“You can approach the act of writing with nervousness, excitement, hopefulness, or even despair…. You can come to the act with your fists clenched and your eyes narrowed, ready to kick ass and take down names. You can come to it because you want a girl to marry you or because you want to change the world. Come to it any way but lightly. Let me say it again: you must not come lightly to the blank page.” –Stephen King, from “On Writing”
Most people have a favorite teacher—someone who challenged, supported, advocated, or otherwise molded them into the people they ultimately became. I had two: Mr. Thompson, my high school advanced composition teacher, and Dr. Phillip Arrington, my “writing about controversies” professor at Eastern Michigan University. (I even elected to do my graduate work at Eastern just so I could take more classes with him. He eventually served as my thesis advisor.)
These men are my favorites because they made me better. As early as eighth grade, I thought I knew everything I needed to know about writing because I’d mastered the five-paragraph essay and successfully incorporated phrases like “surreptitious malingerer” into said essays. (I could be pretty obnoxious back then.) Among other things, they taught me the importance of showing versus telling, using clear, unaffected language, and learning the rules just so I could more effectively break them.
I discovered “On Writing” at a time when I really needed it—in 2002, right around the time I began to make my transition from proofreader to writer at Plante Moran. It echoes much of what I learned from Mr. Thompson and Dr. Arrington, and it sheds light on how Stephen King became such a masterful storyteller.
I set out to write a single blog containing some of my favorite quotes from the book, but guess what? There’s too many for just one blog. So welcome to part one of two. Today’s blog will focus on King’s “toolbox.”
“To write to your best abilities,” says King, “it behooves you to construct your own toolbox and then build up enough muscle to carry it with you. Then, instead of looking at a hard job and getting discouraged, you will perhaps seize the correct tool and get immediately to work.” Makes sense, right? So what does one’s toolbox contain?
First and foremost, vocabulary. “One of the really bad things you can do to your writing is to dress up the vocabulary, looking for long words because you’re maybe a little bit ashamed of your short ones.” (Surreptitious malingerer, anyone?) King suggests—correctly—to use the first word that comes to your mind, as long as it’s appropriate and reasonably colorful. If you hesitate, odds are you’ll think of another word—there’s always another word—that isn’t as close to what you really mean.
Second, grammar, which King says is “the pole you use to get your thoughts up on their feet and walking.” That’s a huge topic, but we’re going to narrow it down to my favorite gem: Avoid the passive voice. In most instances, I hate, hate, hate the passive voice. It’s as if the writer is intentionally trying to make his/her writing murky. “The passive voice is safe,” writes King. “There’s no troublesome action to contend with.”
Consider these sentences:
- Debbi won an award for best technology professional. (This is active voice.)
- The award for best technology professional was won by Debbi. (This is passive voice.)
Which sentence is clearer, more concise, and altogether better? The active one, of course, so don’t be afraid of it. Own that action.
Finally, we get to paragraphing. King says, “The ideal expository paragraph contains a topic sentence followed by others which explain or amplify the first.” He calls paragraphs “maps of intent.” So what are your intentions with your audience? If you’re like most people, you want to inform and entertain—which is why this becomes so important.
Think about it. If you click on an article and find a 30+ line paragraph, what does that suggest? A long, arduous, do-I-really-have-to-read-that piece of writing. No one has the time, patience, or attention span for that. Concise paragraphs with lots of white space are the way to go. King suggests they be “as airy as Dairy Queen ice cream cones,” which I love (that phrasing and the DQ cones*). Paragraphs are your friends. I would suggest you use a lot of them.
That’s it for today. I’ll be back in two weeks with part two of The King’s English. In the meantime, talk to me. Have you read “On Writing”? Who was your favorite teacher and why? What do you order at Dairy Queen? And did you know Anthrax’s “Among the Living” was written about Stephen King’s “The Stand”?
*Although for my money, when it comes to Dairy Queen, it’s all about the chocolate-covered cherry Blizzard. Delicious.
Song of the Week: “Among the Living,” by Anthrax