INNOVATE

Want to be a Better Writer? Here is Stephen King’s Essential Advice

Dumbo, Dairy Queen and Dandelions: 9 brilliant suggestions from King’s nearly 20-year-old book

Share on
BY Alison Davis - 05 Apr 2018

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

Okay, I'll admit that I'm really late to this party. Despite the fact that I'm always seeking advice on how to improve communication in general--and writing in particular--I'd never read Stephen King's book On Writing, which was published in 2000.

And it's not like the book escaped noticed when it came out. The Cleveland Plain Dealer called it "The best book on writing. Ever." Time Magazine included On Writing in its list of the top 100 nonfiction books of all time.

So . . . other than the fact that I'm not a fan of King's fiction, I have no good excuse. Cujo ate my homework?

But once I finally started reading On Writing, I couldn't put it down. I devoured the book almost in a single sitting, the way one would consume a page turner like The Shining. Or The Green Mile. Or any of King's other 68 (or so) books.

Yes, I agree with The Plain Dealer that King's work is the best writing book (ever). On Writing contains useful advice, plus it's entertaining in a way that, say, The Elements of Style is not.

So, partly in penance for neglecting Stephen King, here are 9 essential pieces of advice on how to be a better writer:

 

Writing is hard work.

"Writing poems (or stories, or essays) has as much in common with sweeping the floor as with mythy moments of revelation."

 

So you should be open to ideas . . .

"Good story ideas seem to come literally from nowhere, sailing at you right out of the empty sky: two previously unrelated ideas come together and make something new under the sun. Your job isn't to find these ideas but to recognize them when they show up."

 

. . .and pack the right tools.

"To write to your best abilities, it behooves you to construct your own toolbox and then build up enough muscle so you can 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."

 

One tool you don't need: the adverb.

"Adverbs, you will remember from your own version of Business English, are word that modify verbs, adjectives, or other adverbs. They're the ones that usually end in -ly. . . . (Adverbs are) like dandelions. If you have one on your lawn, it looks pretty and unique. If you fail to root it out, however you find five the next day . . . fifty the day after that . . . and then, my brothers and sisters, your lawn is totally, completely, and profligately covered with dandelions. By then you see them for the weeds they really are, but by then it's--GASP!!--too late."

 

Big words? You don't need those, either.

"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 one. This is like dressing up a household pet in evening clothes. The pet is embarrassed and the person who committed this act of premeditated cuteness should be even more embarrassed."

 

Nor should you reach for that thesaurus.

"Remember that the basic rule of vocabulary is to use the first word that comes to your mind, if it is appropriate and colorful. If you hesitate and cogitate, you will come up with another word--of course you will, there's always another word--but it probably won't be as good as your first one, or close to what you really mean."

 

And don't make your writing dense or complicated.

"You can tell without even reading if (a book you've chosen from your bookshelf) is apt to be easy or hard, right? Easy books contain lots of short paragraphs--including dialogue paragraphs which may only be a word or two long--and lots of white space. They're as airy as Dairy Queen ice cream cones."

 

However, you do need to rewrite, keeping your reader in mind.

"Write with the door closed, rewrite with the door open. Your stuff starts out being just for you, in other words, but then it goes out. Once you know what the story is and get it right--as right as you can, anyway--it belongs to anyone who wants to read it."

 

Above all, leave your fear behind--and fly.

"I'm convinced that fear is at the root of most bad writing . If one . . . is working under deadline--a school paper, a newspaper article, the SAT writing sample--that fear may be intense. Dumbo got airborne with the help of a magic feather; you may feel the urge to grasp a passive verb or one of those nasty adverbs for the same reason. Just remember before you do that Dumbo didn't need the feather; the magic was in him."