Normally, I don’t like to give people advice about writing. I prefer to offer advice on how to get your writing published, how to deal with the publishing world, how to be a success. I leave the writing instruction manual to other less qualified people – by which I mean famous writers.

These are the people who get big bucks to tell other people how to write. Their publishers figure, “Hey, the guy’s famous. People will want to hear how he got there.” That much is true; people do want to hear how Stephen King, for example, became a writer. But do famous writers really know anything about writing?

After reading Stephen King’s memoir, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, I have to conclude that famous writers don’t know jack.  That’s because they are writing intuitively. They have a gift, and the substance of that gift cannot be transferred. They can only say, “This is how I write.”

The section of his book in which Stephen King chronicled his career as a writer (starting in grade school) was wonderful. It was funny, and scary, and very down-to-earth - just like his novels. Unfortunately, he spends most of his book telling us not how he wrote his novels, but how we should write ours. No doubt, if you follow his advice, you will probably end up sounding a lot like Stephen King. (The question is, do you want to?)

Stephen King's Rule #1: Don’t use passive voice

Active voice is great if you want to produce a driving passage, filled with energy and momentum. But what if you want to convey something else – mystery, suspense? Here is an example of passive voice:

The body was hanging in the hall. It had been hung there some time in the night, when we were sleeping. As we made our way down to breakfast, we all stepped around it. Nobody looked up. 

We all knew who it was.

Would this passage have worked as well using active voice: “Somebody had hung it in the night"? Absolutely not. The focus here is on the body. Using passive voice increases the tension and forces us to wonder, "Who hung it there?"

Stephen King's Rule #2: Don’t use adverbs

The overuse of adverbs (anything ending in -ly) can be clumsy. However, the adverb, much like any other part of speech, fulfills a purpose. Sometimes you need to describe how someone is performing an action, without a lengthy descriptive phrase.

Gently, oh so gently, they lifted my body out of the river. They placed it on the bank and arranged my tattered clothing to cover what remained of my flesh. Then they stood around me, in perfect silence, their hats in their hands.

If only they had shown me such respect when I was alive.

That passage could have begun without the “gently.” But the impact of the (dead) narrator’s voice would have been compromised, and the force of the final line would have been diminished.

Stephen King's Rule #3: Don’t use a long word when you can use a short one

English, a gloriously complex language, is a mashup of Germanic and Latin roots (among other things). The Germanic lexicon is agglomerative: get up, get down. Latin roots are inflected: ascend, descend. Academic writing favors Latin roots, while colloquial speech prefers the Germanic. If you want to sound like Hemingway, or Stephen King, stick to the Germanic roots. But, if you are after a more scholarly effect, go for the Latin.

As the waiter stared at the coin in his hand, a slow flush spread across his cheeks. 

The time traveler leaned back in his chair, adopting a stern demeanor. “My good man,” he said, “I trust the generosity of my emolument will not tempt you into drink." 

The waiter threw the dime on the floor. “Next time you can get your own damn burger and fries!”

I'll admit I’ve cheated. In dialogue anything is permissible. But, placed well, those five-dollar words can accomplish much more than their one-syllable equivalents. Here is the last phrase of Camus’ The Stranger, taken from two different translations:

… and that they greet me with cries of hate. 

… and that they greet me with howls of execration.

Which version do you think you will remember?

The real rules of writing

There is only one rule for writers. So pay attention. I will not repeat it.

You can do anything, provided that you can pull it off.

That second clause is the key. If you can pull it off, whatever it is, you will have written a masterpiece. If you can’t, you will have produced a piece of trash. Being able to do something successfully is what is important, not whether you follow the rules.



Alex Stargazer
10/23/2013 12:49pm

Fantastic article!

I have to say I agree with all of what you mention--particularly with regards to passive voice, which I think is a somewhat arbitrary restriction anyway.

However, I'm slightly confused about your last point: you've quoted an example that seems to support what SK is saying.

Also, I doubt the importance of much of what SK actually says. Yes, on the technical level, he's brilliant. His sentences flow when they have to, and convey the right idea perfectly; his writing is funny; dramatic; or dark.

But for some reason, when I finished the Dark Tower, I thought, "It's nice." But nice isn't really good enough, is it? I'm always on the look-out for great books, and if I get really excited about something... well, I won't be reading the Stephen King book, will I? It's like SK, no matter how eloquent his speech, or how "deep" (I hate that word) it is, the story never really grabs hold of me.

Do you have any theories as to why?

*PS: don't italicise* the*.*

10/23/2013 3:57pm

Hello Alex,

Is my last point the L'Étranger final line? If so, I have remembered that line for the last 48 years because of the use of the word "execration," rather than the more quotidian "hate."

I did not know what execration meant when I read the book, but damned if I was not going to understand the last word!
Having read other versions, I believe that ending the book on such a mediocre word as "hate" is a mistake. (Books should always end on a memorable note.)

As to why King's works don't grab you, might I suggest that they are not very original? He has the New Englander's gift of plain speaking, but, aside from frighten us, he does very little with it. Other authors - Hilary Mantel and Cheryl Strayed come to mind - also avoid frills, but they capture the human spirit with the simplicity of their language.

Ultimately that is what stays with you when you read a book - the ability to express a truth.

Alex Stargazder
10/24/2013 4:39am

Thanks for the feedback.

I know what you mean by the word "execration" now--although I personally believe the word "hate" is actually more effective, but never mind.

Lack of originality? That's an interesting comment. I have heard some mention it, and I think it's a good reason, but I'm not sure that's all.

In any case, I'm a bit busy right now. Hope you have fun in your quest to improve your writing.

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