An eNewsletter Dedicated to Helping Business people Write Smarter and Faster in Plain Language
Writing Advice from Stephen King
Below are some of Stephen King’s writing tips from his book, On Writing. Most apply to business writing as well as to creative writing, but I included a few that have no application to business writing because I just like them.
1. First write for yourself, and then worry about the audience. “When you write a story, you’re telling yourself the story. When you rewrite, your main job is taking out all the things that are not the story. Your stuff starts out being just for you, but then it goes out.”
2. Don’t use passive voice. “Timid writers like passive verbs for the same reason that timid lovers like passive partners. The passive voice is safe. The timid fellow writes “The meeting will be held at seven o’clock” because that somehow says to him, ‘Put it this way and people will believe you really know. ‘Purge this quisling thought! Don’t be a muggle! Throw back your shoulders, stick out your chin, and put that meeting in charge! Write ‘The meeting’s at seven.’ There, by God! Don’t you feel better?”
3. Avoid adverbs. “The adverb is not your friend. Consider the sentence “He closed the door firmly.” It’s by no means a terrible sentence, but ask yourself if ‘firmly’ really has to be there. What about context? What about all the enlightening (not to say emotionally moving) prose which came before ‘He closed the door firmly’? Shouldn’t this tell us how he closed the door? And if the foregoing prose does tell us, then isn’t ‘firmly’ an extra word? Isn’t it redundant?”
4. Read, read, read. “You have to read widely, constantly refining (and redefining) your own work as you do so. If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write.”
5. Don’t worry about making other people happy. “Reading at meals is considered rude in polite society, but if you expect to succeed as a writer, rudeness should be the second to least of your concerns. The least of all should be polite society and what it expects. If you intend to write as truthfully as you can, your days as a member of polite society are numbered, anyway.”
6. There are two secrets to success. “When I’m asked for ‘the secret of my success’ (an absurd idea, that, but impossible to get away from), I sometimes say there are two: I stayed physically healthy, and I stayed married. It’s a good answer because it makes the question go away, and because there is an element of truth in it. The combination of a healthy body and a stable relationship with a self reliant woman who takes zero shit from me or anyone else has made the continuity of my working life possible. And I believe the converse is also true: that my writing and the pleasure I take in it has contributed to the stability of my health and my home life.”
7. Write one word at a time. “A radio talk-show host asked me how I wrote. My reply—’One word at a time’—seemingly left him without a reply. I think he was trying to decide whether or not I was joking. I wasn’t. In the end, it’s always that simple. Whether it’s a vignette of a single page or an epic trilogy like ‘The Lord Of The Rings,’ the work is always accomplished one word at a time.”
8. Eliminate distraction. “There should be no telephone in your writing room, certainly no TV or videogames for you to fool around with. If there’s a window, draw the curtains or pull down the shades unless it looks out at a blank wall.”
9. Stick to your own style. “One cannot imitate a writer’s approach to a particular genre, no matter how simple what the writer is doing may seem. You can’t aim a book like a cruise missile, in other words. People who decide to make a fortune writing like John Grisham or Tom Clancy produce nothing but pale imitations, by and large, because vocabulary is not the same thing as feeling and plot is light years from the truth as it is understood by the mind and the heart.”
10. Dig. “When, during the course of an interview for The New Yorker, I told the interviewer (Mark Singer) that I believed stories are found things, like fossils in the ground, he said that he didn’t believe me. I replied that that was fine, as long as he believed that I believe it. And I do. Stories aren’t souvenir tee-shirts or Game Boys. Stories are relics, part of an undiscovered pre-existing world. The writer’s job is to use the tools in his or her toolbox to get as much of each one out of the ground intact as possible. Sometimes the fossil you uncover is small; a seashell. Sometimes it’s enormous, a Tyrannosaurus Rex with all the gigantic ribs and grinning teeth. Either way, short story or thousand page whopper of a novel, the techniques of excavation remain basically the same.”
11. Take a break. “If you’ve never done it before, you’ll find reading your book over after a six-week layoff to be a strange, often exhilarating experience. It’s yours, you’ll recognize it as yours, even be able to remember what tune was on the stereo when you wrote certain lines, and yet it will also be like reading the work of someone else, a soul-twin, perhaps. This is the way it should be, the reason you waited. It’s always easier to kill someone else’s darlings that it is to kill your own.”
12. Leave out the boring parts and kill your darlings. “Mostly when I think of pacing, I go back to Elmore Leonard, who explained it so perfectly by saying he just left out the boring parts. This suggests cutting to speed the pace, and that’s what most of us end up having to do (kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your ecgocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.)”
13. You become a writer simply by reading and writing. “You don’t need writing classes or seminars any more than you need this or any other book on writing. Faulkner learned his trade while working in the Oxford, Mississippi post office. Other writers have learned the basics while serving in the Navy, working in steel mills or doing time in America’s finer crossbar hotels. I learned the most valuable (and commercial) part of my life’s work while washing motel sheets and restaurant tablecloths at the New Franklin Laundry in Bangor. You learn best by reading a lot and writing a lot, and the most valuable lessons of all are the ones you teach yourself.”
14. Writing is about getting happy. “Writing isn’t about making money, getting famous, getting dates, getting laid, or making friends. In the end, it’s about enriching the lives of those who will read your work, and enriching your own life, as well. It’s about getting up, getting well, and getting over. Getting happy, okay? Writing is magic, as much the water of life as any other creative art. The water is free. So drink.”
- Until 2006, the Space Shuttle never flew on New Year’s day or eve because its computers couldn’t handle a year rollover.
- To ensure a year of good luck, firecrackers and noisemakers became tradition on New Years Eve in order to scare away any remaining evil spirits to ensure a brand new start.
- The first recorded New Year’s celebration dates back 4,000 years to Babylon, when the first moon after the spring equinox marked a new year.
- Ethiopia has 13 months. Their current year is still 2006, and they celebrate New Years on September 11.
- Since New Year’s Eve 2008, the city of Mobile, Alabama raises a 12-foot-tall lighted mechanical _____ to celebrate the coming of the New Year: red rose, moon pie, palm tree, manatee?
(Fun Facts Answer: Scroll to the bottom.)
Word of the Month
ersatz | AIR-satz | adjective
• made or used as a substitute, typically an inferior one, for something else
“When Keith mistakenly drank the intern’s ersatz coffee, he thought it tasted like turnips.”
Wacky & Wise Websites
Click here to read about a hike in the majestic Swiss Alps that includes hanging bridges and wooden walkways built into the side of cliffs.
Click here to pick out a T-shirt with your favorite scent, everything from bacon and motor oil to lavender and coconut.
American Express, Amgen, Cisco Systems, Department of the Navy, Fluor Corporation, General Electric, Motorola, The New York Public Library, Procter & Gamble, SEAL Team Six, State of Utah, Supreme Court of Virginia, United Way, U.S. Census Bureau, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, U.S. Food & Drug Administration
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SATisfy Your Curiosity
SAT Exam practice question: Choose the word that, when inserted in the sentence, best fits the meaning of the sentence as a whole.
The dramatist was ___ over his lack of funds and his inability to sell any of his plays. His letters to his wife reflected his unhappiness.
(SAT Answer: Scroll to the bottom.)
Gung ho!, the unofficial motto of the U.S. Marine Corps, is an abbreviation for the Mandarin phrase Gongye Hezhoushe, which means industrial cooperative. The term was used in China, starting in 1938, to refer to small, industrial operations that were being established in rural China to replace the industrial centers that had been captured by the Japanese. The phrase was clipped to the two words gung ho, which became a slogan for the industrial cooperative movement. Lt. Colonel Evans Carlson, U.S. Marine Corps, was a military attaché in the U.S. embassy to China in the late-1930s. He was so impressed by the achievements of the industrial cooperatives that when he was appointed commander of the 2nd Marine Raider Battalion, a commando unit, he chose gung ho as its motto. However, Carlson actually misunderstood the origin of the term. He thought that it came from the words kung, which means work, and ho, which means harmony, or “work together.” By late 1942, the term was widely adopted throughout the Marine Corps as an expression of spirit and “can do” attitude.
Fun Facts Answer
Moon pie. The moon pie is a sweet southern snack that originated in 1917. They are made from two graham crackers with a marshmallow filling and chocolate coating. The moon pie supposedly got its name from a Kentucky coal miner. A traveling salesman by the name of Earl Mitchell asked some coal miners if they’d like a snack while taking a break. One of the miners asked for a snack with graham cracker and marshmallow, requesting one “as big as the moon,” which is what inspired the name. By 1929, bakers were selling hundreds every day. Moon pies even became a comfort food for servicemen and women during World War II.