400. Not only is that preposterous at the federal land price at the time of $1.25 per acre, but he later changes the number to 100,000 acres. Unfortunately, this switch made him even less credible than he already was. He did it again with the girl he met on the boat. First, he said she was 14. Then he changes his mind and said she was 15. An outline that said:

– $400 for 320 acres
– Was supposed to become a fortune in later decades
– Laura Wright was 14.4 years old

would have allowed him to look back and immediately verify the consistency of the book.

The most important Another important thing he, and George Washington Plunkitt for that matter, could have done, is to re-read his book before publishing it. That would have given him more opportunities to recognize inconsistencies and mistakes before the world sees. The more chances to correct a mistake, the greater likelihood that it will actually be fixed, rather than being noticed only after it’s too late.

Twain himself wasn’t even the only person who could have re-read the book. Even if he was bored of working it, he could’ve asked friends and family to read it. In fact, it’s sometimes better to have somebody else proof-read. There are usually more of them than there are of the author, and a person is most likely to notice something on their first time reading it. To put it simply, every time someone first reads a literary work, they’ll spot… let’s guess 60% of the flaws, depending on how much attention they’re paying to it. The second time, they’ll spot 42% of the remainder, and the third time, they’ll spot 29.4%. The more 60%s that can be caught, the better.

Mark Twain’s autobiography wasn’t perfect. He made several back-tracks and did not check his numbers. His supposed lack of outline and proofreading was very detrimental to the flow of his autobiography. It should have been obvious that $400, nor even $4,000 would have bought 75,000, much less 100,000 acres even at the time.


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