What the King Taught Me About Writing
No, not that King (although every American ought to make a pilgrimage to Graceland.)
Stephen King. The master storyteller from Bangor, Maine. Author of “Carrie” and “Salem’s Lot” (both written in the laundry room of a rented trailer), plus a slew of other books, many of which have been made into movies.
He and I are on opposite ends of the writing spectrum. He’s a bestselling author, and well, I’m not. He scares the pants off people, and I craft persuausive web copy and sales messages as a direct response copywriter,
I read King’s book On Writing a few years ago when I was just getting started as a copywriter. It inspired me and motivated me like no other writing book has. It made me laugh, and it made me cry.
Above all, it gave me the confidence that I could be a successful writer.
When I read the last page, closed the book, and lodged it in a place of importance on my office bookshelf, I finally started calling myself a writer.
I’ve never looked back, and I owe a debt of gratitude to Stephen King.
Three writing lessons
King taught me first and foremost that you need to have a writing schedule.
His is clear-cut. Mornings are prime writing time. Afternoons are for naps and letters. Evenings are for reading, family, Red Sox games on TV, and any revisions that can’t wait.
I’m a morning man myself, and I like his idea. I get up at 5:00 AM, write until 8, eat breakfast, then write again until about 1 PM. Afternoons are for coffee (no time for naps like my writing mentor), working out, and reading. Evenings are for more reading, blogging, family and Brewers games on the radio.
I learned that you need to have a daily writing goal. King’s is to write at least 10 pages per day (about 2,000 words per day). That’s about a million words in a year and five months. Not bad.
My goal is to write 5 pages by 8 AM, and whatever I can get after that. Again, we’re writing vastly different things. I’m writing direct response and website copy, he’s writing novels that will be prominently displayed at Barnes and Noble. But the schedule is there.
Lots of rules here, but interestingly, a lot of them align with my writing style I call…
On vocabulary and grammar: “Keep it simple.”
Booklist says about On Writing: “it is riveting, thanks to King’s customary flair for the vernacular and conversational tone…King could write a phone book and make it not only a bestseller but also gripping reading.”
King, like Strunk and White, doesn’t cover the basics of grammar. “If you don’t know, it’s too late.”
He does have suggestions, though, which make sense for copywriters, too:
- Avoid passive verbs.
- Get rid of adverbs. Like passive verbs, they create timid writers. And timid copywriters, like timid salespeople, starve.
- Use short paragraphs and lots of white space (hmm…I think King might be a closet copywriter)
- Cut out the fluff. Don’t wander like you’re writing an essay on how you spent your summer vacation. Keep it tight. Again, all great copywriting lessons, but King is talking about fiction.
“If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. It’s hard for me to believe that people who read very little (or not at all in some cases) should presume to write and expect people to like what they have written, but I know it’s true. Can I be blunt? If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.”
Wow. I agree. King advocates reading and writing for four to six hours a day, every day. I’d say I top that by noon every day.
What do I write?
Not “what you know”. But rather, “anything you damn well want”.
Two ideas, with applications for copywriters here:
- Readers want a good story. The best writers are storytellers. Readers get pulled in when they recognize the people – their behaviors, their surroundings, and their talk. When the reader hears strong echoes of his or her own life and beliefs, he or she is apt to become more invested in the story (certainly true for copywriting.)
- Write what you like, then imbue it with life and make it unique by blending in your own personal knowledge of life, friendship, relationships, sex and work (also true for copywriting.)
“Writing is magic, as much the water of life as any creative art. The water is free. So drink. Drink and be filled up.”
“If God gives you something you can do, why in God’s name wouldn’t you do it?”
I’m a stronger copywriter because of Stephen King’s ideas on schedule, writing style, and writing inspiration. And it’s because I read his book On Writing when I was struggling to pay the bills, that I now call myself a writer.