Mark Twain on proofreaders

“In the first place God made idiots. This was for practice. Then he made proof-readers.” – Mark Twain, 1893.

The inimitable Mark Twain, never one to bite his tongue, had a notoriously turbulent relationship with his countless editors, printers and proofreaders  the very people tasked with ensuring his written words were fit to print. The following letter is a perfect example of his frustrations, written in 1897 to his publishers, Chatto and Windus, after discovering that his latest work, More Tramps Abroad (the English edition of Following the Equator), had been incompetently proofread by a “damned half-developed foetus.”

Transcript follows.

(Source: Beverley Wright; Image: Mark Twain, via.)


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 another 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.