on writing (and editing)

stephen king on writing

I’ve never understood the idea that you can’t write in books. Or bend pages, or have spines cracked or covers ripped or all the other things that can happen to books. I’ve also never gotten the argument that Kindle books “aren’t real books” or aren’t worth reading or are just so unfair to books they should be protested.

Sure, some books are collectibles. And books, like any other object you spend money on, shouldn’t be thrown around or not cared for responsibly.

But a book is ink on bound paper. What matters, the reason people defend this ink with all their might, is the story inside–the words (and worlds) between the covers. And if you dogear your favorite page, or underline a beautiful line, or read a book so many times the cover falls off, isn’t that really loving books? And isn’t judging someone for the way they consume those words against the entire idea of sharing stories–the idea that many people can read the same words and feel the same things and go somewhere new together?

So my position is this: read. Read any way you want, anywhere you want, draw in the margins, highlight long sentences, rip out a page to mail to your friend, listen to an audiobook, read on your phone or a computer or a new thing that hasn’t been invented, no matter how you do it just, my goodness, read.

I think, though I’ve never met him, that Stephen King would agree with me. In his book On Writing (Kindle version here), he says “books are a uniquely portable magic.” He says he listens to an audiobook in the car and brings another book with him wherever he goes. He reads because reading and writing are a part of him. He couldn’t separate them from himself if he tried. He is a writer.

I am an editor. I edit for a living, which basically means I read what people write and make it better. There’s a thousand different ways to do this, and the really good editors spend a lifetime getting really good. On Writing is my favorite book on writing and editing. It’s filled with truly practical advice (my favorite of which is “only God gets it right the first time and only a slob says, ‘Oh well, let it go, that’s what copyeditors are for'”).

Stories seem like magic sometimes, but writing and editing are mechanical skills just like any other. It takes practice to be good at them, and there are some rules you need to know and times you need to break them. On Writing lays them out beautifully, mixed in with some autobiographical stories from King. If you have any interesting in writing or reading, and even if you don’t, I’d highly recommend it.

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Some of my favorite guidelines from On Writing:

Write a lot. Delete all the boring parts. This should cut you down by a lot. The more you can cut, the better. The goal isn’t length, it’s clarity and solid writing. In On Writing, King says, “Mostly when I think of pacing, I go back to Elmore Leonard, who explained it so perfectly by saying he just left out the boring parts.”

Stop hedging. If you think something is great, don’t tell me why you think so, tell me why it is great. Be assertive in your writing. It’s scary, I know. What if other people don’t agree with your opinion? Well, if you’re assertive, I bet you can convince most. And the ones who disagree with you will disagree with your intelligent, sure writing and not a wishy-washy piece that couldn’t decide.

I’m convinced that fear is at the root of most bad writing…You probably do know what you’re talking about, and can safely energize your prose with active verbs. And you probably have told your story well enough to believe that when you use he said, the reader will know how he said it…Good writing is often about letting go of fear and affectation.

Trust your readers. You’re a reader, and I’m a reader, and I think we’re pretty smart. They will figure it out if you show them. You don’t have to tell them over and over. King puts it this way:

If I have to tell you, I lose. If, on the other hand, I can show you a silent, dirty-haired woman who compulsively gobbles cake and candy, then have you draw the conclusion that Annie is in the depressive part of a manic-depressive cycle, I win.

King also says the object of a story is “to make him/her forget, whenever possible, that he/she is reading a story at all.” Clean writing is a part of the magic. If a reader gets hung up on trying to understand a sentence or trips on “form” when you meant “from,” it interrupts your story, makes reading an effort, and does a disservice to both the reader and writer. Take pride in your work, and turn in clean copy.

Write simply, and in active voice. Avoid the passive tense and passive verbs: “I think timid writers like them for the same reason timid lovers like passive partners. The passive voice is safe.” I see a lot of passive voice in my line of work and I work to put it down flip it and reverse it. King’s example: “The meeting will be held at seven o’clock” versus “The meeting’s at seven.” It usually wont be this simple to detect, but 99% of the time active voice will make your writing better.

But most importantly, keep reading. “You cannot hope to sweep someone else away by the force of your writing until it has been done to you.”

I loved this book because it’s 300 wonderful pages on my work. I believe in what I do, and it was nice to get some back up by one of my favorite writers. I loved King’s personal stories, too. When he started writing, he sent his stories to any magazine taking submissions. He kept his rejection slips on a nail in his bedroom. Pretty soon, the nail filled up with slips, so he replaced it with a stake and kept on writing. He worked at a laundry and as a teacher, and he met his wife and started a family. And he kept writing. He battled alcoholism, and kept writing. He sold paperback rights to his first novel for $400,000, and kept writing. His perseverance and passion are contagious, and it’s great for readers and writers alike.

(I bought this book on my own and am not being paid to write about it. But I am a part of the Amazon Affiliates program, so if you buy it through my links, I’ll receive a little bit of money for it.) 

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