Mark Twain’s Biggest Writing Failure

If ever there was an American literary giant, Mark Twain was it.

He was somehow larger than life — loved for both his stories and his outsized wit and personality.

Yet did you know that one of the books Twain wrote was a flop?

It’s true.

His autobiography was a failure by most objective standards.

To discover why this happened, it’s important to understand how Twain went about writing the book. He said:

I intend that this autobiography shall become a model for all future autobiographies when it is published, after my death, and I also intend that it shall be read and admired a good many centuries because of its form and method — a form and method whereby the past and present are constantly brought face to face, resulting in contrasts which newly fire up the interest all along like contact of flint with steel.

So what did Twain mean by bringing the past and present face to face?

Charles Neider, editor of The Autobiography of Mark Twain, explains (paragraph breaks and emphasis are mine):

Mark Twain had requested [Albert Bigelow Paine] to publish the Autobiography not in chronological order but in the sequence in which it was written and dictated. What an extraordinary idea! As though the stream of composition time were in some mysterious way more revealing than that of autobiographical time!

To gauge Paine’s problem adequately one must keep in mind the fact that Mark Twain had approached his autobiography from all directions simultaneously. Paine offered no details of the manner or wording of Mark Twain’s request, nor did he suggest whether it was written or given orally, or whether made at the beginning of their relationship or the end. And so we are unable to judge how much earnestness there was behind it.

He merely noted: “The various divisions and chapters of this work, in accordance with the author’s wish, are arranged in the order in which they were written, regardless of the chronology of events.” Ought Paine to have taken Mark Twain’s wish regarding sequence so literally? It was a delicate problem, but by no means either the first or the last of its kind to be presented to a literary executor.

At any rate Paine adhered to Mark Twain’s wishes, and as a result it is impossible to call to memory another autobiography by a major writer which made its debut so inauspiciously and in so confusing a manner. (The Autobiography of Mark Twain, Introduction, pp. xviii – xix, edited by Charles Neider)

Twain’s aspirations were big, but the result did not quite live up to his intentions.

The unedited autobiography was overwhelming in size and packed with trivia.

And so the earliest published versions were confusing and difficult to read.

It was then left to future editors (like Charles Neider) to remove all the trivia that Twain had dictated near the end of his life, and to rearrange the material into a chronological order.

Why do I share this with you?

Because it’s important to remember that even great writers like Mark Twain sometimes try to get too creative and end up producing sub-par material.

Sticking to a tried and true formula (either for an autobiography or sales letter) — and working within those constraints — is actually more likely to produce a masterpiece.

Another point:

Whenever you can, get a person you trust to review and critique your work. They will be able to see things you can’t. They will be able to help you improve your writing and tell you if you’ve gone too far off track.

With that in mind, if you have a sales letter that needs to be critiqued, head on over to this page and book your critique now:

I guarantee you, it’s money well-spent.

-Ryan M. Healy

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Ryan Healy

Ryan Healy is a freelance copywriter, list manager, and the author of Speed Writing for Nonfiction Writers. Since 2002, he has worked with scores of clients, including Agora Financial, Lombardi Publishing, and Contrarian Profits. He writes a popular blog about copywriting, advertising, and business growth, has been featured in publications like Feed Front magazine, and has been published on sites like,, and