If you have never read a book by Stephen King, the bestselling author of horror, fantasy, and suspense fiction, we had that in common–until now. Over the past two days, while waiting as a potential juror at the King County Courthouse, I read Stephen King's On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft.
If you want to write fiction, you must read this book. A gem of story-telling advice shines on every page. Mr. King's enthusiasm and love of his craft almost made me want to quit teaching business writing and start trying to tell the stories all around me.
But I read On Writing in search of treasures to apply to business writing. I quote a few of Mr. King's beauties for you below.
"Don't make any conscious effort to improve it. . . . 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. 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. Make yourself a solemn promise right now that you'll never use emolument when you mean tip."
When you are tempted to write concordance instead of agreement, or utilize instead of use, think of Mr. King's household pet in evening clothes.
"You can tell without even reading if the book you've chosen 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. Hard books, ones full of ideas, narration, or description, have a stouter look. A packed look. Paragraphs are almost as important for how they look as for what they say; they are maps of intent."
Do you want your business writing to look stout and packed? Or would short chunks of text and bullet points make your writing easier and more appealing to read? Whenever I receive an email or a report with long paragraphs, I look for something else to read.
On Passive Voice
"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?"
Mr. King offers another illustration of numbing passive verbs: "My first kiss will always be recalled by me as how my romance with Shayna was begun."
Here is his revision: "My romance with Shayna began with our first kiss. I'll never forget it."
The passive memory of the kiss doesn't get or keep your attention. The revision communicates energy and excitement. Think of that kiss when you write your next policy or procedure.
In On Writing Stephen King comes across as a passionate, clear-headed fiction writing champion. The book inspired me to finally read a Stephen King novel. Do you have one to recommend?
On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft came out in the year 2000, published by Scribner, who released an anniversary edition in 2010. If you want to have Stephen King's reading list, the things in his writer's toolbox, and lots of comparisons between powerful and puny writing, I recommend it.