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Mark Twain, 6 – Proofreaders, 1


“In the first place God made idiots. This was for practice. Then he made proof-readers.”

Mark Twain, 1893


      As I’ve said from time to time — often while trying to disabuse writers of myths about punctuation  — if you’re looking for an example of excellent prose style, simply open up something by Mark Twain. Practically any of his books will do. When in doubt about usage, you’re usually better off reading him than searching through style guides.
Contrary to recent custom, his punctuation wasn’t timid or anemic. He wasn’t afraid to put in a comma or semicolon if it would improve the way a sentence read. Refuting modern literary fashion — and its advocates who insist that punctuation impedes the reader — this is what made his colloquial prose flow over the pages so well.
Mark Twain punctuated for clarity, so his writing doesn’t slow his readers down at all. In fact, they’re moved along effortlessly from sentence to sentence, one paragraph to next… It’s the lack of clarity — often owing to a lack of adequate punctuation — that stops a reader in midsentence.
And it doesn’t matter in the least that he was born in the nineteenth century; his writing is timeless. How many other authors make the bestseller list a century after their deaths? Since his day, some writers might have occasionally written as well as he did, but I’m hard-pressed to think of any whose style has been an improvement upon his.
Nevertheless, he had running battles with proofreaders and copy editors throughout his career. (In the interests of full disclosure, I admit to having served in both capacities; although I was never a vigilante about it. And as a writer, I’m actually in full sympathy with Twain on this topic.)
This article isn’t really an essay. Instead of listening to me, I thought you might like to hear what Mark Twain had to say on the subject.
The opening quotation is from his notebook. The next few are excerpts from various letters.



To James R. Osgood & Co., 1883:


      In proof-reading I shall cause you no delay — but I don’t answer for Mrs. Clemens, who has not edited the book yet, and will of course not let a line of the proof go from here till she has read it and possibly damned it. But she says she will put aside everything else, and give her entire time to the proofs.

      No, I don’t want to read proof of the old Atlantic matter — but I want it read almighty carefully in Boston, and no improvements attempted.



To Fred J. Hall, 1889:


      You are perfectly right. The proofreader must follow my punctuation absolutely. I will not allow even the slightest departure from it.



To W. D. Howells, 1889:


      Yesterday Mr. Hall wrote that the printer’s proof-reader was improving my punctuation for me, & I telegraphed orders to have him shot without giving him time to pray.



To J. H. Harper, 1894:


      Will you make an order in writing & attach it to my MS., & sign it & back it with your whole authority, requiring the compositor & proof-reader to follow my copy EXACTLY, in every minute detail of punctuation, grammar, construction and (in the case of proper names, spelling)…. I am thus urgent because I know that the Century proof-reader is insane on the subject of his duties, & it makes me afraid of all the guild.


      (Ironically, as an old proofreader myself, I would have inquired about moving that closing parenthesis back just a tad, to before the word spelling…or alternatively putting the opening one in front of the word and — but I certainly wouldn’t have done so myself, without Mr. Clemens’ permission. Hey, I never said he was a saint…and he was probably a bit upset when he wrote that. But on second thought, this could have been the very thing Twain was always complaining of, the fault of whatever copy editor transcribed the letter — I haven’t seen the original page.)
      The next was written in 1897 to Chatto & Windus, his publisher at the time; and I’ll reproduce this one in its entirety.


Sunday, July 25/97.


Dear C & W:


      I give it up. These printers pay no attention to my punctuation. Nine-tenths of the labor & vexation put upon me by Messrs. Spothiswoode & Co consists in annihilating their ignorant & purposeless punctuation & restoring my own.

      This latest batch, beginning with page 145 & running to page 192 starts out like all that went before it — with my punctuation ignored & their insanities substituted for it. I have read two pages of it — I can't stand any more. If they will restore my punctuation themselves & then send the purified pages to me I will read it for errors of grammar & construction — that is enough to require of an author who writes as legible a hand as I do, & who knows more about punctuation in two minutes than any damned bastard of a proof-reader can learn in two centuries.

      Conceive of this tumble-bug interesting himself in my punctuation — which is none of his business & with which he has nothing to do — & then instead of correcting mis-spelling, which is in his degraded line, striking a mark under the word & silently confessing that he doesn't know what the hell to do with it! The damned half-developed foetus!

      But this is the Sabbath Day, & I must not continue in this worldly vein.





P.S. These are not revises — they are first-proofs, & bad ones at that.


      If you’d care to see the original of this last one, in Twain’s own handwriting, I’ve supplied the link to it here.
      And I’m grateful to for making it publicly available.



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