Yesterday, I finished reading Stephen King’s “On Writing.” I didn’t read it with the intent to write a post about it; after all, Ward on the Web is about better websites. To be honest, I read it in preparation for NaNoWriMo (incidentally, I’ll be taking a hiatus from WotW in November for that purpose). However you look at web copy, though, it’s still writing, and King shares more than a few insights that add value to the medium.
- Read a lot; write a lot. If you want to be a good writer, you have to eat, drink, and sleep the written word. This is as true online as it is off. Want to learn how to blog well? Read and write blogs. Want to compose great online sales copy? Read and write online ads. The more you take in and practice, the better you’ll do, period.
- Adverbs are not your friend. This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t use them at all. Rather, King advises you to use adverbs sparingly. They should be reserved for those instances when they are truly necessary to clarify the sentence. Otherwise, they’re mostly filler to be discarded.
- Use the active voice. I knew this tidbit was true when it came to writing ad copy, but King gives it particular emphasis. Readers don’t want to read tentative, uncertain writing. They want to read bold proclamations of surety. Don’t be a wimp; step up and use an active voice.
- Everything has its place in the writer’s toolbox. Some people criticize King for his use of profanity. However, even profane language can be a useful for communicating ideas in the right context. To be clear, I don’t advocate swearing; neither does Mr. King. The point is to recognize the different tools in your box and use them when the need arises. For the online medium, this includes simple things like font modifiers (bold, italics, underscore, size, face, color, etc.) as well as complex interactive elements (images, video, Flash, forms, etc.). Remember; if you limit your options, you potentially limit your effectiveness.
- Take criticism for what it’s worth. No more, no less. Especially when it comes to blogging, the pros are often thick-skinned. King points out that some critics, like editors, offer genuinely constructive advice that adds value to your writing. Others may offer subtle yet powerful encouragement. Of course, there will always be those whose only purpose in life is to burn your writing and dance around the flames. It pays to recognize whether criticism is valuable or not before you take it to heart.
- Write the first draft for yourself; the second for everyone else. King equates the first draft to uncovering a fossil. It should grow organically, along whatever natural progression it takes you. The first draft should always be done with the door closed; no distraction, no critique, nothing but you and the blank page. Once you’ve got the first draft done, it’s time to open the door and start editing. Show your writing to helpful critics. Identify and reinforce themes. Cut out the crap (King uses the formula: Second Draft = First Draft – 10%). Especially on the web where attention spans are at their shortest, trimming your work down to make every word count is essential.
- Don’t tell when you can show. I took a few notes on the autobiographical portion of the book prior to the section about writing. This was one of the points I wrote down, not because he came out and said it (at least, not until alter), but because he demonstrated it so well. I found reading Stephen King’s life story very instructive about being a writer. The point here is, instead of making your points explicitly, it can be more useful to tell a story that leads your readers to those points naturally. Use compelling narrative and anecdotes instead of straight-forward facts and opinions. It may take a bit longer, but your reader will come away with a valuable lesson that is more easily remembered because it is tied to imagery.
These are just the points I could remember the morning after finishing On Writing. It’s a great book, filled with gems that a writer of any medium will find useful. In fact, it’s one of the few books I’ve ever finished in less than a week. If you’re in trying to take your writing to the next level (like me), or could just use some inspiration (also like me), do yourself a favor and order a copy of On Writing.