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Read a lot. Write a lot.

July 24, 2012

The 10th Anniversary cover for “On Writing”

Marketing communications professionals write and read for a living. Not novels of course, (unless they’re doing it on the side) but anyone working in advertising, branding, promotion, publicity, or public relations is a heavy reader and writer. That’s one of the things I like about my job.

Stephen King writes a lot – mostly suspense, horror and fantasy fiction, many of which have been adapted into feature films and television movies. Although he has written more than 50 books which have sold more than 350 million copies combined, you won’t find many (or any) of these on the ubiquitous “Must-Read” book lists. His great success as a writer of so much popular fiction condemns him as a hack by many serious literary critics. I’ll admit to having shared some of that prejudice, until a friend pointed me to his book, On Writing, A Memoir of the Craft.

Originally published in 2000, On Writing was updated on its 10th anniversary. It is intended to offer advice for writing fiction novels, but certainly it can be generalized to any sort of writing. Here’s a sampling of King’s insights that would benefit just about any marcomm professional on any given day:

  • Read a lot and write a lot. If you cannot find the time for that, you can’t expect to become a good writer. King writes four to six hours a day and reads about 50 books a year, some of these as audio books. (On Writing makes a good audiobook candidate.)
  • Writing is about the story, it’s not character study, it’s not about the theme/message. Begin and end with the story.
  • Writing is telepathy – the author relays his/her thoughts into the reader’s mind.
  • The old cliché, “write what you know” is an impossibly boring restriction. Rather, write the truth. This means being honest, getting to the heart of the matter. Don’t bullshit your reader.
  • Kill your darlings! You might take this the wrong way when it’s Stephen King repeating this advice. Often attributed to William Faulkner, the original phrase was ‘murder your darlings’, from Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch: “Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it – whole-heartedly – and delete it before sending your manuscripts to press. Murder your darlings”.
  • While you’re at it, kill your adverbs (“The road to hell is paved with adverbs”). King can be a good sport about some adverbs, except in the case of dialogue attribution (he said, menacingly).
  • 2nd draft = 1st draft – 10% (many of your darlings live in that 10%)
  • The toolbox matters: Know your vocabulary. Know your grammar. The way you learn is by reading and writing, a lot.
  • First writing is for yourself (door shut, literally). The re-writing is for your reader (edit with your door open, literally).

On Writing shows its age (gasp 12 years!) in a few places. Some young writers may scratch their heads when King starts talking about floppy disks. His advice to struggling writers could benefit from some insights on writing in the age of the Internet – but King isn’t the guy for that. He also has some painful and obligatory confessions to make about his alcoholism and drug addiction (he barely remembers writing Cujo at all). None of this detracts from his story. Like King’s novels, On Writing is an easy, unpretentious read (or perhaps a listen, it’s available as an audiobook.) King is most compelling in the CV (curriculum vitae) chapter, where he tells the tales of his first successes as a popular writer in junior high and his early days as a struggling author. Married with two young children, he taught high school Business English and wrote his first novel, Carrie, in the laundry room of their rented trailer. “The Toolbox” and “On Writing” chapters offer many more useful observations on the craft of writing than my modest sampling above.

You don’t find out until the end, but halfway through writing the book Stephen King was hit by a van and nearly killed. If you know anything personal about King at all, you’ve probably heard about this. He incorporates this story into the book, as well as his struggle to return to writing after the accident. Writing, he concludes, is what he was made to do. What makes him happy. We all don’t have to be as prolific as Stephen King, but if writing makes you happy (as it does me) then we are at least kindred spirits.

A rewrite example from On Writing

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