Writing is like singing: lots of people think they’re better at it than they actually are. For some people, being a ‘good writer’ means putting lots of complicated sentences down on paper. Others are convinced that passive verb constructions sound smarter. Both are wrong. A good text is simple and to the point. That’s true whether you’re talking about a blog post on Taylor Swift’s best outfits or a white paper on SLA management.
Don’t make things difficult when they can be simple. This is one of the key lessons from the book On Writing by American author Stephen King, who has sold 350 million books throughout his career. This is mandatory reading for anyone who wants to improve their writing skills.
Here are four tips from the master:
1. No complicated words
King advises writers to use the first word that comes to mind, as long as it’s ‘appropriate and colourful’. Avoid using unnecessarily complicated words. As King says, ‘One of the really bad things you can do is to dress up the vocabulary, looking for long words because you’re maybe a little bit ashamed of your short ones.’
2. Use everyday language
Most people are not grammar experts. That’s why King advises us not to overcomplicate things. ‘Bad grammar produces bad sentences’, he writes. The more complex you make your sentences, the greater the risk of grammatical errors. So, follow King’s rule of thumb: ‘Take a noun, put it with any verb, and you have a sentence. It never fails.’
3. Keep active
There are two kinds of verbs constructions: active or passive. With active verbs, the subject of the sentences ‘does’ something: ‘Kevin fries an egg.’ With a passive construction, the subject of the sentence has something done to it: ‘The egg is fried by Kevin.’ The rule here is simple: avoid passive constructions. Why? They are clunky, indirect and boring for the reader. Unfortunately, lots of writers prefer passive sentences. King has a theory on this too: ‘I think timid writers like them for the same reason timid lovers like passive partners.’
4. Watch out for the dandelions
King not only despises passive sentences, but also has a problem with adjectives and adverbs. ‘I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs’, he writes. So, if you can avoid them, do so. But why? King says that adjectives and adverbs are a sign of a text’s weakness. A sentence should be strong enough to stand without them. Of course, you cannot avoid them in every instance. ‘It was a beautiful day’, is an example of a sentence that wouldn’t make much sense without the adjective (‘beautiful’). King argues that adjectives and adverbs are like dandelions. ‘If you have one on your lawn, it looks pretty and unique. If you fail to root it out, however, you find five the next day… fifty the day after that… and then, my brothers and sisters, your lawn is totally, completely, and profligately covered with dandelions.’
If you want to be a good writer, says King, there are two things you must do above all: read a lot and write a lot. Then, you can create the most attractive text possible, even if you’re writing a white paper about SLA management.
Want to know more? Read On Writing by Stephen King. You can order the book on Amazon or look for it at your favourite bookseller.