“Words create sentences; sentences create paragraphs; sometimes paragraphs quicken and begin to breathe. Imagine Frankenstein’s monster on its slab. Here comes lightning, not from the sky but from a humble paragraph of English words. Maybe it’s the first really good paragraph you’ve ever written, something so fragile and yet full of possibility that you’re frightened. ‘Oh my God, it’s breathing,’ you realize. ‘What in hell’s name do I do next?’” –Stephen King, from “On Writing”
The first time I wrote something I was really proud of was in 10th grade. The assignment was simple: a one-pager titled, “Dinner at My House.” It was a “show, don’t tell” exercise, and I wrote the whole thing as dialogue. When I was finished, I looked at and thought, “Yeah—that’s pretty much what it’s like.”
Was it like Frankenstein’s monster coming to life? Not so much—I think only geniuses like Stephen King have experiences like that—but I do know what he means when he says that paragraphs “begin to breathe.” That’s the difference between “okay” writing and “good” writing—good writing pulses with vitality. It pulses with humanity.
In his book “On Writing,” Stephen King writes that “while it is impossible to make a competent writer out of a bad writer, and while it is equally impossible to make a great writer out of a good one, it is possible, with lots of hard work, dedication, and timely help, to make a good writer out of a merely competent one.” In part one of this blog, I focused on King’s “toolbox”—the items (vocabulary, grammar, etc.) you have to possess in order to write well. Today we’re going to look beyond those tools to items that can breathe life into otherwise flatlining prose.
You Have to Read. A Lot.
“If you want to be a good writer,” cautions King, “you must do two things—read a lot and write a lot.” The writing component of this advice is obvious—the best way to learn and improve is by doing. But reading is just as critical. Why? Because you learn what works—and what doesn’t. King continues, “Most writers can remember the first book he/she put down thinking: I can do better than this. Hell, I am doing better than this!” My friend, Lisa, and I often talk about how we missed the boat on “Twilight,” Stephenie Meyer’s sparkly vampire series. “Her writing is awful!” Lisa laments. “We could have done so much better.” Maybe. But we didn’t. That’s why I’m writing a Stephen King blog and Stephenie is probably somewhere tropical planning her next series about the misadventures of mermen.
Reading also gives you inspiration to try new things. I once summarized The Brothers Grimm’s “Godfather Death” into the introduction of a Plante Moran magazine article. Another time, I worked the boiling frog parable into yet another article. (It was a good metaphor for underperforming companies becoming accustomed to deteriorating conditions.) Writing is all about making connections with your audience, and reading helps strengthen your ability to make those connections.
Speaking of Your Audience…
So often, we set out to write an article on a given topic without really thinking about who we’re writing it for. But it’s critical to have a specific person/group of people in mind. Think about it—if you’re a CEO of a healthcare organization, what you want to know about cybersecurity is going to be a lot different than if you’re a technology director at a manufacturing company.
I sometimes think of an article as an extended letter. If you mentally start it with “Dear manufacturing CEO who is feeling pressured to open an office in Mexico,” that article is going to progress a lot differently than if you just start writing about the challenges of operating internationally. That’s not to say that a general approach can’t be effective, too—but you have to have a strategy behind why you’re writing it that way.
Write With the Door Open.
At some point I’ll likely do an entire blog about the art of revision, but it merits addressing here as well. King advocates for at least two drafts of any piece of writing. “When you write a story,” he says, “you’re telling yourself that story. When you rewrite, your main job is taking out all the things that are not the story. Write with the door closed. Rewrite with the door open.”
There are, of course, both obvious and subtle differences between fiction and business writing. For business writing, I would argue that the door should never be completely closed—you should always at least start with some idea of who your audience is—but I think the gist of the advice is sound. The first draft is for you—the second is for everyone else.
About that second draft—King has a formula which I think is pretty genius. The second draft equals the first draft minus 10 percent. Every piece of writing “is collapsible to some degree,” he says. Absolutely.
So how about you? Does your writing inflate or collapse upon subsequent drafts? What do you think about the “minus 10 percent” rule? And if you’re reading “On Writing,” what do you think so far?